The Building Blocks of Music

Glenn Sutton teaches guitar, electric bass, keyboard, theory and improvisation for over 30 years, he specializes in rock, blues, jazz, Latin, Brazilian, classical, country, and folk.

How Music is Constructed

If you have never really looked at a piece of sheet music before, the first glance may seem overwhelming. What do all those lines and dots mean? The numbers? How does it translate to my playing? This article will explain much of what makes up a piece of music and break it down in easy-to-understand chunks.


Notes are the most basic building blocks of music. If you can picture the keys of a piano, each key represents a particular note. The starting point is actually in the middle of the keyboard, known as Middle C. The notes progress as follows:


The black keys represent sharps and flats as follows:


Of course, those notes would fit in between the main notes on a piece of sheet music. Sharps mean that the note is ½ step higher than the natural note, while flats mean that they are ½ step lower.

This is how the notes rest on the frets of a guitar with standard tuning:


Midde C is located in several spots, includng the second string on the 1st fret and the third string on the 3rd fret.


Chords are typically made up of sets of 3 or more notes, either played together or in close succession. The name of the chord is based on its bottom or base note. On both piano and guitar (as well as other instruments), there are numerous configurations of chords up and down the keyboard (or fretboard). Over time, with practice, you will be able to play chord progressions in a way that make sense to you and serves your music best.

In piano sheet music, the letter of the chord typically appears at the beginning of a measure (more on measures below) and is played on the first downbetat of that measure. Many pieces of sheet music, especially those designed for guitar, will have a simple diagram with the proper finger placement for the simplest version of the chord.

Beats and Measures

A bar (or measure) is a segment of time corresponding to a specific number of beats in which each beat is represented by a particular note value and the boundaries of the bar are indicated by vertical bar lines, as illustrated here:


Dividing music into bars provides regular reference points to pinpoint locations within a piece of music. It also makes written music easier to follow, since each bar of staff symbols can be read and played as a batch.

Time Signatures

In case you are wondering what the numbers at the beginning of a staff represent, they are called a time signature. Although these signatures can get rather complicated, most Western music is made up of fairly simple ones, such as 4/4, 3/8, and 3/4. The lower numeral indicates the note value that represents one beat (the beat unit). One beat is equivalent to one second. The upper numeral indicates how many such beats there are grouped together in a bar.

The Clefs

Most pieces of music have two staffs, the top one with a treble clef, the bottom with a bass clef. These simply represent positioning of notes. Typically, the notes on a treble clef are the ones above middle C, The bass clef represents notes below Middle C. Middle C itself can appear just above or just below either staff – right in the middle of the two.

Now That You Know The Basics…

Hopefully, this information will help you better understand what makes up the basics of music. Although there is much more to learn, this can get you started on the right track.


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