Musical Roadmaps: Navigation Symbols and Definitions for Sheet Music
Reading music is more than just learning the notes. We may need to bounce from one section to another. And composers use symbols to show this.
To save paper, many pieces of music do not write out all the repeated material. Instead, there is a symbol or word from the composer instructing us to go to a given place.
Below you’ll find all the most common navigation symbols and their musical definitions. When we learn these, we can follow the “roadmap” in our music.
How to Use Musical Navigation Symbols
When first learning a new piece of music, it is helpful to look for symbols and words through the score (sheet music). When we see them, we can then trace the journey from the first note to the last.
As a best practice, we can look up any words or symbols we do not yet know. This way, we keep the big picture in mind from the start, and our musical vocabulary expands.
Click Here to download a PDF of the musical navigation symbols and terms.
Barlines in Music
Barlines divide the music into small sections of a pre-determined number of beats. The barlines organize the music on the page only. They do not suggest that we do anything or take any action.
In guitar practice, it’s a good habit to practice in sections that extend one note past a barline. This sounds more musical and better reflects what the composer had in mind.
These symbols tell us to play the enclosed material twice. After we play through to the second repeat sign, we return to the first sign and go forward again.
Normally, we only repeat once. And if we play the section again later in the piece, we often do not observe the repeat signs.
New Section Barline
The thin double barline denotes a new section in the music. This can help in our mental representation of the music. We can practice the sections separately, then work on the transitions and combine them.
This symbol, like the ordinary barline, does not suggest any action. Instead, it helps to organize the music on the page and make the musical form more clear.
The thick double line is the final barline. This marks the end of the piece. It may occur at the end of the sheet music or at the end of a section within the music.
The Coda Symbol in Sheet Music
A coda is to the end of a piece of music what an intro is to the beginning. It is music that finishes the piece (or movement, in a larger work). The word “coda” comes from the Latin cauda, for “tail.”
The coda symbol marks this section. It does not instruct us to take any action. But other instructional symbols may point to it, so it needs to be marked.
Coda also has another meaning. In larger, more virtuosic pieces, the coda may be an extended solo for the main soloist. These are often pieces with orchestra. Here, the material may hint at the various sections and themes that came before, bringing an emotional conclusion. Top players sometimes write their own codas to common showcase pieces.
Segno Symbol in Musical Notation
“Segno” is Italian for “sign.” As a musical notation symbol, this is a general marker. A composer can place this anywhere that needs to be directed to.
This is often placed after an introduction, where the melody or main section begins. Later, we will jump back to this section as instructed.
The First Ending
Sometimes, an entire section of music is repeated. When this is so, we may want the ending bit to vary. This is so that the music leads us back to the beginning of the section, or not.
The first ending is represented by a closed bracket containing the number one (1). We play to the end of the bracket, which usually will also be marked with a repeat sign. We then go back to the beginning of the section and play it again.
The Second Ending
After we have played through the first ending and repeated a section of music, we will then skip the first ending, not playing those measures. We then play the second ending and continue forward in the piece. We may see third endings or beyond, but usually just two.
How to Play D.C. in Music – Da Capo
D.C. in music is short for Da Capo. This tells us to go back to the beginning of the piece.
D.S. in Standard Musical Notation
D.S. in in music is the abbrevition for Dal Segno. This means “go to the sign.”
To use this symbol, find the Segno (sign). Then, when we reach the D.S., we jump to the sign and continue from there.
Fine Musical Definition
Fine is Italian for “the end.” This word marks the end of the piece. We often see this used when the ending is written somewhere in the interior of the sheet music, not at the last measure of written notes. The fine may be at the end of a section.
D.C al fine
D.C. al fine in music is the combination of two instructions. First, we have the D.C. This means we go to the beginning of the piece. Then we have al fine. This means we play through until we see the fine symbol marked in the music.
How to Play D.S. al Coda in Pieces of Music
D.S. al Coda is also a combination of two ideas. First we go to the Segno (sign). Then we play until we see instructions to go to the coda, usually labeled “to coda.”
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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