Illustrated music theory

Music theory, specially adapted for the guitar, based on famous melodies



Is it necessary to know music theory to read a guitar score?

It is necessary… unless the score is accompanied (or replaced) by a “tablature”, i.e. a visual representation of the six strings of the guitar and the places on the neck of the instrument where the fingers of the left hand (or right hand for left-handed players) must be placed. This is the case for all the famous pieces (nearly 450 to date) adapted in Guitaranthem.

This music theory course is therefore by no means indispensable for any guitarist, beginner or experienced, to be able to play any of these pieces.

But knowledge of music theory obviously opens up other perspectives, whether or not related to the guitar: learning another instrument, easily joining a choir, etc.

It is not very difficult to learn the notions of music theory necessary to be able to read guitar scores. You can even learn to play your first guitar pieces at the same time, and read the corresponding scores. Music theory in this course will be reduced to the essentials. In Guitaranthem, certain melodies, easy to play, will be suitable for this double discovery.

It is also possible, of course, to carry out small, easy and progressive technical learning exercises: there are many on the Internet. But famous melodies such as those chosen to appear on this site are obviously more beautiful, and therefore more pleasant to play.

Other pieces are not so easy, and you will be able to discover them, if you feel like it, after a few weeks or months of learning. The lists of the 450 or so scores/tablatures available to date are accompanied by a difficulty scale, from 1 to 5, from the easiest (1) to the most difficult (5), to enable you to make a choice, and for beginners a selection of pieces of progressive difficulty.

Even with the help of tablature – an effective and recommended way to work – you will spend a lot of time studying your first score, identifying the notes and reproducing them on your guitar, but you will see that for the following ones it will be much easier.

I. Theoretical course

The notions dealt with in Part I concern music theory in a general way. The notions specific to the practice of the guitar will be dealt with in part II.

The observation of the first bars of the adaptation of a melody is enough to discover most of the notions necessary to the reading of a guitar score. Let us begin with the famous “Scarborough Fair”, sung by P. Simon and A. Garfunkel, among others. Double click on the picture to access the video corresponding to the score/tablature.

Figure 1 : « Scarborough Fair », Traditional
Figure 1 : « Scarborough Fair », Traditional

1. The tablature, easy to read, and the score, necessary to indicate the fingerings

Let’s start by reading the tablature (“TAB”), systematically presented under the score in Guitaranthem.

  1. On the tablature, what do the lines (horizontal, vertical) and numbers represent?
  2. The six horizontal lines represent the six strings of the guitar, from the highest (1st string, above) to the lowest (6th string, below).

    The numbers appearing on the tablature for each string represent the fretboard of the guitar neck, from low to high. “0” means that a string must be played “open”, i.e. without pressing on the guitar neck, which would shorten it and thus make the sound higher.

    The vertical lines across the six lines (corresponding to those across the score above) divide the song into “bars”, or sets of beats. In this case, it is a “three-beat” measure (the one used in all waltzes, for example), as indicated at the beginning of the score. Three beats of the value of a “quarter note” (see below for explanations of individual bars), as indicated by “4”.

    If we look at the first bar, we can see that all the notes will be played by pressing the fingers of the left hand on the second fret, except for the third note, a bass, which is obtained by plucking the 5th string “open”, without pressing a fret.

  3. Fingering: on the score, not on the tablature!
  4. The “fingerings” (i.e. the number of each finger of the left hand – or right hand for left-handers – which must press a fret), in Guitaranthem, are indicated on the score itself, and not on the tablature, so as not to clutter it up.

    1= index finger, 2 = middle finger, 3 = ring finger, 4 = little finger. In classical and melodic guitar (unlike the electric guitar, for example, for many guitarists), the thumb is not used to press the neck, it only supports it. This is why there are only these 4 numbers, and not 5, to indicate fingering.

    “0” means an “open” string, but generally, to lighten the score, it is not indicated. A note preceded by no number therefore usually means that it must be played “open”.

    This is the case of the 3rd note in bar 1, the 5th open string, and the same note is found in bars 2 and 4. In the second bar, the melody plays the first open string three times. In the third bar, the melody plays the second open string twice, and the accompaniment plays the third open string once. Before last note of the fourth bar: 6th open string.

    Apart from the open strings, also to lighten the score, fingering is also not indicated when the same note is played in the same way several times in the same bar. For example, in the first bar, the second note must be played three times in the same way (the second finger – the middle finger – presses the second fret).

    With a bit of practice, even without the tablature (which always indicates open strings) you will easily distinguish between notes “without fingering”, those that must be played open (always the same, there are only 6, since there are six strings…), and those whose fingering has already been indicated previously.

    So you can see that in the first 4 bars of this piece, only the first 3 fingers of the left hand are used, and that strings played empty (which is a facility) appear in each bar.

  5. The duration of notes
  6. Modern tablatures make it possible, as here, to show the duration of notes. This was not the case until recently; tablatures were therefore only used in accompaniment guitar, and indicated which “chords” (sets of several simultaneous or “arpeggiated” notes) had to be played.

    This notation of durations imitates the notation of the durations of the scores themselves. It is therefore useful, even if you plan to be content reading tablatures without learning smusic theory, to see what is said about note lengths later in this course.

    Thus, in the score as in the tablature, you can observe “brackets” (there are some in bars 1, 2 and 3), sometimes linked in groups of 2 (this is the case in all 4 bars), “black notes” (everywhere) or “white notes” (bars 1 and 4), sometimes followed by a dot (bars 2 and 4): all these correspond to note lengths.

    Let’s anticipate if you have courage (but it is not essential, all this will be explained in detail later): here, the shortest length is the “eighth note” (in the shape of a crotchet), which is worth ½ beat. The “quarter note” (in black) is worth two “eighth notes” and the “half note ” (in white) is worth two “quarter notes”. The dot to the right of a note increases its duration by half.

    Thus, the accompaniment (stems down) of the first bar has 6 eighth notes (enough to fill the 3 beats of the bar), and the melody (stems up) consists of a half note (2 beats) followed by a quarter note (1 beat). The “dotted quarter notes” in bars 2 and 3 are therefore each worth 1 beat ½ (or 3 eighth notes), and the “dotted half note” of the melody in the fourth bar is worth 3 beats: it therefore fills the whole bar.

    Similarly, modern tablatures imitate scores in the way they distinguish between melody and accompaniment. Notes with the “stem” (tail) pointing upward (small vertical lines at the top of the tablature) represent the melody, and those with the stem pointing downward represent the bass and the accompaniment, which should generally be at a lower volume than the melody.

    Some notes are part of both the melody and the accompaniment. The tablature does not indicate this (it merely represents this note only once), and in this case there are two possible solutions on the score: either they have two stems, one up and one down (first bar, 5th note), or the note is written twice (first note of the first bar), but is played only once.

    Exercise (if you feel like it…): you already know enough to be able to read the beginning of this famous song. Start by locating – and playing – only the melody (upward stems, there are 9 notes) then only the accompaniment (downward stems, there are 19 notes), then try to play the whole, respecting the fingerings indicated in front of each note in the score (above the tablature).

    Having trouble? It’s quite normal, that’s a lot of notions at once… But hang on, read this first tablature as well as you can, and you’ll see that it will be much easier for the following ones. Work very slowly, take the time to look for each note, and place it in the right place, at the right time, pressing (or not) with the right finger of your left hand, and play the same short sequence many times, until all the notes sound clear: this way, your progress will be fast.

2. In a score : Five lines, not six: why?

The five horizontal lines do not represent the strings of the guitar (unlike the six lines of a tablature), but allow the identification of musical notes, which can be written under a line, on the line, or above the line. You will notice that on many occasions small lines are added below the five main lines (this is the case for “bars” 2 to 5, separated by a vertical line).

Also, sometimes small lines are added above this set of 5 lines, called “staff”. These small additional lines, calle “ ledger lines ”, are necessary when certain notes are too low or too high to appear on all five lines of the staff.

The notes usually played on a guitar range from “low E”, under the third ledger line below the staff (bar 5), to “high E”, on the third ledger line above the staff. Solos by experienced guitarists sometimes go beyond this high E, but most of the time guitar pieces do not reach it.

3. The « treble clef »

The nice rounded sign appearing at the very beginning of the staff is a “treble clef”. Its central curve starts on the second line, thus indicating that the note “G” is written there, and thus allowing to identify all the other notes.

There are other keys (“F” and “C”), represented by other signs, used for other instruments. The “F key” is used, for example, to write the notes played by the left hand on the piano. But for the guitar, it’s easy: only the treble clef (or “ G key ” is used).

4. Here is a staff showing the range of notes playable on the guitar

This staff shows only the unaltered notes (i.e. those corresponding to the white keys of the piano only, we’ll talk about this later), from low “E” to high “E”; but it is obviously possible, on a guitar, to play all the intermediate notes, corresponding to the black keys of the piano, as well.

Figure 2 : Notes jouables à la guitare
Figure 2 : Playable notes on the guitar

5. Before moving on to the guitar, let's look at a piano keyboard

If you have a piano keyboard (or a virtual keyboard, which is very easy to find and download for free on the Web), you can locate all the notes on this keyboard, one by one: this will help you to play them on a guitar afterwards. 

Here is the piano keyboard, showing all the notes that can be played on the guitar, try to remember their names. You can even play (on this keyboard, for the moment) the beginning of the famous “Scarbourough Fair” melody (above, figure 1), without the accompaniment: this melody is easy to distinguish between bass and accompaniment notes, because the notes that make up the melody have a stem pointing upwards, while the stem of each note that makes up the bass or accompaniment is pointing downwards.

Figure 3 : Clavier de piano
Figure 3 : Piano keyboard (design: Basile Mogenet)

Little exercise: after tuning your instrument (if you don’t have a tuner at home, look on the Web for an “online guitar tuner”, and make sure that the tones of the six strings are at the same pitch as those on the site), make the six strings of your guitar sound “open”; try to remember the names of the six notes obtained: E, B, G, D, A, E, from the highest (string No. 1) to the lowest (string No. 6).

This numbering is important, because it will be found here and there on the scores, in the form of numbers (1 to 6) contained in a circle (see Chapter II, 4). 

You can possibly extend this exercise by looking on the fingerbooard of your guitar, near the “ nut ” (on the side of the tuning keys), where to form the other notes corresponding to the first 11 other white keys of the keyboard above (starting from the bass, F, G, B, C, E, F, A, D, F, G), knowing that a piano key (white or black) corresponds to a guitar fret.

6. Accidentals : sharps and flats

You can see that the notes corresponding to a black piano key are called “sharp” (“#”) or “flat” (“b”) depending on whether they are just above (sharp) or just below (flat) the white key that gives them their name: these notes can therefore be given two different names. On a score, the # (sharp) sign, which resembles a small scale, or the “b” (flat) sign influences the notes in front of which they are located by a “semitone” up (“#”) or down (“b”).

7. « Key signature » at the beginning of the piece

Often this sign, # or b, is placed at the beginning of the piece. In this case, it influences all the notes corresponding to it. For example, take the beginning of “Auld Lang Syne”:

Figure 4 : « Ce n'est qu'un au revoir », Frank C. Stanley
Figure 4 : « Auld Lang Syne », Frank C. Stanley

The “#” (sharp) sign is placed on the top line, like an “F”. In this example, two of the three “F” notes are therefore “sharp”, regardless of their pitch. The third, at bar 4, is not, we shall see later why, but you have probably already understood, if you have observed it properly. A “F sharp” (a black key on the piano keyboard) appears in the second bar (the first being a single note), and another one at the very bottom of the third bar. Since the # sign is placed at the beginning of the piece, it should not be rewritten in front of each note concerned.

Little exercise: you can try to find on the piano keyboard where these two “F #” are located.

Let’s take the same melody, but transpose it higher. We are (next figure, 5) in “C major”; the first full bar begins with a C in the bass – see the stem downwards – as well as in the melody. There are no “key signature ”, but it is necessary this time for the harmony of the accompaniment to place a “b” sign in front of the “B” in bar 4 in the accompaniment, thus transforming a “normal B” (or “B Natural”) into “B-flat,” a black key on the piano keyboard.

Figure 5 : « Ce n'est qu'un au revoir » (Do Maj.), Frank C. Stanley
Figure 5 : « Auld Lang Syne » (C Maj.), Frank C. Stanley

Little exercise: you can try playing the melody (only the upper notes with the stem up) on a piano keyboard. Let’s wait a little longer for the guitar – unless you really want to anticipate – for the moment it’s mostly about music theory, finding the notes, and not yet about guitar technique.

