the Basics

If you took the Test Drive, much of this lesson is a repeat of information from that but not all, so please read through it lest you miss out on some gems. 

Very basic music theory for a complete beginner

As famously illustrated by the "Do-re-mi" song in the Sound of Music, the basic music scale consists of 7 notes. The notes are named A to G and together they form an octave. The piano keyboard has 7 full octaves plus a few additional notes. Nowadays, most musicians visualize an octave starting with C (instead of A) as shown in the figure.The 7 notes of the basic scale are played on the white keys and are called "naturals". In addition to the white keys, there are 5 more notes that are played on the black keys. Each black key can be referenced relative to an adjoining white key with the terms "sharp" and "flat". When played sequentially, the 12 notes sound equally spaced.

Octaves on the keyboard are numbered sequentially from left to right:

The lowest sounding note on the keyboard is on the extreme left. Each successive note to the right is a little bit higher than the previous. Thus, the beginning of an octave picks up where the previous one left off. So if you played the entire 88 note range, each note would sound equally spaced. It is a continuum wherein tunes can cross the octave boundaries, and only the most simple tunes don't. And we'll only be dealing with those for now.

Individual note are often referenced in this course (and elsewhere) by name and octave number. The famous "middle" C you may have heard of, is the one nearest the physical middle of the keyboard; it is referenced as C4.

How notes are represented with WYSIWYP notation

An octave is represented in WYSIWYP notation with a red line representing the note C and a blue line representing the note F.  C is the first note in a group of 5 piano keys containing 2 black keys, while F is the first note in a group of 7 keys containing 3 black keys. These groups are easy to see because they are separated by gaps in the range of black keys.  That is to say, there  are black keys between two white keys everywhere except between B and C and between E and F.  

As shown in the figure, the C and F lines provide a clear visual mapping to the beginning of the two piano key groups. The placement of a circle-shaped note relative to the red and blue lines indicates which white key to play. (We'll discuss playing the black keys later.) Observe that successive note circles overlap by 50% although the corresponding keys of course do not. Since all octaves on the keyboard have the same format, once you have leaned the mapping for one octave, you know them all.

Octaves on the sheet music are stacked up vertically with the octave numbers displayed at the beginning of the red C lines. This is called a staff. Only the octaves needed for the range of notes in a given piece of music are displayed. For all instruments, the notes correspond to the naturals for the indicated octave. On the piano, they map to the white keys. The following example shows two full octaves in groups of four notes.

Sharps and Flats

As you have seen, the circle-shaped notes represent the white keys on the piano keyboard. These notes are known as "naturals". And now that you know how to find all the white key naturals on the piano keyboard, let's talk about the black keys, the sharps and flats. In the figure an F sharp and a G flat represent the same black key between the F and G white keys. You may rightfully ask why there are two ways to represent the same key. The simple answer is that both are needed only for traditional sheet music notation. But they both are not needed for WYSIWYP notation, and so the musician can choose whether to use only one or the other (thanks to the app that displays them).Observe that there is no E sharp or F flat since there is a gap in the series of black keys there. The same is true for B sharp and C flat.

When a upward-pointing triangle is encountered, the black key to the right of the indicated white key note is played. And for a downward-pointing triangle, the black key to the left is played. Thus the F sharp and G flat in the figure result in the same black key being played. And that's all there is to it. Now you can identify all the notes on the keyboard.

Note Duration

Playing a note is not only hitting the correct key, but is also knowing how long to hold the note in time. On the piano, you control the duration of a note by holding the key down for the appropriate amount of time before releasing it. But how do you know how much time?

When you clap your hands or tap your foot to a tune, it's called keeping time with the beat. The sequence of notes in a work is played with respect to the beat. Multiple notes may be played within the duration of a beat, or a note may span multiple beats. With WYSIWYP notation, the duration of a note is visually displayed relative to the beat with a horizontal stripe which is also known as the note tail.

In the following figure, you can see that the WYSIWYP octaves indicate the beat by short vertical "tic" marks equally spaced horizontally. In this way, the horizontal space of the octaves is a timeline.

Beats are grouped together into what's called a measure. These are indicated by the vertical lines, or bars, that cross continuously across the red and blue lines of the octaves. Later in your musical studies (that is to say, not in this course) you will learn how a measure can have an impact on the way the work is played. For now, just observe that the measure number above the top line can be used to identify a location in the work.

Also in the figure, you can see that a note starts where the notehead (circle or triangle) is placed. It continues until the end of the note tail underneath it. What's important to know at this stage of your learning is that the notes are played with respect to those equal length beats, the tic marks. So by tapping your foot at a constant rate while playing, you can practice playing the notes for the duration indicated by the note tails. You can play the tune at a faster or slower pace by changing the speed of your foot tapping, but it should be consistent throughout the piece. In the example, the first note lasts the time of one beat, the third note lasts for two beats, and the last note lasts for four beats. In addition, there can be multiple notes within a single beat.

The actual rate of playing (the speed of the foot tapping) is known as the tempo which is expressed in beats per minute. Some works of sheet music specify the tempo, but not all. A very precise way of setting the tempo is to use a metronome that sounds out the beat at whatever rate you select. (There are lots of screen device apps that do this.) Ultimately, the musician controls the choice of tempo even if the work itself indicates something different.

Later in this course, when you start playing with both hands, you will be able to see easily the time relationships between the notes played with left hand and those played with the right.