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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. Sequences of notes in a work are 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 circles define when the piano key is pressed. These symbols are called the noteheads. Behind the noteheads are stripes that define the duration of the note. These are called the note tails. The piano key is released at the end of 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. (If you'd like to print this out, go here)

Traditionally, a number of 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 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  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 stripes. 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. As is clearly seen in the example, the first note lasts the time of a beat, the third note lasts for two beats, and the last note lasts for four beats.

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. Ultimately, the musician controls the choice of tempo even if the work itself indicates something different.

This would also be a good time to play Ode to Joy again at different tempos. All the notes are the same duration so this is an easy one with which to start. Next try playing the snippet above that has a little variety of note durations (same right hand thumb position). Start with a slow tempo and speed up the tempo until it sounds right to you.

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

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, these are called sharps and flats.  The notes corresponding to these have gotten short shrift because they were added to the original seven naturals centuries later.  By then the naming convention was firmly established for the original seven.  And so the "new" five don't even have their own names but are identified only as neighbors to their adjacent white key naturals.   The note between C and D can be called either a C sharp of a D flat.  "Sharp" means "the next higher note" while "flat" means "the previous lower".   But no matter what you call that note between C and D, it's the same note played with the same black key.  For now, don't get me started on why there have to be both sharps and flats.  But do know that these notes are just as important as the naturals.  When you play all twelve of the notes in order, they will sound equally spaced in tone.

But for readers of WYSIWYP notation, all you need to know is how the sharps and flats are represented.  In the following figure, you can see the five black rectangular symbols for the the sharp/flat combinations, or combos.  Each is half the height of the adjacent white key natural circles.  And each overlaps vertically on the staff with them.   

In the figure, the noteheads overlap by 50% on the staff while the white keys of course do not.  But an imaginary horizontal line through the centers of the noteheads pass through the centers of the keys.  

In this figure, the combos have been stacked up on the left so that it's more apparent how the positions match the keyboard black keys where every octave has a group of two combos and a group of three.  To the right of the stack are the individual noteheads.  Practice recognizing them by their relationship to the red and blue lines.  C sharp and F sharp touch the lines, D sharp and G sharp are the width of a combo symbol above, and A sharp is closer to the red line than the blue.  To get started, you might rotate the sheet music 90 degrees to easier see the alignment.

OK you've already got the basics of WYSIWYP notation. Click here to see a complete summary of it.