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From the bass clef I think the downbeat count is obvious, but on the treble clef is the 1st downbeat on the eighth note? It looks like it, since it is right over the chord. But then why isn't it notated as quarter note, then eighth note? More broadly what would be the playing difference in this case between starting this bar first with an eighth and then with a quarter note and vice versa?

FYI: this is the third bar of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" from Alfred level 1.

picture of bar

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  • 2
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncopation
    – phoog
    Nov 7 '20 at 4:32
  • 1
    "But then why isn't it notated as quarter note, then eighth note? " Because you want it to start with an eighth - otherwise the gospel would no longer swing. Nov 7 '20 at 10:45
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The other answers have explained the technicality well.

Yes, generally speaking, the first beat, or emphasised note, in a bar, is the most important, often. It's the one place where we can all 'come together'.

But - there often is, or needs to be, an important word at that point, in songs. 'In' isn't as important in this song as 'His', so it's given a short note (quaver, 1/8 beat), and 'His' gets longer, and off beat, which emphasises it even more. Then 'hand' gets syncopated, or pushed forward, to give that word extra oomph. Leaving 'He's got the' - short words - to make up the anacrucis just like at the very beginning.

That pattern is repeated (as patterns are!) all through the song. Doing what you suggest would change the whole essence of this song, which is reconisable partly due to the syncopated style.

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The answer to your first question is yes, the first eighth note is on the beat. Both bars contain a full value of 4/4, either in quarters (bass clef) or a combination of quarters and eighths (treble clef). Not only that but the notes in both staffs are aligned perfectly so you can very clearly see which notes are played at the same time and which fall in between.

The reason the first eighth note isn’t written as a quarter note is because that would change the intended rhythm. The eighth followed by a quarter means the first note is in the 1 and the second is on the 1&. The second note falls exactly between the first and second quarter notes in the bass clef.

If you were to start with a quarter note instead of an eighth then mathematically the second note would have to fall right on the second beat instead of the 1&. This would make it something different than what was written and intended, which is 1, 1&, 2&, 3&, 4, 4& in the treble clef with the left hand playing quarter notes on 1,2,3 and 4.

You can think of it graphically like this, the O’s are notes that are played and the X’s are held, not played:

OOXOXOOO

OXOXOXOX

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EDIT: The musical examples are coded with ABCjs. If you do not see standard music notation, equivalent graphics are at the bottom of the post.


Example 1 is equivalent to the notation in question:

X: 1
T: Example 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Cmaj
V:V1 clef=treble stem=down
V:V2 clef=bass stem=down middle=D
%%score {V1 | V2|
[V:V1](de- ed- d)(d dB |
w: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 
[V:V2][GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 |

But by convention, the tied E eighth-notes are "merged" into a quarter-note (Example 2).

X: 1
T: Example 2
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Cmaj
%%score (V1 V3) | V2
V:V1 clef=treble stem=down
V:V2 clef=bass stem=down middle=D
V:V3
[V:V1](d e2 d- d)(d dB |
[V:V3] "_1"x "_&"x "_2"x "_&"x "_3"x "_&"x "_4"x "_&"x |
w: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &  |
[V:V2] [GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 |

By contrast, starting the measure with a quarter-note would look/be played as shown in Example 3:

X: 1
T: Example 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Cmaj
%%score (V1 V3) | V2
V:V1 clef=treble stem=down
V:V2 clef=bass stem=down middle=D
V:V3
[V:V1](d2 ed- d)(d dB |
[V:V3] "_1"x "_&"x "_2"x "_&"x "_3"x "_&"x "_4"x "_&"x |
w: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &  |
[V:V2] [GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 [GBd]2 |

The measure in question is an example of syncopation, in which a note occurs at an unexpected place. Since the left-hand part is simply playing four downbeats, we might expect the right-hand to be synchronized to that. However, by starting the right hand with a note lasting only a 1/2-beat, the next note -- the quarter-note -- happens unexpectedly, midway between beat 1 and beat 2.


Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

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  • Hi thank you for this. It's a bit over ny head this notation, but thank you for taking the time!
    – OU50
    Nov 8 '20 at 0:37
  • @OU50 I wonder if you saw computer code instead of music notation? Allowing for that possibility, I've updated the post to include images. Hopefully that will make more sense.
    – Aaron
    Nov 8 '20 at 5:07
  • Yes it was computer code. This is perfect. This is amazing. Thank you! It is so crazy: a) I would have understood it I think if it was written as two tied 8th notes, and b) I could have said that a quarter note was two 8th notes, but c) I could not for the life of me figure this out. Having the three like that is so helpful. Thank you so much for your time.
    – OU50
    Nov 9 '20 at 11:49
  • @OU50 Glad this was so helpful. The best way to say "thank you" to anyone who provided a useful answer is to up-vote that answer by clicking on the upward-pointing triangle next to the question. You can also "accept" an answer that was of especial value by clicking on the check-mark next to that answer.
    – Aaron
    Nov 9 '20 at 19:00
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You have to get it in to your head that music can be extremely complex. Things don't always line up. Simple music is simple in that it usually does not contain many syncopation's. Even though this song simple it does have syncopation's but they are quite simple.

You should learn to read, the best you can, complex music ASAP because that will make simpler music much easier. It's not always about counting, you want to internalize the music and ultimately not have to count. The more you can feel the pulse/meter the more you can frame the notes where they go.

