Written music is a language that has been developing for thousands of years, and even the music we read today has been around for over 300 years. Music notation is the representation of sound with symbols, from basic notations for pitch, duration, and timing, to more advanced descriptions of expression, timbre, and even special effects. This article will introduce you to the basics of reading music, show you some more advanced methods, and suggest some ways to gain more knowledge about the subject.
At its very simplest, music is a language just like you’d read aloud from a book. The symbols you’ll see on pages of sheet music have been used for hundreds of years. And they represent the pitch, speed and rhythm of the song they convey, as well as expression and techniques used by a musician to play the piece. Think of the notes as the letters, the measures as the words, the phrases as the sentences and so forth. Learning to read music really does open up a whole new world to explore!
Follow a step-by-step introduction to the language of music:
Step 1: Learn the Basic Symbols of Notation
Music is made up of a variety of symbols, the most basic of which are the staff, the clefs and the notes. All music contains these fundamental components, and in order to learn how to read music, you must first familiarize yourself with these basics.
The staff consists of five lines and four spaces. Each of those lines and each of those spaces represents a different letter, which in turn represents a note. Those lines and spaces represent notes named A-G, and the note sequence moves alphabetically up the staff.
There are two main clefs with which to familiarize yourself; the first is a treble clef. The treble clef has the ornamental letter G on the far left side. The G’s inner swoop encircles the “G” line on the staff. The treble clef notates the higher registers of music, so if your instrument has a higher pitch, such as a flute, violin or saxophone, your sheet music is written in the treble clef. Higher notes on a keyboard also are notated on the treble clef.
We use common mnemonics to remember the note names for the lines and spaces of the treble clef. For lines, we remember EGBDF by the word cue “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” Similarly for the spaces, FACE is just like the word “face.”
The line between the two bass clef dots is the “F” line on the bass clef staff, and it’s also referred to as the F clef. The bass clef notates the lower registers of music, so if your instrument has a lower pitch, such as a bassoon, tuba or cello, your sheet music is written in the bass clef. Lower notes on your keyboard also are notated in the bass clef.
A common mnemonic to remember note names for the lines of the bass clef is: GBDFA “Good Boys Do Fine Always.” And for the spaces: ACEG, “All Cows Eat Grass.”
Notes placed on the staff tell us which note letter to play on our instrument and how long to play it. There are three parts of each note, the note head, the stem and the flag.
Every note has a note head, either filled (black) or open (white). Where the note head sits on the staff (either on a line or a space) determines which note you will play. Sometimes, note heads will sit above or below the five lines and four spaces of a staff. In that case, a line is drawn through the note, above the note or below the note head, to indicate the note letter to play, as in the B and C notes above.
The note stem is a thin line that extends either up or down from the note head. The line extends from the right if pointing upward or from the left if pointing downward. The direction of the line doesn’t affect how you play the note, but serves as a way to make the notes easier to read while allowing them to fit neatly on the staff. As a rule, any notes at or above the B line on the staff have downward pointing stems, those notes below the B line have upward pointing stems.
The note flag is a curvy mark to the right of the note stem. Its purpose is to tell you how long to hold a note. We’ll see below how a single flag shortens the note’s duration, while multiple flags can make it shorter still.
Now that you know the parts to each note, we’ll take a closer look at those filled and open note heads discussed above. Whether a note head is filled or open shows us the note’s value, or how long that note should be held. Start with a closed note head with a stem. That’s our quarter note, and it gets one beat. An open note head with a stem is a half note, and it gets two beats. An open note that looks like an “o” without a stem is a whole note, and it gets held for four beats.
There are other ways to extend the length of a note. A dot after the note head, for example, adds another half of that note’s duration to it. So, a half note with a dot would equal a half note and a quarter note; a quarter note with a dot equals a quarter plus an eighth note. A tie may also be used to extend a note. Two notes tied together should be held as long as the value of both of those notes together, and ties are commonly used to signify held notes that cross measures or bars.
The opposite may also happen, we can shorten the amount of time a note should be held, relative to the quarter note. Faster notes are signified with either flags, like the ones discussed above, or with beams between the notes. Each flag halves the value of a note, so a single flag signifies 1/2 of a quarter note, a double flag halves that to 1/4 of a quarter note. Beams do the same, while allowing us to read the music more clearly and keep the notation less cluttered. As you can see, there’s no difference in how you count the eighth and 16th notes above.
But what happens when there isn’t a note taking up each beat? It’s easy, we take a rest! A rest, just like a note, shows us how long it should be held based on its shape.
Get in the groove. “rhythm” is a crucial part of how the music feels. However, whereas meter simply tells you how many beats, rhythm is how those beats are used.
- Try this: tap your finger on your desk, and count 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4, steadily. Not very interesting, is it? Now try this: on beats 1 and 3, tap louder, and on beats 2 and 4, tap softer. That’s got a different feel to it! Now try the reverse: tapping loud on 2 and 4, and soft on beats 1 and 3.
Imagine yourself walking. Each footstep will equal one beat. Those are represented musically by quarter notes, because in much of Western music (meaning music of the western world, not just the music of Hank Williams!), there are four of these beats for every measure. Musically, the rhythm of your walking will look like this:
- Each step is one quarter note. On a sheet of music, quarter notes are the solid black dots attached to stems without any flags. You can count that off as you walk: “1, 2, 3, 4-1, 2, 3, 4”
- If you were to slow your pace down to half that speed, so that you only took a step every two beats on the 1 and on the 3, that would be notated with half notes (for half a measure). On a sheet of music, half notes look like quarter notes, only they aren’t solid black — they are outlined in black with white centers.
- If you slowed your pace down even further, so that you only took a step every four beats, on the 1, you would write that as a whole note—or one note per measure. On a sheet of music, whole notes look like “Os” or donuts — similar to half notes without stems.
Step 3: Pick Up the Beat
In order to play music, you need to know its meter, the beat you use when dancing, clapping or tapping your foot along with a song. When reading music, the meter is presented similar to a fraction, with a top number and a bottom number, we call this the song’s time signature. The top number tells you how many beats to a measure, the space of staff in between each vertical line (called a bar). The bottom number tells you the note value for a single beat, the pulse your foot taps along with while listening.
In the example above, the time signature is 4/4, meaning there are 4 beats per bar and that every quarter note gets one beat.
In the example below, the time signature is 3/4, meaning there are 3 beats per bar and that every quarter note gets one beat.
Let’s look again at the above examples, notice that even though the 4/4 time signature in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” calls for 4 beats per bar, there aren’t 4 notes in second bar? That’s because you have two quarter notes and one half note, which added together equal 4 beats.
Step 4: Play a Melody
Congratulations, you’re almost on your way to reading music! First, let’s look at scales. A scale is made of eight consecutive notes, for example, the C major scale is composed of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The interval between the first note of your C major scale and the last is an example of an octave. The C major scale is very important to practice, since once you have the C scale down, the other major scales will start to fall into place. Each of the notes of a C major scale corresponds with a white key on your keyboard. Here’s how a C major scale looks on a staff and how that corresponds to the keys on your keyboard: