A Primer on Music

Music is a part of every culture and can serve many purposes, from entertainment, to education, to ritual. Yet, there are many men these days who have absolutely no knowledge of music theory, so their only participation is listening and singing poorly. 

My goal today is to give you enough understanding of music so when you find yourself in church, whether that’s every week or only weddings and funerals, you can sing the beautiful harmonies. When I’m done you’ll also have the basic knowledge you need to start discussing and enjoy music on a level that’s impossible if you’ve never ventured beyond the top 40. It won’t be enough to make you a virtuoso, that takes years of study, but it’ll be a good start. 

The Grand Staff

The grand staff is the most commonly used musical notation. It uses a system of symbols on a series of lines and spaces to describe the music as the composer intends it to be performed. It’s easiest to translate the grand staff to the piano but it can be used with any instrument, and much of it is actually relative. 

Middle C and Spoken Notation

Musical notes are divided into groups corresponding to eight consecutive white piano keys, as well as the interspersed black keys, called octaves and represented by the letters A through G. The terms flat and sharp mean the next key, black or white, above or below, respectively. Usually the octave is assumed based on the instrument but it can be specified by how far above or below the octave including middle C

Chefs, Lines and Spaces

The chefs, lines and space scombine to identify which notes are to played. Moving up to the next line or space on the staff corresponds to the next white key to the right in a piano, meaning a higher note. 

Treble (left) and bass (right) clefs.

With the treble clef, middle C is one line below the staff itself, which only appears with middle c or lower notes. With the bass clef, middle C is one line above the staff. There are other clefs but the only one male vocalists need to concerned about is the tenor clef. It looks like the treble clef but adds an 8 on the bottom, corresponds to one octave below the treble clef. When a vocal line has a treble clef and is marked with the word “tenor” then the treble clef is generally treated as a tenor clef.

Flats and Sharps

Sometimes notes fall between the lines and spaces, these are called flats and sharps. A flat (♭) is the next lower piano key, black or white, and a sharp (#) is the next higher. A natural (♮) cancels a previous sharp or flat.


In addition to the pitch, notes are also expressed in terms of their duration. Their expressed as fractions. A whole note is drawn as a simple loop and each addition to it halves the duration. A half note adds a stem, a quarter note fills in the loop, and eighth note and less each add a flag. If there’s a dot immediately after the note then it lasts one and half times as long as normal. A slur or tie is an arched line spanning two or more notes indicating that they should flow smoothly into each other with only a change in pitch or lyrics to indicate a change. 


Rests are essentially the opposite of notes, they indicate a period of silence. The symbols are more complicated but you can easily infer them from the notes that appear around it. 


Tempo is the speed at which the music is played. Generally this is only if concern to whoever is leading the music, such as a choir director. If you’re leading you’ll know it, so you likely don’t have to concern yourself with it. 

Time Signature

Time signature is related to tempo. It describes the relationship between the beats and the length of notes and measures. It’s typically expressed as a fraction. The numerator indicates the number of beats in a measure, the denominator indicates which note corresponds to the interval between beats. So the most common time signature, 4/4, has four beats per measure with each beat equivalent to a quarter note, and 3/4 has 3 beats per measure. 

Key Signature

A key signature is a set of assumed sharps or flats used to create a mood within the peace. This is expressed as one or more sharps or flats positioned away from the notes, commonly immediately after the time signature. The key signature applies to all octaves and remains in effect until the next marked key signature. I won’t get into the names of the specific keys, but is useful to know that major keys tend to have a cheerier sound and minor keys tend to be darker. 


Dynamics describe how loud the music is to be played. The usual range, from quietest to loudest, is piano (p), mezzo piano (mp), mezzo forte (mf), and forte (f). Adding extra Ps or Fs call for it to be softer or louder, respectively. The hardest part is that it’s largely subjective, so it’s mostly left to the musician’s own judgment.

You may also sometimes see crescendos and decrescendos. These are gradual changes in volume, increases and decreases respectively. They’re denoted by angles, pointing towards the point at which the music should be quieter. 

Advanced Notation

There’s more than this to music notation, but you won’t need to know it unless you learn an instrument or intent to perform. 


Lyrics is the term used for the text that is sung to the music. Most of the songs you’re likely to sing have the same lyrics for everyone, but if they don’t the extra lyrics are printed above or below and correspond to the rhythm of the voice that it’s intended for. 

Tenor, Baritone, and Bass Voice

Most men’s voices fall somewhere in the tenor, baritone, or bass range, which are the lower vocal notes. The general male range includes all the notes that are written with a bass clef ranging from two lines below the staff to two lines above. Where in that range you feel most comfortable singing shows which voice you have. Tenors prefer the high notes, basses prefer the low, and baritones like to stay in the middle. Personally, I’m a tenor. 

Anything but more advanced choir music will usually put all the male voices on one staff with a bass clef. If there’s only one set of notes, all the men sing the same thing. As notes are added the men split between them. First, the tenors split off, then the basses and baritones split. Generally, the tenors sing the high notes, the basses sing the low notes, and the baritones sing anything in between but if the stems on the low notes point up and the stems on the high notes point down, it reverses. 


Genre is a term you’ve likely heard before. In case you don’t know what it means, it’s a synonym for musical style. It’s likely impossible to create a definitive list if genres. It’s even commonly debated if certain genres qualify as music. The only objective thing that can really be said on the subject is that it’s a matter of opinion. 

Whatever genres you enjoy, you should learn about. Learn the stylistic conventions, most importantly what defines the genre. Learn it’s history, like how jazz is considered to be “America’s only native art form” although that’s rather dismissive of the aboriginal cultures. You’ll also want to learn about the greats of the genre. If you like classic music, learn about BeethovenMozart, and the Bachs. If you like rock music, learn about The BeatlesAerosmith, and of course The King

Now you should have the grounding you need to feel comfortable in most musical settings. If you’d like to become a performer or learn any instrument, I recommend you find a professional music teacher and practice like crazy. There’s probably plenty in your area. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s