Musical signs: everything you need to know

Musical signs are the universal language of music. With them you can read and interpret any piece written by a composer from any part of the world, because they transcend language barriers. Therefore, your training as a musical artist would be incomplete if you are not able to, at least, understand the most basic musical signs.

Thinking about this, we bring you a small guide of the most common ones. Be aware that there are dozens of musical signs to overcome the complexity that a composer may include in a piece. However, here we present the ones most commonly used.

The staff


This is the basic element of written music, because it is in the staff where all the musical signs will be placed. It is composed by five lines and their respective intermediate spaces that will be where the seven tones of the diatonic scale will be placed. This can be expanded if necessary to four additional lines, two above and two below.

The G clef


Within modern vocal and musical notation, the G clef is the most used and is generally represent the high pitched sounds. The shape of this musical sign is based on a spiral similar to a G attached to an S. The spiral points to the second line of the staff counting from the bottom up, indicating that the line is G.

The F clef


This musical sign in the form of a stylized F with two points indicate that the second line of the staff, counting from top to bottom corresponds to F. It is a key that is usually used to represent deeptoned sounds, such as those produced by the electric bass and double bass.

The musical notes


These are the basis of music, because their mix with rhythms and silences make all the music, regardless of the genre. To achieve these rhythms, the notes must be assigned values, as well as silences and ligatures.



As the name says, ligatures are musical signs that are used to prolong a note. This can be a ligature, when two notes joined together play as if they were one; a ligature of expression, which indicates that the two notes must be played uninterruptedly. In this case, unlike normal ligatures, it can join notes of different expressions. There is also legato, which indicates that the notes covered by this sign are played without articulating a separation through the interruption of sound.

The arpeggio


This sign is also called “broken chord”. It is like a chord, only that the notes are played sequentially, usually in an ascending manner. It is very easy to perform with the guitar, in which it is enough to place the chord you want and play from its deeptoned to the most acute note.



The length of a silence is not absolute: is given in proportion to the duration of the other notes and silences, although it is common to use a quarter note as a basic unit of time. Taking this measure as a reference, the times can be: maximum (32 times), longa (16 times), square (8 times), whole note (4 times), minim (2 times), quarter note or crotchet (1 time), quave (1 / 2 time), semiquaver (1/4 time), demisemiquaver (1/8 time), semidemisemiquaver (1/16 time), hundred twenty-eight note (1/32 time) and two hundred fifty-sixth note (1/64 time).

Bar followed by silence


When we play a piece with other musicians, this sign indicates that we must wait in silence for the number of times indicated. Generally silence lasts six bars, but it can be extended as long as the composer wants.

The fermata


It is a musical sign that indicates the indefinite prolongation of a note or a silence. Its duration varies according to the will of the interpreter and is usually placed to indicate a stop in the tempo.

Syncopated note


These musical signs are intended to break the regularity of the rhythm, accentuating a note in a weak or semi-strong part of the stave. Syncopations can be regular or irregular, belonging to the latter category when the duration between both parts of the syncopa does not last the same time. Syncopas are the rhythmic basis of musical styles such as jazz and other African-American rhythms.



These musical signs modify the height of a note that follows in the same line of the staff within a new measure. These alterations can be:

B-flat, decreases the tone of the note by two chromatic semitones.

Flat and medium, decreases the tone in ¾.

Flat, decreases the pitch of a note in a semitone.

Demi-flat, decreases the tone by ¼.

Natural, modifies the tone of a previous flat or flat according to the key represented at the beginning of the staff.

Demi-sharp, increases the pitch of the note by ¼.

Sharp, increases the pitch of the note by a semitone.

Sharp and medium, increases the pitch of the note by ¾.

Double sharp, increases the pitch of the note by two chromatic semitones.

Precautionary Accidentals


They are alterations that are enclosed in parentheses, flat, sharps or natural. This is done because sometimes a passage is too difficult and when interpreting it we may not realize that they are altered. Therefore, it is important to remember that if in a measure there is a note with an accidental alteration, and there are more equal notes within it, it must also be altered.

Key signatures


Key signature is a musical sign that defines the alterations that the notes will have in that space or line. If there is no key signature in the staff, it can be interpreted as being major / minor, although it can also mean that it is a neutral key signature.

The Key signatures can be flats signatures, which decrease the corresponding line or space note by a semitone, determining whether the tonality is less or greater. The sharps key signature causes the inverse effect, increasing the halftone the note of the corresponding line or space. Both key signatures will be affected by the amount of flats or sharps in each one.

Repetition signs


These musical signs serve the composer to indicate that the passage within the repetition signs must be repeated from the beginning.

Simple and double time signatures


When they appear in the stave, these musical signs indicate that we have to go to the repetition sign and, when we repeat, skip box number one, to go to the second.



The measure determines the measure of the music. And it is represented with two numbers, one on top of the other. Within modern music, the most common measures are: 4/4, 3/4, 2/4 and 6/8. Although there are other measures, such as 9/8, but they are hardly used today.

Abbreviation for repeating measures


Once the composer has written the part of the piece that he wants to be repeated later, he uses these musical signs so he doesn’t have to rewrite everything. These signs can be put in as many measures as we want and have the same function as the quotes.

Dynamic overtones


These are musical signs that usually appear under the staves and are used by the composer to indicate to the performer the intensity with which he wishes the indicated passage to be played. These overtones can range from the pianississimo (extremely soft) to the fortississimo (extremely strong), there being the sforzando that is literally a sharp intensity. Similarly, the overtones may indicate a gradual increase in volume (crescendo) or, conversely, gradually decrease the volume (decrease or decrease).

Eighth high and eighth low


Sometimes, it is necessary to add notes that are too sharp or too deeptoned and the composer do not want to add additional lines to the score. To achieve this, the musical signs of high octave and low octave are aided, which when placed on a note indicate that the pitch of the note should be increased or decreased by an octave.

The trill


This musical sign corresponds to an ornament that modifies the heights pattern of an individual note. The trill specifically, is a rapid alteration between the specific note and the highest tone or semitone within its duration. When a wavy horizontal line follows the sign of the trill, it means that it is a long trill.



The mordant is another musical ornament similar to the trill but where the written note alternated with its upper note (upper mordant) or lower (lower mordant) is executed quickly. An example would be C, B, C, B, and C.

As you must have noticed, the musical signs are not difficult to learn once you have studied them enough. Once you learn the ones that appear here, you will be able to easily read most of the staves that falls into your hands.