8. The « natural » removes an accidental that has been set to the key signature

Sometimes the composer, in spite of this leading “#” or “b” sign, may wish the note concerned, at a certain moment, to be unaffected by this sign (and thus correspond to a white key on the piano). In this case, he writes another sign (“natural”) next to that note.

Let us take up ” Auld Lang Syne ” in the adaptation in G major (Fig. 4): this is the case at bar 4, for the “F” in the accompaniment; at this place, as an exception to the rest of the piece, it should not be played sharply, but “F natural” . On the piano keyboard, therefore, a white key, not a black one.

Little exercise: Try playing the melody (upper notes, ascending tems) of the G-major adaptation of “Auld Lang Syne”(Figure 4) on the keyboard. Try adding the “F natural”.

9. The order in the key signature

The number and the order in which accidentals appear in the key signature depend on the key in which each piece is written.  

For sharps, F C G D A E B, by “ascending fifths” (explained below). 

For flats, it is the opposite: B E A D G C F,  which appear as “descending fifths”. 

For example, in “C major” or “A minor”, there is no accidental. In “G major” or “E minor”, there is a “F sharp” (as above, for “Auld Lang Syne”).  In F major there is a “B flat”. Since this key is not very easy to play on a guitar, it is not used in Guitaranthem, nor is any other key involving flats in the key signature. 

10. The keys, the accidentals

To facilitate both reading and interpretation, all Guitaranthem pieces have been written in keys limiting the number of accidentals, generally in C major (no key signature, therefore, as well as in “A minor”) or in G major (just one F# at the key, as well as in “E minor”).

But some melodies have been adapted in another key. For example, “Happy Birthday to you” (below), to make it fairly easy to play on the guitar, is adapted to D major, which means that it has two sharps in the key signature : F# and C# (figure 6).

You can see that the first bass note is a “D”: this first note – at least the first note of the first full bar, as some pieces begin at the end of a bar – is most often used to determine in which key a melody is written. The “C” in bar 2 is therefore in fact a “C #” (black key on a piano), since it is in the key signature.

Figure 6 : « Happy Birthday to you », Patty Hill et Mildred J. Hill
Figure 6 : « Happy Birthday to you », Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill

However, some composers sometimes prefer to depart from this rule, and place accidental alterations instead of key signatuyre. This is the case, for example, with John Williams, for the beginning of his famous “Hedwig’s Theme” (Figure 6 Bis) in “Harry Potter”. This melody is written in the key of E minor, so an F# is expected, but the composer preferred to insert each F# on the score itself, along with many other accidentals due to the harmonic richness of the passage. 

The guitar adaptation respects both this harmonic richness and the way the composer intended to indicate the accidentals. This absolute respect for Williams’ score also explains the relative complexity of the fingering, which constantly moves the guitarist from one end of the neck to the other.

Figure 6 bis : « Harry Potter, Hedwig's Theme », John Williams
Figure 6 bis : « Harry Potter, Hedwig's Theme », John Williams

Exercise: determine the key in which a piece is written.

As a small (fairly easy) exercise in “ determining the key ” in which a melody is written, by identifying the first note (bass, most often) of the first full bar, you can observe the beginning of some of the adaptations contained in Guitaranthem, in the “ famous melodies ”. It is not necessary to download the complete scores, the beginning of each score/tablature appears when you click on its name.

What is the key of “Someone like you”, by Adèle Adkins? What is the tone of Brel’s “Quand on n’a qu’on n’a que l’amour”? Of Handel’s “Glory be to you”? Of “O Suzanna”? Of “Quizas, quizas, quizas”? Of “Shenandoah”? Of “Titanic” ? Of  “Little Santa Claus” ? oF “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ? Of “Belle-île-en-mer” ?

It should be added, however, that this rule “from the first note of the first full bar” is not absolute; in some cases, this note and the key of the piece are different. For example, the children’s song “Maman les p’tits bateaux” (figure 7) begins with a G, but the key is “C”, which only appears at the beginning of the second full bar. But if the melody had 4 beats instead of 2 per bar, the “rule” would work.

Figure 7 : « Maman les p'tits bateaux / Ainsi font les marionnettes », Chansons tradictionnelles
Figure 7 : « Mom, the Little Boats / So Do Little Puppets », Chansons traditionnelles

11. On a guitar, how do you change the tone of a piece?

The keys of all the melodies present in Guitaranthem have been chosen to represent the best possible compromise between ease of execution and comfort of the ear: too high would multiply the difficulties, often to the point of making the score almost unplayable; too low is often less beautiful and less sonorous.

Some adaptations are nevertheless written quite low, as this is the only way to make them affordable for the guitar. But if you want them to sound higher, it is always possible to use a “capo”, a small instrument that reduces the length of the neck, and therefore of the strings: the fingering does not change, but the key of the whole is transposed upwards.

Some of the adaptations presented in Guitaranthem, and therefore visible on you Tube, have been recorded twice; first, in the key of the score, and then with a capodaster, so that the ensemble sounds higher. This is the case, in particular, with « The Sound of the Silence », the beginning of which is given below:

Figure 8 : « The Sound of Silence », Paul Simon
Figure 8 : « The Sound of Silence », Paul Simon

If you place a capo on the third fret of the guitar neck, the whole will sound “3 semitones” higher.

The guitar equipped with the “capo” thus becomes a “transposing instrument,” like, for example, a clarinet, whose scores written in “C” actually sound in “Bb” or “A,” depending on the instrument.

For the guitar, it is a very simple way to play easily in keys that would be too difficult without capodaster.

This technique can be used for many melodies if they are too low, or if you wish, for example, to accompany voices in a higher key, but it has the disadvantage of depriving the interpretation of the lowest notes that can be played on a guitar, which contribute to the balance and warmth of the whole.

It is important to remember, therefore, that if the guitarist uses a capo, the score does not change, nor the fingerings, and he continues to “think” the names of the musical notes as he reads them, but the notes obtained are different, higher.

12. Different adaptations of the same piece

To avoid the disadvantages of the capo, while allowing guitarists to choose between two different keys, in Guitaranthem some melodies have been adapted in two different ways. In these cases, given the configuration of the instrument, the notes that accompany the melody (bass, etc.) are not a simple upward transposition (as is the case with a capo): the accompaniment changes completely.

