Musical Staff

Music is written on a staff, which is comprised of five lines and four spaces. Melodic instruments, such as piano, will have the pitches of the musical scale assigned to these lines and spaces. 

Some percussion instruments, such as the snare drum, are considered unpitched (or of an indefinite pitch). This means that they are not tuned to a specific note of the scale. Instruments such as this will be assigned to the various parts of the staff.

Musical staff consisting of 5 lines and 4 spaces

The snare drum is written on the second space from the top.  Some older literature notated the notes on this space with stems pointing down.  It is now more common to write these notes with stems pointing up.

Musical notation depicting quarter notes for drums on the musical staff

When we write music for melodic instruments, we use a clef sign that assigns a certain pitch to a line of the staff.  For drums, we will use the unpitched percussion clef (or neutral clef).

Musical staff with unpitched percussion clef, also known as neutral clef

Notes, Rests, Time Signatures, and Barlines

In this section, we will address the following terms:

Note – A sound played or sung by musicians

Rest – A duration of silence equal to the time of its corresponding note

Measure – A segment of music containing note or rests

Time Signature – Two numbers at the beginning of a section of music which assign values to notes and specify the length of a measure

Barlines – Vertical lines that separate measures

Quarter Notes and Rests

We will start with one of the most common note values, the quarter note. A quarter note looks like this:

The musical notation for a quarter note

Each type of note that we encounter will have a corresponding rest. A quarter rest looks like this:

The musical notation for a quarter note rest

Time Signatures

Before we play a piece of music, we must look at the time signature. Time signatures consist of a top and bottom number. We’ll examine the top numeral first.

The top numeral lets us know how many counts, or numbers, are in allowed in each measure. A measure is the container for the notes and rests, as specified by the time signature.

The bottom numeral indicates the type of note that will equal one full count. While a time signature is not a fraction, the bottom numeral is stated in a similar manner. For example, a “4” on the bottom will refer to quarter notes.

Musical notation showing a time signature of 4/4

As we see here, we will need the equivalent of four quarter notes to fill up one measure of 4/4 time.  It is important to note that time signatures with a “4” on the bottom will always indicate that quarter notes are worth one count – even if the top number changes.  For example:

Musical notation showing a time signature of 2/4 with text explanation


Musical notation showing a time signature of 3/4 with text explanation

From the examples above, we again see that (although there are some similarities) time signatures are not fractions.  We will explore other time signatures at a later time.


After a measure is complete, you will see a barline.  Measures are sometimes called bars, so we can see why the lines separating the measures are called barlines.  We will also see a final barline at the end of the example.  It is a double barline with the rightmost line being wider.

Music notation showing the types of barlines

Common Time

4/4 is so commonly used that it is actually referred to as common time, with the letter “C” in place of the numerals.

Musical notation for common time