Introduction: Musical Notation


Musical notation is a useful tool for understanding the mechanics of a piece of music and, of course, for composing or arranging. There are many technical terms (often from the Italian language) and some exceptions and peculiarities in the musical language. On this page we will scrach the surface by introducing you to some of the most important concepts.

Here is an example of musical notation, the first four bars of “The Girl from Ipanema”: 

The most basic unit of a notated piece of music is the measure and its time signature. This is how the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic connections are structured and the  basic pulse (also: the meter) is established. In the example above, “The Girl From Ipanema” is notated in 4/4 time (read: four-four time ). In this time signature, four beats are counted per measure.

Within a bar, the musical content is presented using the musical notation. Tone length and pitch thus receive a clear form.

Rhythm Duration & Notation

Rhythm plays a central role in Latin American music. A solid sense of note durations and divisions is essential to developing a good understanding of bossa nova. 

The quarter note represents the most important rhythmic unit. It is usually counted in beats and the basic pulse is marked (e.g. with the foot). A whole 4/4 bar is filled by the whole note, so a half note takes two beats. The finer subdivisions of the fundamental pulse begin at the eighth note. The sixteenth note has a special meaning in the notation of Latin American music because of the tempi and the meter (the music is often notated in 2/4 time). A pause with a corresponding duration is assigned to each tone length. 

The tone durations and pauses in the graphic overview:

The whole note is the longest note and lasts four beats. It thus fills out a 4/4 time measure.  The whole rest “hangs” on the fourth staff line.

The half note lasts two beats. The half rest “lies” on the third staff line.

The  quarter note has a special meaning because it symbolizes the fundamental pulse. It lasts one  beat. The quarter rest resembles a flash.

The eighth note divides the fundamental pulse into two halves. The division is counted: 1+2+3+4+ 

The eighth rest resembles a comma.

The sixteenth note represents four divisions of the fundamental pulse. The subdivision is counted: 1e+d 

Important Rhythmic Notation Devices

In addition to the basic note durations, there are two important types of notation for lengthening note durations:

In the example for Girl from Ipanema a slur is notated between several bars. The  tie  connects two notes across a bar line. But it can also be notated within a bar to add two note durations. In this example, two half notes are joined for the duration of a whole note.

There is also the option of lengthening a note by adding a dot. Girl from Ipanema begins with  a dotted quarter note. A dotted note is lengthened by half its value. In this example, there is a dotted half note that represents the duration of three quarter notes.

Familiarize yourself with the basic bossa nova rhythm to get started in the world of Latin rhythms.


The pitch of a note is determined by its position in the staff. Noteheads can be on and between staff lines. The higher a note is written on the staff, the higher the tone sounds and vice versa. 

The clef at the beginning of a piece of music determines the position of the notes. The well-known treble clef fixes the note G on the second staff line (hence the alternative name G clef). But there are also other clefs, for example for bass instruments.

The organization of pitches is in keys. There are seven basic tones and five other pitches marked by accidentals. Thus the ascending sequence of root tones  ABCDEFG forms a so-called scale, which in turn is the basis of the key, in this case A minor:


Scales and keys can be formed from any note and are the basic framework for pieces of music. For more on this topic and how to play scales on guitar, see the Basic Scales section.

HARMONIe interValle & akkorde

Harmony in the musical sense means the harmony of tones. The distance between two tones is called an interval, as are two tones sounding together. A consonance is a melodious interval; a “skewed” sound is called dissonance. 

The combination of three or more tones that are a third apart is called a chord. Chords form the basic harmonic structure of most pieces of music. The most important  chords are the major and minor triads:

The A major triad ( A, C sharp, E ) abbreviated by the chord symbol 

The A minor triad ( A, C, E ) abbreviated by the chord symbol Am

Chords are often abbreviated by symbols and you will find this kind of notation in song representations called leadsheets. Typical fingerings, which are shown in diagrams, have become established as standard guitar chords over the course of time. These chords often have more than three notes (see the A Major & Minor Chords above), but there are no more than three different notes. Chords can also have more than three different notes, which is often times the case in Bossa Nova Songs. These chords are called Seventh Chords.

In the introduction to bossa nova chords, you can familiarize yourself with some basic guitar chords.

Newsletter Updates

Sign up to receive information about new sheet music and videos!