Decoding the Music
Decoding the Music
SCORE NAVIGATION FOR THE VOCALISTS
Reading music is a lot like reading a map. We’re going to focus on
the various symbols necessary to understanding, following along,
and responding to the music on the paper.
The Whole Piece
An individual piece of music
is called an octavo. We’ll
use this Greensleeves
octavo, amongst others, to
locate some of the key
pieces of information
needed to decode this
The Very Beginning
Each set of 5 lines and four
spaces is called a staff (circled in
red.) At the beginning of each
piece, the staves are labeled
with the corresponding voice
Staves link together to form larger
sections. The piano section is
bracketed together in what is
known as a grand staff (circled in
green.) The grand staff has two
staves linked together. It is most
common to see a treble and bass
clef bracketed together.
The whole section of this image is
known as a system.
A measure is a segment of time in music that corresponds to a
particular grouping of beats. We’ll talk more about how to
determine the length of a measure, or bar as it’s sometimes called,
but all you need to know right now is that it’s the distance between
the vertical lines on a staff.
The example below has four full measures.
Bonus: for extra navigational abilities, NUMBER YOUR MEASURES. Your
director will often refer to measure numbers in rehearsal.
There are two major ways to
view vocal music in staves.
1) Combine the soprano and
alto into one treble clef staff,
and combine the bass and
tenor into one bass clef staff.
The bracket connecting
them creates a grand staff.
2) Give each voice part its own
Both of these methods create
systems, outlined in blue. The
Star-Spangled Banner has four
systems on this page, whereas
Greensleeves only has two.
• The clef indicates which octave
you will be singing in. In general,
women sing in the treble clef and
men singing in the bass clef.
• In this example, the tenor sings in
what appears to be the treble
clef. However, the small 8 symbol
indicates dropping all notes down
an octave. He starts this song on
middle C, not the C in the soprano
• One of the most important pieces of information
about the piece overall is the key signature.
• The key signature is a collection of sharps or flats
(in this example, flats) that determines the key of
• The key signature is always directly to the right of
the clef at the beginning of a song.
• The time signature is the next piece of
information at the beginning of any piece of
• Each time signature has two numbers.
• The top number indicates how many beats
in every measure. In this example, there
are 6 beats per measure.
• The bottom number indicates what kind of
note gets the beat.
• 2 = half note
• 4 = quarter note
• 8 = eighth note
Other Important Information
Double bar lines
Repeats indicate a section of music that should be repeated. They
generally come in matched sets, as follows-
The exception to the pairs rule is when there is only the right-hand
repeat sign. If that is the only repeat sign in sight, it is implied that
you go back to the beginning of the song.
Final Bar Lines
At the end of a song, a double bar line
with a thicker outside line indicates a