In this case, can you sing the melody? If you can the notation should be completely obvious. Now by sing I mean can you sing it in time correctly so that you can feel the downbeats?

Notation wise the reason why they notate it this way rather than using technically correct notation is because this notation is much easier to understand once you realize what is going on. Music notation generally contains these "abbreviations" because they are so common and ultimately easier to understand.

https://duckduckgo.com/?q=he%27s+got+the+whole+world+in+his+hands+sheet&t=h_&iax=images&ia=images&iai

Look at the various ways it is notated. Sometimes they "lift" the notation to a longer note value which hides the syncopation's such as going from 4/4 to 4/2(of course this will technically feel different). Note that it is played in different keys.

Do you understand how to play in the divisions? You should make sure you understand playing on the ands and ultimately on any division. The less you understand music the harder it is to connect what you hear with what you see. Hence get around this by exposing yourself to see and hear more music. A lot of it is self taught where you just make the connections cause it really is simpler than it looks. At some point once you've seen and heard enough things will just click and stuff that doesn't make sense can be logically figured out because really nothing else makes much sense(this isn't always true). Which leads in to:

But to answer your question: The reason it is notated that way is because the notation generally needs to support the meter and counting so that it is easier to read. By notating it the way they have rather than the way you think it should be is that your way obscures the downbeat. If you do it your way then we could be confused if the chords are the downbeat or the melody note, but by always tying in to a beat we do not obscure it and it helps keeps the music notation aligned with the meter. This is not a big deal in simpler music and you will find people notating in both ways but technically it is incorrect to notate it in a way that obscures the meter since the meter is what guides one in reading efficiently. If it is obvious that the notes are syncopated then there is little harm but it more complex musical passages it could cause problems in sight reading.

Of course why did they mix the two versions in the Alfred version? Why didn't they write the first quarter as two eighths tied like next two eighths? or vice versa?

Well, if you think about it this way then it makes a little more sense, but really there is no telling: The first quarter is pretty easy to tell it is a syncopation because of the first eighth. It's quite clear since it happens at the start of the bar. In the second case though we are in the middle of the bar and things are more confusing because if we get lost or misplace a dot then we could misinterpret what is what. So it is more like the first case is for convenience and the second case is to keep things aligned.

Regardless of which way things are notated(it could all be done in sixteenths or some other bizarre way) you should understand the point and interpret it musically correct. The notation is there only to serve our ability to communicate the correct time and pitch and articulation. Beyond that it doesn't matter how it is notated and you don't want to be dependent on specific idiosyncrasies to be able to read something.

Ultimately the more you read, specially from the masters, the more you'll get a feel for these things. There is a lot of reasons why they notate things they do. The masters had an understanding of notation that served the music and performing it that isn't always understood by lesser beings. Bach, for example, uses notation to help guide reading it. Bach was a master at using notation to help the performer. Even though his notation might look complicated it is actually somewhat easier to follow(partly it's due to his style but also partly due to how he notated things, although in many cases it wasn't him but the editor which is why getting good sheet music is necessary but again, the more you read the more you'll see all these different ways to say/notate the same thing).

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  • Thank you so much. Knowing the song well I can play it, but still couldn't connect to the notation. But the aha is your comment that I could also think of it as a tied eighth note like the other. And as John said it starts on ''and and carries over. The really dumb thing is that up until now in the book the eighth notes have never been on the downbeat so I thought they might always be on the 'and" bit. So ridiculous. Thank you! Will look through the other notations.
    – OU50
    Nov 8 '20 at 0:32
  • In general we often try to make clear of the start of every 2 or 3 beats, e.g. in 4/4 the note on the 3rd beat would be written out explicitly, using ties when necessary; in 6/8, the 4th quaver of the bar; in (3+2)/4 = 5/4 the 4th beat: in (2+3)/4 = 5/4 the 3rd beat.
    – Divide1918
    Nov 8 '20 at 16:01
  • @OU50 The idea is not to over complicate things ;) Remember, the notation is just notation. The score is not the music. Usually, the more you learn the more you'll realize why things are done the way they are and you'll just start to get a feel for how it all works on an intuitive level. Not everyone notates music correctly so you ultimately have to learn to decipher what they mean, just as not everyone writes or speaks correctly but you have to get the gist of it and go with the flow. The more you expose yourself to notation the more it will all make sense.
    – Stretto
    Nov 9 '20 at 5:00
  • @OU50 The problem with the Alfred books and many like them is that they do not provide proper exposure. They are so basic and sometime so complex and so condesnced that it is really hard to actually learn how to play correctly. They are good if you want to be able to play a tune or two but if you really want to learn to play the piano you have to kinda cut through all that BS and learn your chords, scales, and arpeggios(all the same really) and keys along with reading as much music as you can - just read it, you don't have to understand it, just expose yourself to it as much as possible.
    – Stretto
    Nov 9 '20 at 5:02
  • @OU50 then one day things will click(your brain will figure it all out automatically once it see's enough data). Go on youtube and search for sheet music and just start watching(and listening)... if you spend 10 minutes a day trying doing that and trying to pay attention(follow along as best as possible so you at least can keep time) then in 3 to 6 months you will be able to understand far more than you ever realized. Basically pick some song and follow along using the music as the guide. You don't have to understand every notational aspect, just be able to follow along.
    – Stretto
    Nov 9 '20 at 5:06

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