Music Theory: Basics of Pitch and Notation

Scott Cosentino
4 min readDec 6, 2020

Musical notation is a set of symbols that we use to communicate the sounds we want a player to create on their instrument. It can be seen as the language of music and is core to understanding most topics in music theory. We will start this article by seeing how notes are arranged on the piano. After this, we can naturally extend our understanding of the piano to theory, as well as any other instrument we might want to consider.

The Layout of the Piano

The piano consists of a set of (often 88) keys, each tuned to a specific note. In music, we represent each note as a letter in the alphabet, using the letters A,B,C,D,E,F and G. The image below shows how a typical piano is laid out.

The typical piano layout

There are a few important details to take away from this picture. The first is that when we reach G in our musical alphabet, the letters start again at A. The second is looking at how the keys are arranged. C is always at the start of the groups of two black keys. F is always at the start of three black keys. From either of these two reference points, we can continue adding letters until we have filed in the whole piano.

We are going to ignore the notes that the black keys play for the time being just to keep things simple. We will revisit them in later sections when we introduce sharps and flats.

Staves and Clefs

The piano can play notes that are high in pitch as well as low in pitch. By convention, we split the piano in half, and refer to one half as the bass clef and one half as the treble clef. The area that we divide the piano at is called middle C, and it is the C note that is in the middle of the keyboard (sometimes called C4). The notes to the right of middle C are the treble clef notes. As we continue to the right, the pitch increases. The notes to the left of middle C are the bass clef notes. As we continue to the left, the pitch decreases.

Some instruments have a range exclusively in the treble clef, and some instruments have…

Scott Cosentino

Computer programmer and computer security. Youtube tutorials at: