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Next UK ABRSM theory exams
Saturday 16th June

Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 1: Good Notation


What is Notation?

Notation is the system of symbols we use in order to write down music so that other people can play it.

Notation consists of the stave, notes, rests, bar lines, markings for tempo, dynamics and phrasing, clefs, indications of key and time, ornaments and other indications which can be for specific instruments, like how to use a bow, pedal or mute.

For your grade 5 theory exam, you'll need to understand all of the common notation symbols, and you need to be able to handwrite music in a clear and readable way. Not only will you lose marks in the exam if you make notation mistakes, but you may also lose marks if your writing is too messy to read easily.  

You probably already know most of the common symbols, as you'll have come across them in the music you've been playing or singing up to now. This lesson is a collection of all the symbols you need to know- try testing yourself to make sure there aren't any gaps in your knowledge before you take your exam!

Some items need more detailed study, and there are complete lessons available on them. Just follow the links on this page.

You'll find foreign language terms in the next lesson Grade 5 - Musical Terms.

Tip! When handwriting music, always use a pencil. Choose one which is dark and easy to rub out, and make sure it is sharpened!


Note Values

Each different shape of note has a name and a value. There are two name systems in use- one is used in the UK and the other in the USA.

The Grade 5 Theory exam papers always use both systems. Here are the main note values in order, and their names, starting with the longest note value:

Each note is worth half the value of the note before it in the list. So, a crotchet/quarter note is worth 2 quavers/eighth notes, and a minim/half note is worth 4 quavers/eighth notes.

  UK Note Name US Note Name
Breve Breve Double whole
Semibreve Semibreve Whole
Minim Minim Half
Crotchet Crotchet Quarter
Quaver Quaver Eighth
Semiquaver Semiquaver Sixteenth
Demisemiquaver Demisemiquaver Thirty-second
Hemidemisemiquaver Hemidemisemiquaver Sixty-fourth



Dotted Notes and Pauses

Notes can have one or two dots placed after them. A dot increases the value of the note by 50%. So, a dotted crotchet/quarter note is equal to 1.5 crotchets/quarter notes (or three quavers/eighth notes), and a dotted minim/half note is 1.5 minims/half notes (or three crotchets/quarter notes). A second dot increases the value of the note by 50% again. So, a double dotted crotchet/quarter note is worth 1.75 (or one and three-quarters) crotchets/quarter notes.

Notes can be tied together, with a small curved line. The values of tied notes should be added together and played without a break.

Any note value can be increased by a short but indefinite amount of time with the use of the pause (or “fermata”) symbol:

Pause (Fermata)

The pause may be placed above or below the stave. Below the stave, it is drawn the other way up:

Pause below the stave

For Grade 5 Theory, you need to know all the names, (either UK or US- you don’t need to learn both systems), and the values each note represents. You’ll need to be able to calculate the values of several different notes added together.


Rests work just like notes in notation, except of course you don’t have to play anything when there is a rest! Here are the rests, in the same order as the notes were written in point 2 above.

  UK Rest Name US Rest Name
Breve rest Breve Double whole
Semibreve rest Semibreve Whole
Minim rest Minim Half
Crotchet rest Crotchet Quarter
Quaver rest Quaver Eighth
Semiquaver rest Semiquaver Sixteenth
Demisemiquaver rest Demisemiquaver Thirty-second
Hemidemisemiquaver rest Hemidemisemiquaver Sixty-fourth

Rests can be dotted in exactly the same way as notes can.

If you find it difficult to draw a crotchet/quarter rest, you might find it easier to use the “handwritten” version, which is a backwards quaver/eighth rest:

Alternative crotchet rest

If you can’t remember whether minim/half rests hang off or sit on the line, try to remember it this way: “4 is higher than 2”- so a 4 beat rest is higher up the stave than a 2 beat rest. Whole/semibreve rests hang off the second line from the top, while half/minim rests sit on the middle line.

All other rests should be placed more or less centrally on the stave, (except where you have multiple parts on one stave- see Lesson 9.)

The semibreve/whole rest can be used to show a complete bar of rest in any time signature (except 4/2 which needs 2 of them). The whole bar rest is placed in the middle of a bar.


Barlines and Navigating through a Piece of Music

Barlines help you when you’re reading music because they break the music up into small chunks which take up the same length of time.

Barlines are also used to divide longer music up into sections, and to show you which bars to repeat, if any.

