Music Guide #3 – List of musical symbols

List of musical symbols and expression



The staff is the fundamental latticework of music notation, on which symbols are placed. The five staff lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale; which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef. In British usage, the word “stave” is often used.”

Ledger or Leger lines

These extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

Bar line

These separate measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Also used for changes in time signature. Bar lines are extended to connect multiple staves in certain types of music, such as keyboard, harp, and conductor scores, but are omitted for other types of music, such as vocal scores.

Double bar line

This is to separate two sections of music, or are placed before a change in key signature.

Bold double bar line

This is to indicate the conclusion of a movement or an entire composition.

Dotted bar line

Subdivides long measures of complex meter into shorter segments for ease of reading, usually according to natural rhythmic subdivisions.


Connects two or more lines of music that sound simultaneously. In general contemporary usage the bracket usually connects the staves of separate instruments (e.g., flute and clarinet; two trumpets; etc.) or multiple vocal parts in a choir or ensemble, whereas the brace connects multiple parts for a single instrument (e.g., the right-hand and left-hand staves of a piano or harp part).


Connects two or more lines of music that are played simultaneously in piano, keyboard, harp, or some pitched percussion music. Depending on the instruments playing, the brace (occasionally called an accolade in some old texts) varies in design and style.


G clef (Treble clef)

The center of the spiral assigns the second line from the bottom to the pitch G above middle C. The treble clef is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music. And Middle C is the first ledger line below the staff here.

C clef (Alto, and Tenor clefs)

These clefs point to the line representing middle C. As illustrated here, it makes the center line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the “alto clef”. This clef is used in modern notation for the viola. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a “movable” clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line and called a “tenor clef”. This clef is used very often in music written for bassoon, cello, trombone, and double bass; it replaces the bass clef when the number of ledger lines above the bass staff hinders easy reading.

The C clef was also frequently seen pointing to other lines, mostly in vocal music, but today this has been supplanted by the universal use of the treble and bass clefs. Modern editions of music from such periods generally transpose the original C clef parts to either treble (female voices), octave treble (tenors), or bass clef (tenors and basses). It can be occasionally seen in modern music on the third space (between the third and fourth lines), in which case it has the same function as an octave treble clef. This unusual practice runs the risk of misreading, however, because the traditional function of all clefs is to identify staff lines, not spaces.

F clef (Bass clef)

The line between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C. Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a “bass clef”. This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef, especially in choral music, where it represents the bass and baritone voices. Middle C is the first ledger line above the staff here. In old music, particularly vocal scores, this clef is sometimes encountered centered on the third staff line, in which position it is referred to as a baritone clef; this usage has essentially become obsolete.


Neutral clef

Used for pitchless instruments, such as some of those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured over here. It may also be drawn with a separate single-line staff for each untuned percussion instrument.

Octave clef

Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. A treble clef with an eight below is the most commonly used, typically used for guitar and similar instruments, as well as for tenor parts in choral music.


For stringed instruments it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard 6-stringed guitars, six lines would be used). Numbers on the lines show which fret to play the string on. This TAB sign, like the percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef. Similarly, the horizontal lines do not constitute a staff in the usual sense, because the spaces between the lines in a tablature are never used.

Notes and rests

Musical note and rest values are not absolutely defined, but are proportional in duration to all other note and rest values. The whole note is the reference value, and the other notes are named (in American usage) in comparison; i.e., a quarter note is a quarter of the length of a whole note.

    Large (Latin: Maxima)

    Octuple whole note


   Quadruple whole note


   Double whole note


   Whole note


   Half note


   Quarter note


   Eighth note

For notes of this length and shorter, the note has the same number of flags (or hooks) as the rest has branches. Carefully look at the note.


   Sixteenth note


   Thirty-second note


   Sixty-fourth note

    Semihemidemisemiquaver / Quasihemidemisemiquaver

   Hundred twenty-eighth note


   Two hundred fifty-sixth note[3]

Beamed notes

The Beams connect eighth notes (quavers) and notes of shorter value and are equivalent in value to flags. In metered music, beams reflect the rhythmic grouping of notes. They may also group short phrases of notes of the same value, regardless of the meter; this is more common in ametrical passages. In older printings of vocal music, beams are often only used when several notes are to be sung on one syllable of the text – melismatic singing; modern notation encourages the use of beaming in a consistent manner with instrumental engraving, and the presence of beams or flags no longer informs the singer about the lyrics. Today, due to the body of music in which traditional metric states are not always assumed, beaming is at the discretion of composers and arrangers, who often use irregular beams to emphasize a particular rhythmic pattern.

Dotted note

Placing a dot to the right of a notehead lengthens the note’s duration by one-half. Additional dots lengthen the previous dot instead of the original note, thus a note with one dot is one and one half its original value, a note with two dots is one and three quarters, a note with three dots is one and seven eighths, and so on. Rests can be dotted in the same manner as notes. In other words, n dots lengthen the note’s or rest’s original duration d to d × (2 − 2−n).

Ghost note

A note with a rhythmic value, but no discernible pitch when played. It is represented by a (saltire) cross (similar to the letter x) for a note head instead of an oval. Composers will primarily use this notation to represent percussive pitches.

Multi-measure rest

Indicates the number of measures in a resting part without a change in meter to conserve space and to simplify notation. Also called gathered rest or multi-bar rest.