Thus, for example, the two versions of “ Auld Lang Syne ” reproduced above, or those, below, of “El Condor Pasa”, or those of the French (“la Marseillaise”) and Russian national anthems.
Figure 9 : « El Condor Pasa » (A min / La min), Daniel Alomia Robles
Figure 9 : « El Condor Pasa » (A min / La min), Daniel Alomia Robles

Note that the key “A minor” (above), like “C major,” has no accidental in the key signature. Similarly, the key “E minor” (below) functions as “G major,” and thus has a sharp key, F#.

Figure 10 : « El Condor Pasa » (E min / Mi min), Daniel Alomia Robles
Figure 10 : « El Condor Pasa » (E min / Mi min), Daniel Alomia Robles
Figure 11 : « La Marseillaise » (Do Majeur), Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Figure 11 : « La Marseillaise » (Do Majeur), Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Figure 12 : « La Marseillaise » (Ré Majeur), Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Figure 12 : « La Marseillaise » (Ré Majeur), Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Figure 13 : « Russia, National Anthem » (C Maj), Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov
Figure 13 : « Russia, National Anthem » (C Maj), Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov
Figure 14 : « Russia, National Anthem » (G Maj), Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov
Figure 14 : « Russia, National Anthem » (G Maj), Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov

13. Why and how do sharps and flats appear when you change the key?

This theoretical chapter is not essential for reading a score, and you can do without it very well, but it allows you to better understand these phenomena.

As you can see above, with the different versions of the French and Russian hymns, changing a melody’s pitch, and therefore its “key”, implies the appearance of alterations. Each key therefore has its own “ key signature ”, its own set of accidentals, automatically influencing all the notes concerned.  

Without going into detail, and to explain it in a very condensed way, the appearance – or not – of a different number of sharps or flats in the key signature for each of the 12 keys, or scales (C, C # or D b, D, D # or E b, E, F, F# or G b, G, G # or A b, A, A # or B b, B) obeys this rule :

the intervals between each note of each scale, as they appear when playing the scales of “C major” (C D E F G A B C) or “A minor” (A B C D E F G A) – that is, on a piano keyboard, only the white keys) – these intervals, therefore, which vary between one “ semitone ” (or half-tone) and one tone (a “ whole step ”) (each note being separated – or not – from the next by a black key) should remain the same if the scale is changed, i.e. the bottom note(s), is/are changed.

To make this explanation clearer which may at first glance be a little obscure, use the keyboard shown in Figure 4, and try it out on a real or virtual piano keyboard (for a virtual keyboard, press each key with the mouse or your computer keyboard).

You’ll easily see, for example, that in order to keep the intervals in C major – that is, without any black keys – the same if you switch to G major (i.e., if you take G as the first note of the scale), you’ll necessarily have to press a black key (F #, in this case).

If you want to transpose your scale (or melody) to D major, 2 sharps will appear (F#, C#). Starting from F, for the scale of F major, there will be a flat (Bb). If you want to start from a Bb, for a Bb major scale, it will be 2 flats (Bb, Eb). Etc.

These intervals, for the C major scale (they will therefore remain the same for the other 11 major scales), as you will see, are as follows: from C to D, 1 tone (so we skipped a black key); from D to E, 1 tone (idem); from E to F, a semitone (there is no black key between E and F), from F to G, 1 tone; from G to A, 1 tone; from A to B, 1 tone; from B to C, a semitone.

For the other major scales (which begin on notes other than C), these intervals will therefore be the same, i.e.: from note 1 to note 2: 1 tone / from note 2 to note 3: 1 tone / from 3 to 4: 1 tone / from 4 to 5: 1 tone / from 5 to 6: 1 tone / from 6 to 7: 1 tone / from 7 to 8 (8 is the same as 1, but an “octave” higher): ½ tone.

In summary: 1-1- ½ -1-1-1- ½

If we do the same exercise, for example, in the key of “A major”, so starting our scale with the note A, we get this:
-1 tone between “A” (base note, white key, on the piano), and “B” (white key)
-1 tone between “B” and “C # – sharp – (black key)
– ½ tone between “C#” and “D” (white key)
– 1 tone between “D” and “E” (white key)
-1 tone between “E” and “F#” (black key)
-1 tone between “F#” and “G#” (black key)
– ½ tone between G# and A (white key, at the octave of the first mentioned).

14. What about the minor scales?

The principle is the same for minor scales. Without going into detail (there are several kinds of minor scales), let’s just remember that the essential difference between a major scale and a minor scale lies in a single note: the third. If it is two tones (four piano keys, that is) higher than the fundamental note, the scale is major.  If it is only 1 tone ½ higher than the base note (or “ root note ”) (3 piano keys), the scale is minor.

You can do the exercise on a piano keyboard with the scale of “C”, it is the note “E” that will vary, natural in C major, flat in C minor. The continuation of the minor scale may vary, but the “E” (or “third” for any scale) must be flat, in C minor.

This simple difference produces, roughly speaking, a “happier” melody in the major key and a “more melancholy” melody in the minor key. But this is a very general definition, and there are many nuances or exceptions.

Nevertheless, you can try it out, for example on a piano keyboard: starting at C, play “Brother John” as it is usually sung, then play this little melody again, replacing the “major third” (E) with a “minor third” (Eb): the melody, originally quite joyful, will become sad.

Figure 15 : « Frère Jacques / Brother John », Chansons traditionnelles
Figure 15 : « Frère Jacques / Brother John », Traditional Songs

15. The Time Signature

A piece of music is divided into a certain number of bars (“measures”) of equal length, separated by vertical lines crossing the 5 lines of the staff. The type of measure (Time Signature) is written at the beginning of the piece, in the form of two superimposed numbers. The lower one indicates the unit of time, and the upper one the number of beats (or pulses) per bar. The most commonly used time unit is the “quarter note” (the next chapter will deal with note lengths), represented by the number 4 below.

In “Yellow submarine” (below), it is therefore a 4-beat measure, the unit of which is a “quarter note”: this is the most common rhythm in modern music and song. Note that the first bar is very incomplete (these two notes are played on a single beat): this is often the case.

