Music Notes

A note can be simply described as one single unit of sound that is played on your violin. For example drawing your bow across an open string means you have played one note. A music piece is nothing but a stream of various notes played for different lengths of times, in different levels of loudness, and with different bits of pauses in between them.

There are numerous ways in which people across the world represent music on paper. For example in carnatic music, notes are written as syllables ‘Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni’. In western music, notes are written as letters ‘C D E F G A B’. And then there are guitar tabs, sheet music and so on. No one way is better than the other, but some have become way more popular than the others and evolved to be universally recognized. One such way is the sheet music. Which is more commonly used than other representations (including on this website). For the purpose of explaining music notes in this article, we will discuss the notation where notes are represented using the English alphabets ‘C D E F G A B’.

What is a Note?

Basically, sound is vibration of air that hits your ear drum. For example when a drum is hit, it makes the surrounding air vibrate and the vibration gets carried around in all directions as a sphere around the drum. Like when you throw a stone in a pond, it creates waves that travel around it in circles. The number of waves generated per second is called the frequency of the wave. When the vibrations hitting our ears are between 20 Hz and 20 KHz, our brain interprets it as sound. Means the number of vibrations are between 20 times per second (20 Hz) to 20,000 times per second (20 KHz).

Any sound we hear, is a wave with a frequency. Musical notes are specific frequencies, for which we have assigned a name. For example, 262 Hz frequency is called C (the middle C key on a piano), 440 Hz frequency is called A (the open A string on a violin). This ‘A’ is called ‘A4‘ (because it’s the 5th A key on a piano and the numbering starts at zero). No matter in which instrument you’re playing or even if you’re singing, the frequency is always 440 Hz for the A4 note.

Musical notes are specific frequencies, which are of particular interest to us and for which we have assigned a name.

There are 12 notes in an octave represented using 7 letters, and the symbols for sharp ( ♯ ) and flat (♭). The following are the notes names in western notation –

123456789101112
CC ♯ (or) D♭DD ♯ (or) E♭EFF ♯ (or) G♭GG ♯ (or) A♭AA ♯ (or) B♭B
12 notes of the western notation

What Comes After B?

After B, it is again C, C#, D and so on. The 12 notes keep repeating. Each set of 12 notes is called an octave. The octave repeats itself again and again as the frequency keeps increasing. When a situation requires that we differentiate between the same note from different octaves, the notes are be written as C1, C2 (or C1, C2) etc.

Why Do They Repeat?

Because every time the frequency increases to exactly it’s double, the sound has a striking similarity. C1 and C2 both sounds have harmony. To understand, you can simply play C1 and C2, and then listen to C1 and A1 (or any other note except C). Repeating the note names for every octave is natural because our brain interprets (or reacts to) 880 Hz and 440 Hz mostly the same way. As frequency increases from C, and goes step by step through D, E and so on, the ‘feel’ of the sound keeps changing and then when the frequency reaches double of the starting point, the ‘feel’ of the original sound returns. That’s why we call this doubled frequency too as C. The same with A1 and A2, B1 and B2, B2 and B3, B3 and B4 and so on.

Why 12 notes? Why only 7 letters?

This is just convention. Different systems across the world and over history divided sounds into different number of notes. Indian music for example, has 22 notes (called ‘shruthi’). In western notation, it was decided to divide into 12 notes. The divisions itself were not arbitrary, it is just that different parts of the world came up with whatever systems they felt were apt, and the western notation became one of the most popular ones. There are different mathematical and psychological explanations given as to why certain frequencies were selected to be prominent and marked as specific notes, but the explanations vary and hence the various ways of splitting up an octave. Factors like convenience of communicating music, tuning instruments, and so on have played roles in the music notations that exist currently. But mostly, it is just convention and what became popular.

Using 7 letters to represent 12 notes, for example, is because of convention of using ‘diatonic’ scales – where a piece of music strictly uses only 7 notes from each octave. For example, a musical piece in the key of C Major, will use only C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Any occurrence of other notes (like C♯), would be considered an ‘accidental’. Similarly, a song in G Minor, will use G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭ and F – not the other notes. In such a piece, we will mark that all Bs and Es in the piece are flat (♭) in the beginning of the piece and then write the song itself with just the notes. Not mentioning with each B and E that they are flat. Since for a considerable time of history music was written using such diatonic scales, with only 7 notes, the system evolved to using only 7 letters to represent music.

