I. Fundamentals

Introduction to Western Musical Notation

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • The term “Western musical notation” refers to written symbols that are used to communicate musical sounds.
  • Western musical notation is one of many different systems of musical notation that appear across time spans, places, and cultures.
  • Someone who writes down music chooses a musical notation system based on these factors, also known as their social context or milieu.


Music is an auditory or aural art form that can be represented visually with notation.

Think about what it’s like to translate one language to another. It can be a challenging task—a direct word-for-word translation isn’t always possible or useful, so a translator needs to think about how best to communicate to the reader. Similarly, writing down sounds involves making decisions about what needs to be communicated and how. No system of notation could capture every aspect of sound in full detail and still be useful or readable, so only some musical elements can be depicted.

Despite this, there are several advantages to written musical notation: a written musical work does not need to be memorized, and details can be recorded that might otherwise be forgotten. Additionally, written notation makes musical works accessible to more people, since anyone who knows the notation system can learn a notated work on their own without the help of a teacher.

Imagine inventing a way to write down a favorite song or musical work so that a musician could perform it without ever having heard it before. In the assignment below (“Inventing a Notation System”), you’ll have the opportunity to do this for a specific musical work or song of your choice. Here are some questions to consider as you think about creating your own musical notation system:

  1. What are the most important musical features of the work? What are the less important musical features?
  2. What are the musical features that you would write down? Are there any that you would leave out?
  3. Would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change if you were writing down a different song or work?
  4. How would you explain your notation system to someone else?
Online Resources
  1. Inventing a Notation System (.pdf, .docx); Rubric (.pdf, .docx)


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2023 by Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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