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Comparing notes: Reading a musical score

Updated Wednesday 24th June 2015

Comparing musical scores - even of simple melodies - needs practice, but it is a relatively easy skill to acquire. Keeping the beat and spotting repeating rhythms while listening is a good place to start.

Even if you don’t read music, you can get an idea of what rhythm patterns look like by the shape of the notes. As a general rule, the blacker the notes look and the more densely they occupy the space of the bar, the faster the notes in relation to the beat. The more open and white the notes appear, the slower they are in relation to the beat. A single four beat note called a semibreve for example, may occupy a whole bar, but in the same space of time, you may get 16 semiquavers:

A single four beat note called a semibreve for example, may occupy a whole bar, but in the same space of time, you may get 16 semiquavers Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Notice how these faster notes have their stems connected with a beam. These two bars of notes are mathematically equal in value in terms of the duration of their respective sounds, provided the speed of the beat doesn’t change.

The melodies that we are going to study here are fairly simple. When you press play, the cursor follows the notes in time with the beat to help you follow along. The bars are also numbered to help you keep track.

Example 1: God Save the Queen

The first example is the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. Play this melody, below, and follow the cursor as it tracks the tune in time to the beat. Once you have heard it, try and visualise the contour of the melody – its rise and fall. Did you notice any repeating patterns? Remember to try and feel the beat as you follow the notes, noticing the different shapes of notes for the different lengths of sound.

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The melody of God Save the Queen, starts with longer note values and only uses groups of shorter notes towards the end which gives the feeling of starting slowly and getting quicker. It gradually rises from a low start to repeated higher notes and then falls back to the note it started on. There is one rhythm pattern that is used several times with different pitches, and in one place a section of the tune is repeated a step lower. Here is an annotated version showing these patterns. Listen one more time and notice where these repetitions occur.

Bars 7 to 8 repeated a step lower in bars 9 to 11 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Example 2: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

This next example is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, an American spiritual song, but now frequently associated with the English national rugby union side. Play the following example.

I hope you noticed that the melody of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot descends and then rises, and then repeats the same descending and rising pattern with just a few tiny changes to the notes. This melody also starts with longer note values, before using a pattern of quicker notes repeating the same pitch.  

Swing Low showing repetition Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Example 3: The British Grenadiers

In this example, The British Grenadiers, listen to the melody and follow the score. Try to compare the different phrases of the melody with each other. Can you spot repeated sections of melody or repeated rhythm patterns?

This melody is written in the bass clef, but remember that the principals are exactly the same as following a melody in the treble clef. The clef simply shows that the notes are lower in pitch, and, if you were reading the music, indicates the position of F (and therefore all the other notes in relation to F).

We can take any tune and shift it to any position from very high to very low without changing its shape. This is called transposition, and it is a technique you will find a lot in large scores where all sorts of instruments play the same melody in their respective registers. 

The first four bars of this tune are repeated exactly, and then both the rhythm pattern and the contour of the melody change. The final phrase repeats the long-short-short rhythm heard near the beginning and it finishes with the same melody as at the end of bar 3 going into bar 4. Listen again, follow the score and see if you can spot the repetitions. These repeated sections create the structure of the melody rather like repeating rhymes and words create structures in poetry.  

Example 4: Early One Morning

To test your skills, and to have little more practice, listen, follow and compare the sections of this melody. Try to do this first, before looking at my solution, then listen again following my marked up version.

Here’s my annotated version showing the different repetitions in this melody. The long-short-short rhythm happens at the start of all the repeated sections.

Early One Morning showing repetition Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

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From Notation to Performance: Understanding Musical Scores
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