Why does it start with C rather than A?

It is again historical and not technical. The A minor scale was considered significantly more common than other scales. So the first note of that scale was named ‘A’. So the most common scale at that time was A, B, C, D, E, F, G. 7 first letters from the alphabet as we would expect. But as time passed by, the C major scale became more widespread and central to western music. And it appears to us as if the notes begin with C. The truth is it doesn’t ‘start’ or ‘end’ – the notes are like a circle of 12 notes. When we talk about C Major, we start with C. When we are talking about A minor, we start with A. When we are talking about music in B♭minor, we start with B♭.

It’s just that most of the time beginners of music are introduced to pieces in C Major scale, even before they know what a scale is. So naturally we feel like the notes start with C.

What are Sharps ( ♯ ) and Flats (♭)?

Although, we have divided an octave into 12 notes, as you saw, we use only 7 letters to represent them. Even in the sheet music notation, we use dots on the lines, only to represent 7 notes for each octave. We need a way to represent the other 5 notes. We use symbols sharp ‘♯’ and flat ‘♭’ to add notes using the same set of 7 alphabets. so between C and D, we insert a C♯. Between D and E, we insert a D♯ and so on, in five places. So ultimately the 12 notes (as given in the table above) is formed. For the notes that have two names (eg., D ♯ (or) E♭), what we call that note depends again, on the scale that we are playing. When we play B-flat major scale, we call that note E♭. When we play B major scale, we call that same note D♯.

Sharp means higher frequency. So the following note with higher frequency than C is called C#. C-Sharp because it sounds ‘sharper’. Similarly preceding note with lower frequency, which sounds ‘flatter’, is called a flat of that note. Like E♭which sounds a bit ‘flatter’ than an E.

Why Can’t We Simply Use 12 Alphabets?

This is again, just because of tradition. There are various ‘types’ of scales, but the one that gained the most popularity is the ‘diatonic’ scale. Not going deeper into scales, a diatonic scale is where we use 7 notes to represent a scale. If we used the 12 alphabets ranging from A to L to represent music, diatonic scales would be confusing to represent. Each scale would have a different set of 7 letters between A and L. C Major would be C, E, G, H, J, L, B! Instead, if we use only 7 alphabets and symbols for sharps and flat, C Major is neatly – C, D, E, F, G, A, B. It’s easier to remember which notes are flat and sharp on each scale rather than different sets of alphabets for different scales. So that’s what we do. Because at some point in history (and even in present) we made a lot of music with diatonic scales, we adopted this particular system rather than a 12 alphabet system.

This is how many things in music, generally are. Music by itself doesn’t need to follow rules or have forms. But we do these things (like using scales, writing notes in specific ways etc.), just for convention and convenience. In future, we might expand our knowledge and create a new way of representing music. But right now, the western notation is one of the most popular ways and just easy enough to get started.

Rhythm and Tempo

One of the basic building blocks of music is timing. It is important that we understand what these timing related elements of music are in order to better appreciate and understand what we are hearing as well as to become a better player of any instrument.

Clapping

Clapping your hands (or any sort of tapping or clicking) is a commonly used tool to understand timing in a musical piece. For an example let’s consider the song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – without singing or playing it, try to just clap this song. Most people will be able to naturally clap this song and most people will be able to recognize this song through claps. This is how I would clap the first line –

TwinkleTwinkleLittleStar
Clap-ClapClap-ClapClap-ClapClap —-

Clapping is useful because our minds will naturally realize where notes are switching and clap at those points. Confirming that we already have an understanding of music in our minds and we just need to expand it. We can see that we clapped 7 times for the first line of this song. If you look at the sheet music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you will notice that there are 7 notes exactly for the first line – the same number of claps.

You can also sing the song using only the syllable ‘ta’ to get the same understanding. So instead of clapping you will sing something like ‘ta ta | ta ta | ta ta | taaa’.

Tempo

Tempo is easily described. It is how fast a piece is supposed to be played, or how fast you are playing it. In sheet music, tempo is represented as BPM (or beats per minute) or using a descriptive word (like allegro, moderato, largo etc.). Notice that from the previous section – clapping, you can clap as fast as you like or as slow as you like, and it will still be recognizable as the same song. You will play on a slow tempo when you are learning a musical piece and then once you’ve learned it, you will play at the tempo intended for the song. Remember, in music, faster is not better. Each piece has a tempo at which it will sound it’s best or a tempo at which the composer intended it to be played.