Symbol Explanation
barline Single, thin barline. Used as a general divider into bars.
Double barline Double thin barline. Shows the end of a section, or when there is a key signature change.
Repeat barlines  Repeat barlines. On reaching the left-facing (second) pair of dots, the music should be repeated from the right-facing (first) pair of dots. If there are no right-facing dots, the music should be repeated from the beginning.
End double barline Double barline, thin + thick. Only used at the very end of a piece.

Other symbols are used to help you navigate your way through the score. You need to know that “Da” and “Dal” mean from (the), and “Al” means to (the).

D.C. D.C. stands for Da Capo, which means “from the head”; or in other words, go back to the beginning.
D.S. D.S. stands for Dal Segno (pronounced SEN-yo), which means “from the sign”; or go back to the sign.
Sign (segno) This is the “sign” referred to by D.S.
al Coda Play until you see the Coda sign.
Coda sign Coda sign. Jump from here to the Coda (at the end of the piece), which will also be marked with this sign.
al Fine Play until the end.

The symbols above are used together to create precise instructions. You might see “Dal segno al fine” (go back to the sign and then play till the end), or “Da capo al coda” (go back to the beginning, play until you see the coda sign, then jump to the coda at the end of the piece). You can see that using the Italian abbreviations is much shorter than the English!



You need to know about the treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs for Grade 5 Theory. I’m guessing that you’re fairly comfortable with reading the treble clef already! If you’re not sure about the bass clef, have a look at the extra lesson Learn the Bass Clef. The alto and tenor clefs are covered in Lesson 4 – Clefs.


Key Signatures and Time Signatures

Key and time signatures are a big deal, and there’s quite a lot to learn about them. You can find a whole lesson on key signatures > Lesson 5 – Key Signatures, and on time signatures > Lesson 3 – Time Signatures.


Ornaments are special symbols written into music to make it sound more decorated. They occur mostly in music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.

(In the old days of Grade 5 Theory, you used to have to know how to write out the exact notes represented by an ornament, but luckily these days all you have to do is recognise the ornaments by name or how they are written out!)

Here’s a summary, with a notated example of how they are played.

Symbol Name Execution
trill-symbol Trill trill



Appoggiatura in full
Upper mordent Upper mordent (play the note and the note above) Upper mordent infull
Lower mordent Lower mordent (play the note and the note below) Lower mordent in full



Acciaccatura in full
Turn Turn Turn in full

Ornaments are always written above the stave.



The tempo (or speed) of a piece of music is indicated at the beginning of the piece, and changes might occur during the piece. Tempo can be indicated with words (see Lesson 2 – Musical Terms for the grade 5 terms), or symbols. Using symbols, tempo is indicated with a note value and the metronome marking it requires, for example like this:

Metronome marking

A metronome marking of 60 means 60 clicks per minute (or one every second). If you write a tempo using a metronome marking, be sure to use a number which actually exists on a traditional metronome. Check an online metronome if you don't have one at home.



Dynamics (or volume) can be indicated either in words (see Lesson 2 – Musical Terms for all the terms you need to know for grade five), with abbreviations of those words, or with symbols.

Immediate changes in dynamics are usually indicated with abbreviations:

Abbreviation Term Meaning
ppp Pianississimo Very very quiet
pp Pianissimo Very quiet
p Piano Quiet
mp Mezzo piano Moderately quiet
mf Mezzo forte Moderately loud
f Forte Loud
ff Fortissimo Very loud
fff Fortississimo Very very loud

In addition, you might see sf which stands for “sforzando” and means play one note very loudly, and fp which means play loudly, but then immediately make the note quiet.

Gradual changes in dynamics are often indicated with hairpins like this:

Crescendo Gradually get louder
Decrescendo Gradually get quieter

Hairpins are more precise than words because they can show more exactly where the change in dynamic starts and finishes.


Phrasing and Articulation

Music for all instruments can be phrased . Phrase marks are curved lines which group together notes which belong in one phrase, like this:

Phrase mark

Individual notes can be played in a huge number of ways, and so there are several “articulation” indications to show what you need to do. Some articulation indications only apply to certain instruments, while others are pretty much universal.


Here are the main articulation markings:


Symbol Term Meaning
Staccato Staccato Detached (distinctly separate from the next note), and short.
Staccatissimo Staccatissimo Extremely detached and short.
Tenuto Tenuto Hold the note for its full length.
Accent Accent Attack the note with extra force.
Marcato Marcato Detach the note, but don’t shorten it.

When a note has no specific articulation marking on it at all, its articulation depends on the instrument. No markings for a wind or brass instrument means the note should be "tongued", and for a string player it means "bowed".