Figure 16 : « Yellow Submarine », John Lennon et Paul Mc Cartney
Figure 16 : « Yellow Submarine », John Lennon and Paul Mc Cartney

Since we have two legs, the “Marchs” are usually written in 2 steps. This is the case for a number of national anthems, including that of China:

Figure 17 : « China (Republic of China), National Anthem », Nie Er
Figure 17 : « China (Republic of China), National Anthem », Nie Er

If the piece of music is in the form of a “waltz”, each bar will have 3 beats, hence the number 3, above. This is the case of the famous “Lullaby” by J. Brahms:

Figure 18 : « Berceuse / Lullaby », Johannes Brahms
Figure 18 : « Berceuse / Lullaby », Johannes Brahms

Nevertheless, a three-beat rhythm does not necessarily imply a real “waltz”.  The American anthem, for example, is written in 3 beats :

Figure 19 : « United States of America, National Anthem », John Stafford Smith
Figure 19 : « United States of America, National Anthem », John Stafford Smith

This is also the case of the UK’s “God Save the Queen” (whose melody is the same as that of the Liechstenstein anthem):

Figure 20 : « United Kingdom, National Anthem »
Figure 20 : « United Kingdom, National Anthem »

The unit of time is not necessarily a “quarter-note” (“4”). It is sometimes, for example, an eighth note, represented by an “8”.

For example, the score of “ For he is a Jolly Good Fellow ”, below, is written in 6/8, which means that a bar consists of 6 eighth notes, or the equivalent (for example, a “ dotted quarter note ” and three eighth notes; or, as in bars 2 and 3 of our example, a quarter note + an eighth note, and a set of 3 eighth-notes). The measure chosen by John Williams for “ Hedwig’s Theme ” (above, figure 6 bis) is rather rare: 3/8, i.e. three eighth notes are enough to fill a measure.

Figure 21 : « For he's a Jollygood Fellow »
Figure 21 : « For he's a Jollygood Fellow »

There are also more complicated looking measures, for example, in 12/8, as in “ The House of the Rising Sun ”, below (Figure 22). In reality it is a 4-step measure, but each of them is broken down into 3 parts (“eighth notes”, hence the “8”).

16. The length of the notes

Let’s go back to the beginning of the score “The The House of the Rising Sun” in order to finish with the essential notions.

Figure 22 : « The House of the Rising Sun », American folk song
Figure 22 : « The House of the Rising Sun », American folk song

A musical score has a very simple system for indicating note lengths.

When a note appears in the form of a small black circle extended by a stem, it is worth “1 beat” and is called “quarter note” (1/4th note).

If this quarter note forms a “flag” (like the first note of our “the House of the Rising Sun” score), it is worth half a beat, and is called “eighth note” (1/8th). So two eighth notes (most often connected by a “ beam ”, as in the beginning of “Yellow submarine”, or the beginning of the American anthem, above), are equivalent to one quarter note.

Here, in “The House of the Rising Sun”, for a rhythmic reason, the eighth notes are connected in groups of three, and are therefore equivalent to “1 quarter note and a half”, which is called “dotted quarter note”.

One ‘sixteenth note’ (16th) is worth a quarter of a quarter note, so 2 sixteenth notes are equivalent to an eighth note, which is the case at the end of bar 4 of  ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. Below (figure 23), an example from “Imagine”, by J. Lennon, with a group of 4 sixteenth notes: they are therefore worth one quarter note.

Visually, the score also shows that these 4 sixteenth notes of the melody are equivalent to the bass quarter note (F, under the staff). Then the introduction to “Someone like you” (figure 24), like the piano at the beginning of Adèle’s song, shows us that there are 16 sixteenth notes in one bar of 4 quarter notes.

There are also thirty-second (32th) and sixty-fourth (64th) notes (“demisemiquaver” and “hemidemisemiquaver)”, and even smaller units, but they are much rarer. None of Guitaranthem’s scores have them.

Figure 23 : « Someone Like You », Adele Adkins et Dan Wilson
Figure 23 : « Someone Like You », Adele Adkins and Dan Wilson

The values greater than the quarter note are the “half note” (or “ minim ”)(which is worth 2 beats, 2 quarter notes), and the “whole note” (“ semibreve ”), which is worth 4 quarter notes.

Like the half note, the “whole note” appears as a small empty circle. The half note has a stem, not the whole note.

The first bars of the introduction to ‘Hasta Siempre’ (‘Che Guevarra’, figure 24) have several ‘whole notes’ (4 beats), superimposed to form three-note chords. Half notes (2 beats) also appear in the accompaniment of the first two bars, as well as in the bass of the fifth bar.

Figure 24 : « Hasta Siempre », Carlos Puebla
Figure 24 : « Hasta Siempre », Carlos Puebla

17. Dotted notes

Several excerpts presented here contain notes followed by a dot, known as “dotted notes”. Half of these should be added to their value. Thus, a “dotted half note” is worth 3 quarter notes (one half note + one quarter note), a “dotted quarter note” is worth 3 eighth notes (one quarter note + one eighth note), and a “dotted eighth note” is worth 3 sixteenth notes (one eighth note + one sixteenth note).

Thus, the “dotted quarter note”, the first note of the melody of “Imagine”, below (figure 25), is worth 3 quarter notes.

Figure 25 : « Imagine », John Lennon
Figure 25 : « Imagine », John Lennon

A 16th note often joins the dotted eighth note to complete the beat. This is the case, for example, in the two children’s songs “London Bridge” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, which are combined into a single score in Guitaranthem (Figure 26).

Figure 26 : « London Brige + Row, Row, Row Your Boat », Tradionals
Figure 26 : « London Brige + Row, Row, Row Your Boat », Tradionals

This “dotted eighth-note/ sixteenth-note” sequence generally adds liveliness to a melody, and is therefore often used in “marches”, i.e. in many national anthems.

Exercise: From the examples and figures already mentioned, choose one or more melodies (with the ascending stems) in which dotted notes appear, and study how all the notes of different lengths (or not) fill exactly the desired total number of beats per bar.

For example: at the beginning of “Imagine”, a dotted half note (G) is worth three beats (or three quarter notes). To fill the bar in 4 beats, there is one beat left, consisting of two eighth notes (B, C). Be careful, it is possible that “rests” may appear within certain bars, in addition to the notes. See paragraph 19.

