What is a Note?

Something which I had aspired to do when I started my blog just under a year ago was to write periodically about music. Unfortunately that has not happened yet, but alas! better late than never! Thus forth, I shall set about to write my first musical post: “What the Heck is a Note?”

The note is what I have found to be some secret and allusive concept known to all musicians. None can seem to give a good answer to what it is, and yet all seem to be sure they have no problem with such an elementary concept. After all, what is a simple note when you have Bach Sonata to contend with?

However, I have seemed to narrow down what I believe are some apparent misconceptions about the “note.”

  1. It is not a pitch.
  2. It is not a rhythm.
  3. It is not a dynamic.

But now, if it is not these things, what must it be? Some people will of course give you the answer that the note is like a letter, the fundamental piece of the alphabet, and by putting them together you get sentences, or in music, a musical phrase. But while a metaphor of this kind is clever, and in most cases true, what I wanted was a straightforward, no nonsense answer.

The answer, at long last came from my trombone teacher. I was playing a piece in preparation for my Grade 8 RCM exam, and he stopped me to say that I wasn’t playing the dynamics well enough. Then he made the comment that has helped me re-evaluate how I play music. “If you’re not playing the dynamics, the note is wrong. Just playing the pitch is not enough.”

So, that is the answer! A note is not simply a pitch, a rhythm, or a dynamic, as mentioned above, it is the combination of the three, and of much more! Therefore, a note is not really a fundamental musical concept, but the sum of many. Only until you combine pitches, rhythms, note lengths, dynamics, articulations, accents, (the list could go on and on), do you get a note. In any case when a note is limited to just one or two musical concepts, it lacks depth, life and musical interest. Listening becomes dull, and the enjoyment from playing the note becomes virtually non-existent.

When this approach to the note is taken, the potential for a musician as an artist is fully unleashed.

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