Rhythm

Rhythm of a musical piece is how long each note (or rest) is played, in comparison to one another. Rhythm is one of the elements that differentiate between two musical pieces. Going back to the clapping example, you can clap Twinkle Twinkle Little Star faster or slower, but the pattern of clapping does not change. This pattern is what is called rhythm. If we wish to describe it in words, it might be like so – 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 1 long note. This is a pattern. The second line also follows this same pattern – or in other words, the second line has the same rhythm. So does the third line and the rest of the song.

But most songs we hear don’t have this kind of repeating rhythm. Yes, since Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is a song for kids, having a short rhythm that repeats for the entire song makes it easier to learn and repeat. Only a small number of musical pieces have this kind of simple composition. Even if not for the whole song, having repeating rhythms is part of music composing. The repetition just might not be as simple. For example, Row Row Row Your Boat is another simple song. The first line has the rhythm ‘taaa taaa taa ta taa’ but the second line doesn’t repeat this, second line goes – ‘taa ta taa ta taaa’. The third line goes different again. But notice the fourth line – it repeats the rhythm of the second line. If you understand how the second line and fourth line are similar from the other two lines, you have understood rhythm.

Constructing blocks of rhythm and repeating them creatively, is one of the factors that differentiate music from noise. Song writers almost write lyrics that have syllables matching the rhythm of the music, or vice-versa, use the syllable pattern in the lyrics as rhythm for the melody.

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Playing for the First Time

Once you have got down how to hold your violin and bow, you have got your violin tuned (or have it tuned by someone else), and you have applied rosin to your bow, you are ready to start playing.

Self-Learning Recommendation

If you are just starting out playing the violin and you have decided to teach it to yourself rather than have a teacher, you have two options – one is to use a fingering sticker, another is to use a digital tuner (either an electronic device, or a mobile app).

My opinion is that, the digital tuner is a way better option than fingering stickers. Because it does what you are supposed to learn. You need to hear the sound coming from your violin and judge whether it’s the right note. But as a beginner there’s little chance that you can recognize notes by yourself. If you had a teacher, they would tell you whether you need to move your finger up or down based on hearing your sound. The digital tuner will do exactly this. Make sure you get a chromatic tuner which can recognize all notes. Turn on the chromatic tuner and put it on your music stand where you can see it prominently, without straining or having to turn your head. Now as you play, the tuner will try to identify the closest note and you can find out from it whether you are playing accurately.

Play on Open Strings

First, get the basic bow stroke right. Hold the violin in position, and let the violin neck rest between your thumb and forefinger (but not touching the web between those fingers). Place the bottom of the bow on the A string. By bottom I mean about an inch above where your index finger is touching the bow on the wood. Do not place anything other than the bow hairs on the strings. Not the frog, not the hard tip of the bow. The ‘range-of-play’ of the violin bow, is approximately an inch from where the bow hair starts on the tip, and an inch before where your index finger is (while holding the bow in playing position).

So, place the bottom of the bow on the A string and draw it downwards while making a smooth sound, till you reach the top (an inch from where the bow hair starts at the tip). This is called a ‘down-bow’ or bowing downwards. Without removing the bow from the string, draw it upwards again, making a smooth sound, till you reach back to the starting position. This is called an ‘up-bow’ or bowing upwards. The sound has to be smooth and clear.

Things to Take Note of

There are a lot of nuances and details to bowing but as a beginner, these are the first things you should watch out for –

1. Wrist Action

Note as you draw the bow, your bow holding hand rotates at the wrist. When your wrist moves away from the violin, it has to turn anti-clockwise. And when it moves closer to the violin, it has to turn clockwise. This rotation has to happen to keep the bow straight. You don’t have to consciously do this but it’s important that you keep your wrist relaxed so that this happens. If you keep your wrist tight, you will prevent this rotation and in-turn, the bow-to-string angle will change as you draw, creating bad sound. Keep the wrist loose and relaxed.

2. Maintain Draw Straightness

As you draw the bow across, it should be a clean straight draw, fairly parallel to the bridge. You have to minimize movement ‘along’ the string. Imagine a thick dot is there on the string, roughly in the middle between the bridge and where the fingerboard starts. Your bow should travel all along without slipping above or below this dot.

3. Bow Pressure

If you put too much pressure on the bow you will make a scratchy sound instead of the smooth violin tone you expect. Too little pressure will make incomplete, sliding sounds. The weight of the bow, and any small weight added by your forefinger is enough to make a nice sound. Don’t add more pressure consciously.