18. Linked similar notes

It is often the case that a written note should not be played when it is an extension of the same note written just before. Thus in “Bella Ciao” (Fig. 27), the first “A” of the second bar, as well as that of the third (these notes are “dotted quarter notes”), joined to the same note by a linking sign, cover the beginning of the third beat.

Figure 27 : « Bella Ciao », Italian Protest Folk Song
Figure 27 : « Bella Ciao », Italian Protest Folk Song

19. The triplets

A final important notion concerning the length of notes is the notion of “triplets”. When three notes of the same length are surmounted by the number 3, they are actually worth two, in terms of the length of their execution.

For example (Figure 28) in “My Way”, at bars 2 and 3, the three eighth notes are worth two, i.e. one beat.

Other combinations are possible for a triplet. For example, an eighth note and a quarter note, topped by the triplet’s “3” sign, are also worth one quarter note. Or a quarter note and a “eight-rest”, i.e. a “rest” of the duration of an eighth note. For the rests, see chap. 20.

Figure 28 : « My Way / Comme d'Habitude », Claude François et Jacques Revaux
Figure 28 : « My Way / Comme d'Habitude », Claude François and Jacques Revaux

Many national anthems use triplets, either for the melody (Ecuador, bar 2, figure 29) or for the ‘arpeggios’ – the notes of a chord played successively – that accompany the melody (Croatia, figure 30).  Similarly above (figure 20), for the United Kingdom’s “God Save the Queen”.

Figure 29 : « Ecuador, Himno Nacional », Antonio Neumane
Figure 29 : « Ecuador, Himno Nacional », Antonio Neumane
Figure 30 : « Croatia, National Anthem », Josip Runjamin
Figure 30 : « Croatia, National Anthem », Josip Runjamin

Although eighth note triplets are the most common, they are not the only ones. For example, at the beginning of the melody of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderfuld World” (figure 31), in bars 3 and 4, there are two different triplets in the same measure: a triplet of quarter notes in the melody (thus worth two quarter notes, 2 beats), followed by a triplet of eighth notes (worth two eighth notes, 1 beat) in the accompaniment.

Figure 31 : « What a Wonderful World », Louis Armstrong
Figure 31 : « What a Wonderful World », Louis Armstrong

20. « Rests »

In the excerpt from ‘My Way’ (Figure 28), or in the last bar of ‘Yesterday’, by P. Mac Cartney (Figure 32), ‘rests’ appear. They are of varying lengths, equivalent to the duration of the notes, and indicate that no notes are to be played at that time.

In the excerpt from “ May Way ”, they appear in the main melody (not in the bass or accompaniment); here they are “ eight rests ”, equivalent to an eighth note, supplemented by an eighth note to form a full beat.

In ‘Yesterday’ it is a “ quarter rest ”, at the beginning of the second bar. It is equivalent to a quarter note; the six eighth notes that follow will complete the 4 beats of the bar.

Figure 32 : « Yesterday », Paul Mc Cartney
Figure 32 : « Yesterday », Paul Mc Cartney

There are also longer rests,  the whole rest (which is worth one whole note, so 4 beats) and the half rest (which occupies the same amount of time as a half note, so 2 beats). Here is an example of a half rest at the beginning of the hymn “You’ll Never walk alone”, dear to Liverpool fans … (Figure 33) :

Figure 33 : « You'll never Walk Alone », O. Hammerstein et R. Rodgers
Figure 33 : « You'll never Walk Alone », O. Hammerstein and R. Rodgers

Note that there is another way, already observed above, of starting a piece with an incomplete measure, without any rest : the “ pickup bar ”. Like in the score of the Brazilian national anthem (Figure 34):

Figure 34 : « Brazil, National Anthem », Francisco Manuel Da Silva
Figure 34 : « Brazil, National Anthem », Francisco Manuel Da Silva

There are hardly any whole rests in Guitaranthem (of a duration of 4 beats, therefore), short black lines hanging on the fourth line, and not deposited on the third, as in the figure above, for the half rest.

As for the corresponding note durations, all rests can be “dotted”.

This is the case at the beginning of the Belgian national anthem (figure 35), with a “dotted half  rest” (following a half rest), which is equivalent to a “dotted eighth note”.

Very logically, the note that follows, in this case the first note of the anthem, will be a sixteenth note, so as to produce a full beat. Note the dynamic repetition of the “dotted eigh-note/ sixteenth note” sequence here as well.

Figure 35 : « Belgium, National Anthem », François Van Campenhout
Figure 35 : « Belgium, National Anthem », François Van Campenhout

21. The tempo

Above the first bar, the tempo of the piece (i.e. the speed at which it should be played) is given by the unit of time accompanied by a number. Many national anthems are played at about “100 to the quarter note”, which means that in one minute there are 100 beats of the duration of a quarter note, 100 “beats”.

The tempo is indicated like this (for example, in ‘Love me tender’, figure 36, slower, 85 beats per minute).

Figure 36 : « Love Me, Tender », Elvis Presley
Figure 36 : « Love Me, Tender », Elvis Presley

In  “ For he is…” ” (figure 37), the unit of time is different: it is a “dotted quarter note” (1 beat ½ ). 97 beats in one minute, for this piece, seems to be a suitable tempo.

Only a device called “metronome”, which beats time, allows to play exactly at the specified tempo. In Guitaranthem, the tempo is not always indicated, which leaves more freedom of interpretation to the guitarist.

Figure 37 : « For he's a Jollygood Fellow »
Figure 37 : « For he's a Jollygood Fellow »

22. Repetition

This “ repeat sign ”,  a double barline followed by two dots, here at the end of Adamo’s “Tombe la neige” (bars 24 to 29) (figure 38), indicates that the passage that follows, up to the same sign this time preceded by the double dot, will have to be played twice. 

Most of the time, the last bar or bars of the passage in question will be different, with the second ending allowing the continuation to follow. Bars 28 and 29 show how these two ends of a repetition are scored. The second time, one must “jump over” the “1.”, and thus move on to the “2.”

Figure 38 : « Tombe la neige », Salvatore Adamo
Figure 38 : « Tombe la neige », Salvatore Adamo

23. « Go to the Coda »

Other indications can also be used to reduce the space of a score when passages are repeated. For example, in “Hey Jude” by P. Mac Cartney (Figure 39), “al coda” means to go to the end of the score (“coda”).

