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(part 7 of 20)
manuscript from Beethoven’s final piano sonata

Learning Notation

Many students, particularly younger students, can be averse to writing down their compositions. Notation can be quite laborious at first, particularly if there’s a lot of music to be written down. For this reason it is strongly advised that notation be learned as soon as composition is started. This is also important because good ideas can be forgotten quickly, and though it’s easy to make an audio recording, it’s far easier to map out a piece visually and keep track of subtle details as they’re laid out in front of you.

For most beginners, notating rhythm is far more difficult than notating pitch, and so it is recommended to use less precise rhythmic notations at first. For example, when a melody is discovered, try to recognize which notes are longer, which are shorter, and which are somewhere in between. Notate the pitch only with very small solid noteheads (no stems). Try to leave more horizontal space after longer notes, less after shorter notes. Drawing little horizontal lines after fast notes, and longer horizontal lines after longer notes might help younger students. Uncertainty about notating a precise rhythm shouldn’t slow down the composition process. Exact rhythms can be determined later. Also, time signatures and bar lines should be avoided until enough music is written to confidently determine meter.

Once a short piece is finished, or once a section of a composition is complete, try adding exact rhythmic values. Write the rhythm above the staff, over the pitches the rhythm corresponds to. Next try to figure out a suitable time signature for the music and begin adding bar lines. As a general rule, simpler music is more likely to use a lot of quarter notes, perhaps some eighth notes, and a good number of half and whole notes. If you find you’re writing a lot of whole notes and tied whole notes, but not many (or any) eighth notes, then cutting all rhythmic values in half will likely work better. In other words, convert all whole notes to half notes, all halves to quarters, all quarters to eighths, etc. Occasionally you might run into the opposite problem.