Pedals, Bows and Mutes.

Many instruments employ extra bits and pieces to further the range of sounds they can produce. Pianos have got either 2 or 3 pedals, brass and string instruments can use mutes, and most string instruments can be played with either a bow or the fingers.


Pedal Marks

All pianos have a left and a right pedal. 

On a grand piano, the left pedal reduces the volume by causing only one string to be hit instead of the normal three, and is called “una corda”, meaning “one string” (think of “one cord”). 

On an upright piano the mechanics are a little different, but the overall effect is similar. This pedal is often referred to as the "soft pedal". 

The right pedal is called the “damper” or "sustain" pedal, and causes the strings to continue vibrating after the keys have been released. (Some people call this the “loud” pedal, but that’s not the right name for it!)


Three pedals on the pianoGrand pianos have a third pedal, called the “sostenuto” pedal (don't confuse this with "sustain" pedal!)

This enables the player to let the sound continue on some notes, but for other notes to be unaffected.

There is no standard way to mark pedal indications for the piano, but here are some accepted methods, all of which are written below the grand staff:



 Symbol  Meaning
Damper pedal Press the damper (right) pedal.
Release damper pedal Release the damper pedal.
Press damper pedal Press the damper pedal at ‘P’, hold, release at the end.
Damper pedal Press the damper pedal, hold, press again, hold, release.
Una corda / u.c. Press the una corda pedal.
Tre corde / t.c. Release the una corda pedal (literally, this means “three strings”).
Sostenuto pedal Press the sostenuto pedal, hold, release.


Bowing Marks

BowBowing marks are, of course, vitally important for all string players to know, and there are many! You can find a comprehensive list here,

For Grade 5 Theory, all you need to know are the most common markings:


Up bow  Up bow. Start playing with an upward movement of the bow.
Down bow  Down bow. Start playing with a downward movement of the bow.
Pizz.   “Pizzicato”- pluck the string with your fingers.
Arco   Play with the bow (after a pizzicato marking).


To remember the up and down bow markings, notice that the up bow symbol starts raised but the down bow starts low.

You won't have to use these markings when writing out music in the exam, but you might be asked to recognise and name them.



Mutes are devices which the player can use to soften or quieten the sound of the instrument. Mutes are generally only used on string and brass instruments.



Here’s a picture of a trumpet and a selection of mutes which all produce different sound effects.

The directions you need to learn are: 

Con sordino/Con sord. = Use the mute

Senza sordino/Senza sord. = Stop using the mute


How to Write Neat Music


Writing good, clear notation is really important. You’ll lose marks if your handwritten music is messy, difficult to read or contains errors.


Follow these guidelines to help you write beautiful manuscript:


  • All notes have a head, most have a stem, and some have a tail.
  • Breves (double whole notes) and semibreves (whole notes) only have a head.
  • Minims (half notes) and crotchets (quarter notes) have a head and a stem.
  • Quavers (eighth notes) and all smaller notes have a head, a stem and a tail.
  • Note heads are not perfectly round- they should look like these (but smaller!)open note headfilled notehead
  • Make the stems of your notes the same length. As a rough guide, a note written in the bottom space should have a stem which reaches up to the top line:
    Note stem length
  • Notes on ledger lines should have stems which reach to the middle line of the stave.
  • Crotchets (quarter notes) and minims (half notes) written below the middle line should have stems up, written above the middle line should have stems down. If they are written on the middle line itself, they should follow the stem direction of the notes next to them.
  • Tails on quavers (eighth notes) and smaller notes are on the right side of the stem.
  • Sharps, flats and naturals (accidentals) are always written immediately to the left of the note they affect. Accidentals need only be written once within a single bar.
  • Use a ruler to draw stems and beam lines neatly.
  • Leave a slight space after the barline before placing your first note. Don’t put a barline on the far left edge of a single stave.
  • Far left bar lines are only used when two or more staves are bound together, for example in piano music.
  • Space out your notes relatively to one another. Give a minim (half note) more space than crotchet (quarter note), and so on.
  • Spacing is good. The minim (half note) has about twice as much space as the crotchet (quarter note):
     Good note spacing
  • Spacing is wrong. The minims (half notes) and crotchets (quarter notes) have been given the same space and the quavers (eighth notes) have more space than the longer notes:
    Bad note spacing The minims (half notes) should have a big space after them, the crotchets (quarter notes) should have a medium space, and the quavers (eighth notes) should have the smallest space after each one.



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