Introduction to using written music notation

Music is heard not seen and so we all learn many tunes and songs by ear without reference to the written page.

In recognition of the importance of aural learning these tutorial pages include sound recordings and video clips which demonstrate how a tune is played on the fiddle and indicate what the tune sounds like when played with specific techniques and in a particular style.

If we wish to aid our memory by representing a tune on the page, or if we want to make written notes about how to play or sing a tune, we need to use some form of written music notation. In most tutorial and tune books conventional staff notation is used with note symbols - the dots - on a staff (or stave) of five lines.

Tune books which use staff notation give you access to a much wider repertoire than learning solely by ear. However it is only possible to interpret a tune off the page if you have first become familiar with the idiom and dialect of the appropriate regional tradition. No system of written notation can represent every detail of how a tune sounds so it is important to give careful attention to live performances and to audio and video recordings in addition to studying the written page.

Naming notes
Most traditional European fiddle music is based on scales of 8 notes. (A scale is a rearrangement of the notes of a tune into an ascending and descending sequence.) Each note is named with a letter of the alphabet from A to G (seven notes, ascending). The eighth note (the next note above G) is named A again - an eighth (or an octave) higher. Both 'A' notes sound the same - but different! The similarity and diffence can be compared to a male and female voice singing the same tune in unison but each at a different pitch (an octave apart).

Fingering

When you hold the fiddle with your hand in first position (close to the scroll and nut at the base of the fingerboard) the notes that you can play on the four strings are named and written as shown above.

The placing of all four fingers on each string is also shown in the diagram, photos and music notation below.

Pressing the tip of a finger on a string shortens the length of string free to vibrate and results in faster vibrations and a higher note. Most notes are spaced at intervals of a full tone so the fingers are spaced to allow for an in-between note to be played at a semitone interval. (These in-between notes are played with the black keys on a piano keyboard.) The semitone between G and A is named G sharp or A flat and the semitone between A and B is named A sharp or B flat and so on. This naming system is used throughout except that the interval between B & C and between E & F is only a semitone so there is no sharp or flat in-between (and no black key between those white keys on a piano).

G string (the lowest notes)

The open string (with no finger stopping the string) gives the note G below middle C. The 1st finger shortens the string to give the note A natural. There is a space below the 1st finger for playing G sharp or A flat and between the 1st and 2nd fingers for A sharp (played by moving the 1st finger up a semitone) or for B flat (moving the 2nd finger down a semitone). Similarly the space between the 3rd and 4th fingers is for playing C sharp or D flat. The 4th finger produces the same note - D - as the next open string. You can play either or both together.

D string

On this string the first two fingers are close together for the notes E and F which are only a semitone apart. Many fiddle tunes are in keys with F sharp which is played by moving the 2nd finger up close to the 3rd i.e. the same spacing as in the photo of the G string (above).

A string

This is the same spacing as on the D string. Many fiddle tunes are in keys with C sharp which is again played by moving the 2nd finger up close to the 3rd.

E string

To play F natural on the E string the 1st finger has to be close to the nut at the bottom of the finger board. To play F sharp it is moved up close to the 2nd finger which is the same spacing as shown for the A string (above).

This link will open a new window for a Music Notation Reference page with more information on how music is written. It is a copy of page 12 of the YDW publication How to Play Folk Fiddle.

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