Figure 39 : Hey Jude, P. Mac Cartney
Figure 39 : Hey Jude, P. Mac Cartney

24. « Da capo »

Between bars 22 and 23 of this excerpt from “Hey Jude”, “D. C.”. (Da Capo) means going back to the beginning of the piece.

25. « Al Segno », « Al Fine » (« to the sign », « to the end »)

When this “sign” is encountered, as in “Guantanamera” at the beginning of bar 6 (figure 40), it should not be taken into account immediately, but once we get to the “D.S.” (‘Dal Segno’), in this case in bar 25, you have to go back to this “ Sign ” and start again from there.

Figure 40 : Guantanamera, Cançion tradicional de Cuba
Figure 40 : Guantanamera, Traditional Cuban customs

In the following triple example (figures 41, 42, 43), taken from the national anthem of Costa Rica, the indication “D.S. al fine” in bar 28 means that once there, it will be necessary to go back to the “sign” (bar 2) and play back to “Fine” (bar 8), which marks the end of the piece. In this case, the end of the piece does not coincide with the end of the score, which is 28 bars long.

Figures 41, 42, 43 : « Costa Rica, national anthem », Manuel Maria Gutierrez

Figure 41 : « signe », mes. 2
Figure 41 : 'sign', bar. 2
Figure 42 : « Fine », fin du morceau, à la mesure 8
Figure 42 : "fine": end of the piece, at bar 8
Figure 43 : « Dal Segno al Fine »
Figure 43 : " from sign to end "

26. Slowing down, etc.

Indications of tempo variations – ritardando, rallentando, a tempo, etc. – are given by “Italian terms”, often abbreviated. For example, very often it is appropriate to slow down at the end of a melody.

Here, the slowing down at the end of ‘You ‘ll Never Walk Alone’ (Fig. 44) is necessary, as in many hymns.

Figure 44 : « You’ll Never Walk Alone » O. Hammerstein et R. Rodgers
Figure 44 : « You’ll Never Walk Alone » O. Hammerstein and R. Rodgers

27. Ritenuto / a tempo

The expression “ Ritardando ”, delaying, or “Ritenuto”, restrained, in the middle of a piece, is often followed by “A tempo” In this excerpt from “Con te partiro”, at the end of the instrumental introduction, these indications show that the initial tempo must be slowed down and then resumed (a tempo) at the beginning of the verse.

Figure 45 : « Con te partiro », F. Sartori
Figure 45 : « Con te partiro », F. Sartori

28. « Fermata »

The next sign, the Fermata (here in “ Don’t Cry For Me Argentina ”) indicates that the note or chord should be extended before resuming the initial tempo.

Figure 46 : « Don’t Cry For Me Argentina », Andrew Lloyd Webber
Figure 46 : « Don’t Cry For Me Argentina », Andrew Lloyd Webber

29. The nuances in the sound volume

In Guitaranthem’s scores, contrary to what appears in many musical scores, you will find few indications regarding the sound volume (“Forte”, “Piano”, “crescendo”, “decrescendo”, etc.). We have preferred to leave each guitarist a lot of freedom in the way he interprets each piece and to bring the desired nuances to it.

Nevertheless, below is an example (figure 47) of what the main nuances that can be found on a score look like. For ease of presentation, this is an “artificial” example, not at all suitable for the guitar (or any other instrument, for that matter).

In bar 1, “pp” means “pianissimo”, so play at a very low volume. The sign next to it, with a point opening to the right, indicates that the volume should be gradually increased in a “crescendo” (this term is sometimes written). This leads to the note E played loud (“ Forte ”, F) and a very loud chord (“ Fortissime ”, FF), followed by a “diminuendo” in the form of an arrow flared to the left and pointed to the right.

The volume decreases until B in bar 3, the next arpeggio starts a little louder (mp= “mezzo piano”) until a new loud chord (F) at the end of bar 3.

Figure 47 : Indications de volume sonore
Figure 47 : Volume indications

II. Theoretical and practical notions specific to the guitar

1. The fingerboard

Let’s now come back to our instrument. In a way, it is more complicated to play the notes on the fingerboard of a guitar than on a piano keyboard. Because on a guitar, unlike a piano, you have the choice, for most notes, between several possible strings and frets: it is a matter of choosing the most suitable place, depending on the other notes to be played.

On the fingerboard, apart from the few highest notes of the first string, rarely played (and never in any Guitaranthem score), only the 5 lowest notes (E, F, F#, G, G # under the staff) can only be played in one place, on the sixth string.

2. On a guitar neck, where are the notes located?

Figure 48 : Manche de guitare
Figure 48 : Fingerboard (presented by

A good way to get to know the fingerboard of your guitar, in order to know, for each of the 6 strings, which notes correspond to which fret, is to acquire a series of coloured adhesive strips with the name of each note, to be applied around the neck. They are very easy to find on the Internet.

Or you can simply have a figurative reproduction of a fingerboard, such as the one shown here, with the name of each note.

Whichever way you choose to remember the position of the notes on the fingerboard, you will quickly get used to it, thanks to the study of pieces of increasing difficulty, and it will be less and less necessary to consult your diagram (figure 48), at least for the notes closest to the “nut” (close to the tuning keys), the most frequently used. The adaptations contained in Guitaranthem move as little as possible from these simplest positions.

The figure thus reproduces the fingerboard of a guitar, indicating only the unaltered notes (corresponding, therefore, to the white keys of the piano), so that the diagram is not too loaded. The “unnamed” squares actually have the same name as each previous square (but with “ sharp ”, #), or as the next square (but with “flat”, b).

For example, the second fret of the first string is both a “F sharp” (F #) and a “G flat” (G b), depending on the key in which the piece is written. In this case, “F #” is very frequent, and “G b” is rare (and non-existent in Guitaranthem).

Exercise, on the guitar.

Using figure 3 (the names of the notes playable on the guitar) and figure 48 (the representation of the fingerboard), try to play the beginning of the melody (only the notes with the “stem” upwards) for one or more of the excerpts mentioned above.

3. Fingering

Remember that the numbers on the score itself (not on the tablature) refer to the fingers of the left hand (figure 49).

