Have you ever come across a notation in a music score that you didn’t understand? Don’t worry—help is on the way! Here’s a handy, visual guide to all of the different kinds of articulation, staff, and tempo marks you may encounter.
Slur: A symbol in Western music represented by a curved line, indicating that the notes are to be played without articulation.
Melisma: A musical term indicating the singing of one syllable of text on a succession of different notes.
Staccato: Notes played rapidly with distinct separation between them; indicated by the placement of a dot above or below a note.
Accent: An emphasized chord or note.
Tenuto: Musical term that instructs the performer to hold or sustain a note or chord to the next note or chord as if in legato (smooth, with no breaks).
Marcato: Italian term indicating that the performer should attack a note or chord with a sforzando (sfz) or explosive start, letting the note sustain for two thirds the normal length and ending with a gap or rest before the next note.
Dynamic accent: Also called a “stress” accent, it’s a musical notation symbol used above a note to indicate an emphasis of sound or articulation of the note.
Staff: In modern music notation, the staff is a grid of five lines and four spaces upon which notes are written.
Bar line: The vertical line on a staff of music that separates the composition into measures (bars). Different types of bar lines mean different things: a double bar means that a new section follows, a thick and thin bar with two dots beside them indicates repeating the section, and a thin and thick bar with no dots signifies the end of the piece.
Double bar line: Two vertical lines used on a music staff to indicate the end of a musical section. When the second line is thicker, it indicates the end of the piece.
Final bar: The last measure of music in a composition, indicated by a double bar line.
Measure: A measurement of time in music defined by a set number of beats between two vertical lines on a staff of music. Also called a “bar” of music.
Key signature—flats: The flat symbols used at the beginning of a musical staff that indicate the key of the composition.
Key signature—sharps: The sharp symbols used at the beginning of a musical staff that indicate the key of the composition.
Ledger lines: Small lines drawn above or below the staff for notes that are too high or too low to be placed on the regular staff.
Accolade (brace): In written music, a bracket that connects two or more of the staves of the score together.
Treble clef (G clef): The top half of a grand staff. The right hand of the piano plays in this clef as well as most high voices and instruments.
Bass clef (F clef): In music notation, the most common staff used for bass and baritone voice, low brass, woodwind, and string instruments. Also, the staff used for left hand in keyboard music.
Alto clef: A clef designed with two curves that meet in the middle on the third line of the staff, which is the note C. Used especially in notating music for the viola.
Tenor clef: A C-clef positioned on the fourth line of the music staff to make it easier for the high ranges of the cello, double bass, bassoon, trombone, and euphonium to be played.
Baritone clef: A musical symbol that indicates the placement of notes on a staff. One of three F-clefs, it is rarely used in modern notation.
Octave clef (octave below): This is used to indicate that the music be performed an octave lower.
Octave clef (octave above): This is used to indicate that the music be performed an octave higher.
Neutral clef: Also called a “percussion” clef, it indicates which unpitched percussion instruments are assigned to the lines and spaces of the staff. Neutral clefs usually use one line instead of five lines.
Bracket: See brace.
Tempo mark (metronome mark): Tempo is indicated in the music by metronome markings, either by the composer or the publisher. (For example, q=120 means 120 quarter notes or beats per minute.) Also, the tempo may be indicated in general terms, such as largo: broad, lento: slow, adagio: slow, andante: walking speed, moderato: moderate, allegretto or allegro: fast, presto: very fast, and prestissimo: as fast as possible.
Time signature: Meter indication using two numbers at the beginning of a composition that specify the unit of measurement (quarter note, half note, and so on) and the number of those units comprised in a measure.
Common time: A musical notation in the shape of a semicircle. The same as 4/4 or 2/4 time.
Cut time (alla breve): Also known as “cut common time,” a time signature in which the half note instead of the quarter note defines the beat. Cut time is notated in a score by a C with a vertical slash through it or 2/2.
Rallantando: A musical direction to gradually slow down a passage in a composition.
Ritenuto, ritard (ritardando): Musical instruction indicating the performer to play more slowly.
Rehearsal letter: Used in a music score to help performers have a convenient spot in which to start or rehearse a certain section. It can also be called rehearsal figures; rehearsal marks, or, when used with numbers, rehearsal numbers.
Ossia: Italian musical term indicating an alternative (usually easier) version to a musical passage.
For more help with music notation, be sure to check out our Quick Guide Notes and Rests: A Visual Index. Have a great practice!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide Music Dictionary by Dr. Stanford Felix