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1-4 Duration Notation

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Pitch is one element of sound represented by very explicit symbols in music notation. Duration receives equally specific symbols. Duration symbols determine the length of time a note will sound. They are used in conjunction with other rhythmic factors such as tempo and meter markings to provide musicians with instructions on how to perform duration elements, and at what rate of speed.

The word tempo is used to describe the speed at which music is performed. Some pieces are slow, whereas others are very fast. Although tempo markings may be given in any language, Italian is frequently used to indicate the tempo. Several of the common tempo markings are given in Table 1-1.

Composers often provide performers with instructions to fluctuate the tempo speed during the performance of a composition. For example, the term “accelerando” may appear in a musical score to indicate a gradual increase in speed, whereas “ritardando” may be used to indicate a gradual decrease in speed.

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Italian English
presto very fast
allegro fast and cheerful
moderato moderate
andante a comfortable walking speed
adagio slow and at ease
largo very slow

The time signature indicates the basic beat and pattern of rhythmic divisions in a composition. It consists of two numbers, positioned one on top of the other, and appears most often at the beginning of a composition. A complete explanation of time signatures will be given in Chapter 2, but for the present time, be aware that the numbers represent the basic organization of rhythm and beats for a composition. Figure 1-12 illustrates several of the common time signatures.

Figure 1.12. Common time signatures.

Common time signatures

Bar lines divide music into a series of equal sections, based on the rhythmic organization dictated by the time signature. (see Figure 1-13)

The distance between each bar line is known as a measure (see Figure 1-13) or
a bar.

Figure 1.13. Repeat signatures.

Repeat signatures

A double bar line is used to mark the end of larger sections, or the end of a piece of music. It consists of two bar lines placed close together. At the end of a section, the bar lines are the same width. To mark the end of a piece, the second bar line is thicker than the first (see Figure 1-13).

Repeat signs indicate that a section of music should be repeated. A double bar line with two dots is placed at the end of the section of music that is to be repeated when going back to the beginning, and at the beginning and end of a section if the section does not go back to the start of the piece (see Figure 1-13).

The duration of pitches is frequently altered by symbols that specify note lengths within the context of other rhythmic properties. Indications such as legato and staccato tell the performer how each pitch should be performed, and how long the note should be held within the confines of the tempo and meter.


Various symbols and terms are used to describe specific styles of playing; legato means that the notes are to be played smoothly. Composers use a curved line called a slur to indicate legato notes (see Figure 1-14).

Figure 1.14. Slurs and staccato. Examples of duration alterations

A music piece

Staccato means to play the notes detached, and is indicated with either dots or wedges placed above or below the noteheads (see Figure 1-14).