4. Bow Speed

Draw with a moderate, uniform speed. And maintain the same speed from start to end of your bow stroke. To begin with, make each stroke about 1 second long. Try to be accurate and uniform. Every up-bow and down-bow should take the same length of time. Once you are comfortable with this, you can speed up slightly or slow down slightly. Both slow bowing and fast bowing are important.

There are way too many bowing techniques and it would be simply overwhelming to read about as a beginner. But the above points are the most important for beginners.

Practice

  1. Patiently practice till you get a smooth clear sound while bowing. Be mindful of how you are holding the violin, and your posture.
  2. Repeat the bowing on all strings. Play a few strokes on the G string, some on the D string, then A and then E.
  3. Practice switching strings. That is, do a down-bow on the E string, then without removing the bow off the string, switch to the A string, and proceed with the up-bow. Then again, without removing the bow off the string, switch to the D string and proceed with the down-bow. Then finally finish with and up-bow on the G string. Then come back to start from there – down-bow on the G string, up-bow on the D string, down-bow on the A string and finally up-bow on the E string. Repeat till you are comfortable doing this. Note that your right-arm has to move up as you go from E to G, and come down as you go from G to E.

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Ideal Time to Practice

The ideal time to practice violin. Well, it’s right now. You can practice for a few minutes instead of reading this article. When you get back to this article later, again, read those last two sentences.

Okay, if you broke that loop and landed on this next paragraph, you’re probably looking to create some sort of discipline and commitment for your practice. Good for you. If you create a schedule and stick to it, there’s definitely more chances of succeeding. Especially if you’re a self learner. But you already know what anyone would say to this – “There is no ideal time. It’s specific to you and your lifestyle.”. So let me not say that same thing. If you don’t want to think about anything else and just want someone to tell you an ideal time for practice so that you can begin somewhere, let me tell you. The ideal time for practice is early in the morning. Get up, brush your teeth, drink a big glass of water, clear your bowels, eat a snack (or a quick breakfast) then do your practice. There you go. You have your input – now go create a commitment and stick with it.

You’re still reading? Are you sure you’re not procrastinating by reading internet articles instead of practicing? Okay, if so, then the early morning thing isn’t probably working for you. Or you wonder whether it will. In that case we only come back to the most common answer to this – only you can decide the ideal practice time for you. But what I can do is to give you some pointers to decide on your practice time.

Your Energy Pattern

Some people are full of energy when they wake up, get tired through the day and go to sleep exhausted of that energy. Some people hate to wake up, feel lazy and uncommitted in the morning but they turn productive as the day progresses and get exhausted by the end of the day. Yet others are slow and groggy when the sun is up, but late at night, after everyone else is asleep, their engine starts running at full throttle. So what’s your deal? When do you feel most productive? It’s good to keep your violin practice at this time. At least when you are just beginning and playing the violin itself hasn’t become a rewarding pastime yet.

Your Lifestyle

Do you have a 9 to 5? Going to work or school? Almost everyone has to reserve about 8 hours for their main gig. If you don’t great, your practice time can be anywhere. But if you do, what I find good is keep your practice time a bit far from that 8 hour block. For example if you need to start to work at 8 AM, and you wish to keep your practice in the morning, do it at 6 o clock rather than at 7 o clock. If you get back home at 6 PM in the evening, and wish to practice in the evening, keep your practice at 8 PM rather than 7 PM. If violin playing is your full time pursuit, then you should be looking beyond all this – make violin practice your 8 hour main jig and plan other things around it.

Your Priority

Take a realistic look at how important violin playing is to you. Are you pursuing it as a career? Are you playing to improve your personality? Are you playing to impress someone? Assign the time accordingly. If your office work is your most important thing in your mind, playing violin after you finish work is better. You will feel more relaxed and focus better. If you still want to practice in the morning despite your day job or school being most important to you, device some sort of wrap-up mechanism to free your mind. For example, at the end of the day, make a concrete list of things you have to do at work tomorrow. That way, in the morning when you are about to practice, your mind is not occupied with thoughts about work – you already have those jotted down.