Figure 49 : « Stille Nacht », Franz Xaver Gruber
Figure 49 : « Stille Nacht », Franz Xaver Gruber

In our example (taken from “Stille Nacht”), in the first bar, the ring finger (3rd finger) must be pressed on the bass note G; the figurative representation of the guitar fingerboard shows us that it is the 6th string, 3rd fret.

The D of the melody is played with the little finger (4th finger), the table shows us that it is the second string, 3rd fret, and the three other notes (D, G, E) of this first bar are accompanied by the number “0”, which means that these three notes are played on the 3 open strings that correspond to them: they are played without pressing a fret.

Many Guitaranthem scores are written in tones (most often in C Major or G Major) resulting in many notes being played open, which simplifies the execution.

When two bars are identical, the fingering is not usually rewritten, in order to lighten the score. In “Stille Nacht”, bar 3 = bar 1, and bar 4 = bar 2.

4. String numbering

If the numbers are written inside a circle, they indicate the number of the string, 1 to 6, from the highest – E – to the lowest, also E, 2 “octaves” lower. An octave is the range between two different notes with the same name; if you wish, visualize it, while listening to the notes played, on a piano keyboard, it is clearer than on the fingerboard of a guitar.

This string numbering appears only if it seems indispensable, for example in case of possible hesitation between two different strings. But most of the time, this indication will not be necessary.

In the following example (figure 50, “ Can’t Help Falling in Love ”), the B (last note of the first bar) should not be played on the second string open as is often the case, but on the third, so as to let the preceding D sound, which is played on the second string.

In bar 5, the lower A and D, instead of being played on two open strings (4th and 3rd) as often, easily “slide” on the two lower strings (6th and 5th): thus the position of the fingers does not change compared to the previous chord, at bar 4.

Figure 50 : « Can't help falling in Love », Elvis Presley
Figure 50 : « Can't help falling in Love », Elvis Presley

In the example below (“Con te partiro”, figure 51), the numbering of 2 strings, at bar 8, is not a luxury, because low F is usually played on the fourth string (3rd fret), and not on the 5th, as shown here. As for the high G, it is usually played on the first string, 3rd fret. But here it must be played on the second string. The guitar diagram and the tablature show that it is played on the eighth fret.
High C and B do not have a string number, because they are played in a very usual and natural way on the first string, as shown in the diagram.

Note the great importance of the fingering indication in a passage like this. It makes it much easier to play.

Figure 51 : « Con te partiro », F. Sartori
Figure 51 : « Con te partiro », F. Sartori

5. The "bar chords" (or "Barré"), not always easy...

Let us take the beginning of a work by Serge Gainsbourg, “ La Chanson de Prévert ” (Figure 52) to discover a very important technique: the “barré”.

Some measures (here, 3 and 4) are, in whole or in part, surmounted by a horizontal line preceded by a Roman numeral. This number (here, III) means that one must press with the index finger of the left hand on several strings at the same time (here, the first 4) on this square, up to the point where the horizontal line ends.

This technique, which allows you to play high notes while accompanying them with lower notes, is not very easy to master, it requires a bit of practice.

Figure 52 : « La Chanson de Prévert », Serge Gainsbourg
Figure 52 : « La Chanson de Prévert », Serge Gainsbourg

In order to make the strings sound without parasitic vibrations, the elbow should be tightened close to the body and pressed down especially with the edge of the index finger, which is harder. Sometimes this “bar chord” can take the form of a “ little bar chord ” which is easier to make, concerning only 3 or 4 of the 6 strings. It is indicated like this: 1/2 V (or another fret).

Here, at the end of “Strangers in the Night” (figure 53), in a single bar (32), there are two different bars, first a half-bar (allowing the low note “D” to be played empty; note that the index alone produces the other 3 notes), and then a whole bar chord (descending to G on the 6th string), for this suite of jazzy chords that come to finish the score.

Figure 53 : « Strangers in the Night », Bert Kaempfert
Figure 53 : « Strangers in the Night », Bert Kaempfert

6. "Slurs", a technique specific to the guitar

Some signs of slurs between two notes do not represent either a rhythmic lengthening (cf II, 18), or the expressive necessity to play in “legato” (without any sound interruption between one note and the next, the opposite being “staccato”), but they do mean that they must both be played in a single plucking of the string, with a finger of the left hand pressing (ascending slur, “ hammer on ”)or pulling a plucked string just before (descending slur, “ pull off ”). In other words, in this case, the left hand operates the string, not the right.

“ Hammer-on ” :  le “Chant des Partisans » (« The Song of the Partisans ») is a recurring example, at least in this adaptation, in the bass at the end of each melodic line (here in bars 4 and 5). The “A” of the bass is played empty, and finger no. 2 presses on the neck (in the second fret) to form a “B”, without the right hand intervening.

Figure 54 : « Chant des Partisans », Anna Marly
Figure 54 : « Chant des Partisans », Anna Marly

“Pull-off” : It is also possible to obtain a lower note, this time by pulling the string (instead of hitting it) with a finger of the left hand. In this excerpt from the “puppets” (figure 55) by the singer Christophe, at bar 4, both techniques are used, for the back and forth movements between the D and E of the 4th string.

Figure 55 : « Les marionnettes », Christophe
Figure 55 : « Les marionnettes », Christophe

7. The « mordent »

This is a faster variant of the above-mentioned technique. Illustrated by the beginning of the melody of “Chitarra Romana” (Fig. 56), this “mordent”, a kind of small trill represented by a wavy sign above the note concerned, is a special effect obtained by playing two successive notes rapidly – in this case, the written note, the one just above, and back to the written note, i.e. F#-G-Fa#. – while plucking the string only once. It can make it possible to imitate, to a certain extent, certain particular vocal inflections, as in certain oriental hymns, for example, or, as here, those of Italian tenors.

Figure 56 : « Chitarra romana », Claudio Villa
Figure 56 : « Chitarra romana », Claudio Villa

8. Arpegging a chord

The sign below (last bar of J. Buckley’s “Hallelujah”, figure 57) means that all strings should be played with one finger, in this case from the lowest to the highest (the direction of the arrow could indicate the opposite movement).

Figure 57 : « Hallelujah », Jeff Buckley
Figure 57 : « Hallelujah », Jeff Buckley
You now know enough to be able to read most guitar scores. Choose simple scores at the beginning, help yourself with the tablatures, and you will see that your progress will be very fast!

Thank you for your attention! Good job!