Breath mark

This symbol tells the performer to take a breath (or make a slight pause for non-wind instruments). This pause usually does not affect the overall tempo. For bowed instruments, it indicates to lift the bow and play the next note with a downward (or upward, if marked) bow.


A pause during which time is not counted.

Accidentals and key signatures

Common accidentals

Accidentals modify the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same staff position within a measure, unless cancelled by an additional accidental.


Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.


Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.


To Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).

Double flat

Lowers the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to modify is already flatted by the key signature.

Double sharp

Raises the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to modify is already sharpened by the key signature.

The Key signatures

The Key signatures define the prevailing key of the music that follows, thus avoiding the use of accidentals for many notes. If no key signature appears, the key is assumed to be C major/A minor, but can also signify a neutral key, employing individual accidentals as required for each note. The key signature examples shown here are described as they would appear on a treble staff.

Flat key signature

Lowers by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of flats in the key signature, starting with the leftmost, i.e., B♭, and proceeding to the right; for example, if only the first two flats are used, the key is B♭ major/G minor, and all B’s and E’s are “flatted” i.e., lowered to B♭ and E♭.

Sharp key signature

Raises by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of sharps in the key signature, also proceeding from left to right; for example, if only the first four sharps are used, the key is E major/C♯ minor, and the corresponding pitches are raised.

Quarter tones

There is no universally accepted notation for microtonal music, with varying systems being used depending on the situation. A common notation for quarter tones involves writing the fraction ​1⁄4 next to an arrow pointing up or down. Below are other forms of notation:


Lowers the pitch of a note by one quarter tone. (Another notation for the demiflat is a flat with a diagonal slash through its stem. In systems where pitches are divided into intervals smaller than a quarter tone, the slashed flat represents a lower note than the reversed flat.)

Flat-and-a-half (sesquiflat)

Lowers the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. As with a demiflat, a slashed double-flat symbol is also used.


Raises the pitch of a note by one quarter tone.

Sharp-and-a-half (sesquisharp)

Raises the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. Occasionally represented with two vertical and three diagonal bars instead.

A symbol with one vertical and three diagonal bars indicates a sharp with some form of alternate tuning.

In 19 equal temperament, where a whole tone is divided into three steps instead of two, music is typically notated in a way that flats and sharps are not usually enharmonic (thus a C♯ represents a third of a step lower than D♭); this has the advantage of not requiring any nonstandard notation.

The Time signatures

The Time signatures define the meter of the music. Music is “marked off” in uniform sections called bars or measures, and time signatures establish the number of beats in each. This does not necessarily indicate which beats to emphasize, however, so a time signature that conveys information about the way the piece actually sounds is thus chosen. Time signatures tend to suggest prevailing groupings of beats or pulses.

Specific time – simple time signatures

The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the crotchet or quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes). For example, 3/4 is pronounced as “three-four time” or “three-quarter time”.

Specific time – compound time signatures

The bottom number represents the note value of the subdivisions of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 8 represents the quaver or eighth-note). The top number indicates how many of these subdivisions appear in each measure. Usually each beat is composed of three subdivisions. To derive the unit of the basic pulse in compound meters, double this value and add a dot, and divide the top number by 3 to determine how many of these pulses there are each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of two dotted crotchets (dotted quarter-notes). This is pronounced as “Six-Eight Time”.

Common time

This symbol represents 4/4 time. It derives from the broken circle that represented “imperfect” duple meter in fourteenth-century mensural time signatures.

Alla breve or Cut time

This symbol represents 2/2 time, indicating two minim (or half-note) beats per measure. Here, a crotchet (or quarter note) would get half a beat.


Metronome mark

Written at the start of a score, and at any significant change of tempo, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 crotchets, or quarter notes, fit into one minute of time. Many publishers precede the marking with letters “M.M.”, referring to Maelzel’s Metronome.

Note relationships


Indicates that the two (or more) notes joined together are to be played as one note with the time values added together. To be a tie, the notes must be identical – that is, they must be on the same line or the same space. Otherwise, it is a slur (take a look at below).



Indicates to play two or more notes in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath. In certain contexts, a slur may only indicate to play the notes legato. In this case, rearticulation is permitted.

Slurs and ties are similar in appearance. A tie is distinguishable because it always joins two immediately adjacent notes of the same pitch, whereas a slur may join any number of notes of varying pitches. In vocal music a slur normally indicates that notes grouped together by the slur should be sung to a single syllable. A phrase mark (or less commonly, ligature) is a mark that is visually identical to a slur, but connects a passage of music over several measures. A phrase mark indicates a musical phrase and may not necessarily require that the music be slurred.

Glissando or Portamento

A continuous, unbroken glide from one note to the next that includes the pitches between. Some instruments, such as the trombone, timpani, non-fretted string instruments, electronic instruments, and the human voice can make this glide continuously (portamento), while other instruments such as the piano or mallet instruments blur the discrete pitches between the start and end notes to mimic a continuous slide (glissando).


A number of notes of irregular duration are performed within the duration of a given number of notes of regular time value; e.g., five notes played in the normal duration of four notes; seven notes played in the normal duration of two; three notes played in the normal duration of four. Tuplets are named according to the number of irregular notes; e.g., duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc..


In several notes sounded simultaneously (“solid” or “block”), or in succession (“broken”). Two-note chords are called a dyad or an interval; three-note chords built from generic third intervals are called triads. A chord may contain any number of notes.

Arpeggiated chord

A chord with notes played in rapid succession, usually ascending, each note being sustained as the others are played. It is also called a “broken chord” or “rolled chord”.

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