Finally, Make it a Habit

By “making it a habit” what I mean is build it into your routine rather than assigning it a fixed time on the clock. For example “I will practice after I eat my breakfast” or “I will practice before I go to bed”. Rather than “I will practice at 6 PM”. If you do this, it will be easier to build as a habit because that’s how our minds are wired to think of habits. Something that follows (or precedes) some other already established habit. Always chain your habits. That way you don’t have to rely on motivation or will power for your practice. It becomes just another habit in your daily life.

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Tuning Your Violin

‘Tuning’ the violin (or any musical instrument) means to make sure the instrument is playing the right sounds for the right notes. For example plucking the G string on the violin can sound like anything but you need it to sound the G note (technically and commonly, a 196 Hz sound).

What frequency the string vibrates in, or in other words, what note the string sounds like, is determined by two things, one is the length of the string and another is the tension in the string (means how tight the string is). We control both these things to play the violin. What we actually do was we place the fingers on the fingerboard, is quickly change the vibrating length of the string. As you move your finger upwards along the fingerboard, you’re actually restricting the vibrating part of the string shorter and shorter – making the sound higher and higher. But before we are able to do that, we should fix the correct tension (or tightness) in the string. Fixing the tension in the string is what we call ‘tuning’ a violin.

How is Tuning Done?

All violins have tuning pegs and many have fine-tuners. As a beginner, you will be using the tuning pegs to tune approximately, and then use the fine-tuners to accurately match the tone you need. As you advance with time, your ears will improve and so will your ability to use only the tuning pegs to tune your violin – at which point you might include violins without any fine tuners to your choice of violins. The basic tuning action is this – tighten or loosen the string using the tuning peg a little bit and then pluck the string or play with the bow to check the sound. Adjust the peg and check the sound again and again until it’s almost the note you wish to hear (G, D, A or E) based on which string you’re tuning. Then do the same adjust-check-repeat using the fine tuners until the sound is accurately the note for that string.

You can turn the pegs and fine tuners, but how do you check? How do you know the string is tuned to whatever note it should be playing ? There are 3 ways to do this as listed below. You can start with the first option (electronic devices), then advance to the second one (using your ears). The third option is just a luxury – you can learn it if you want or you might simply acquire it automatically as you become an advanced player.

1. Using Electronic Devices

This is the simplest way for beginners to tune. Use an electronic tuner or one of the several mobile apps available for your smart phone. How this works is you turn on the tuner (or your app) and then play sounds on your violin, and the device checks and shows you how close you are to the actual note. These tools are designed to ‘hear’ the incoming frequency and compare it to reference frequency of the note you are trying to tune to.

2. Using Your Ears

Use another instrument – a little keyboard, a mobile app / website that can play note sounds or simply record a clear sample sound on your smartphone for reference. Play the note, and tune your violin by checking if the sound from your device and your violin sound the same. It’s not that difficult as some beginning students feel. It is not easy to miss the resonance when the two sounds match. You’ll know it clearly when the sounds are same. Set aside time to do this in your daily practice exercise. Not only will you be able to tune without electronic help, you will also improve your hearing abilities by doing this regularly. Tuning your instrument is like ear training 101.

3. From Sensing the Note

You will need perfect pitch for this – the ability to simply hear a sound and judge what frequency/note it is. Instead of using your ears for a reference note, you simply know by heart which note you’re hearing – by practice or memorization or simply having heard the notes so many times. Don’t worry much about this third option – if you can do this, you’re probably at an advanced level and won’t be reading this article anyway.

Other Tips

  1. If you’re tuning your violin for the first time, or the strings are too loose and out of tune, you might want to adjust the 4 strings evenly. Because if you tune one string, when the others are lax, by the time you finish tuning other strings, the tension in the first string would have changed. So bring all the strings to approximately the same tension (and corresponding note) and then finish tuning one by one.
  2. Be patient and very careful. Tuning the violin is when most people break their strings. Don’t try to hurry up and turn the tuning pegs too hard. Make tiny adjustments, listen and repeat.
  3. There’s nothing wrong with having fine tuners. You can become a virtuoso in future and still use a violin with all 4 fine tuners. Don’t worry about people arguing whether it’s good or bad to have fine tuners. The difference is only indirect and not even noticeable for most audience. On the other hand, fine tuners make the tuning process much quicker and easier. I find violins with fine tuners more encouraging for practice.
  4. Do not ignore tuning. For a lot of students, their teacher just tunes the violin every time they are in class and the students usually don’t even think about tuning the instrument themselves till they are more advanced. I suggest you don’t do this. Treat tuning as a fundamental requirement to start learning your violin.

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