Beginners' Guide to Reading Music

Annette McDermott

If you have a knack for playing an instrument or singing, learning to read music can take your skills to the next level. Although reading music might seem intimidating, once you learn the basics and practice regularly, you'll master this valuable skill in no time.

Music Basics

Learning to read music can be compared to learning a language except instead of words, music uses notes and symbols to convey emotion. In fact, music is often called the universal language.

The Musical Alphabet

Unlike the traditional alphabet, the musical alphabet only has seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. These notes are repeated up and down the musical scale. If you've ever heard the melody of Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, this tune represents the tones of the seven letters of the musical alphabet (the eighth note in this tune demonstrates that the notes repeat themselves by starting at the beginning again).

The Staff

The music staff is the foundation of written music. It is made up of five horizontal lines and four spaces.

  • Each line and space represents a musical tone.
  • Various types of notes placed on the lines, in the spaces, or above or below the staff, tell you which tone to play or sing and at what tempo.
  • The higher up a note on the staff the higher the tone and the lower a note on the staff, the lower the tone.
  • Notes on the staff are read from left to right.

Bar Lines and Measures

Bar lines and measures help divide a piece of music into beats or tempo.

  • Lines that run vertically on the staff are called bar lines.
  • The space between two bar lines is called a measure.
  • Two lines at the end of a musical piece are called double bar lines.
  • When you come to a double bar line, you've reached the end of the musical piece.

Clefs

At the beginning of any staff you'll find a clef. For most instruments and vocal pieces, this will be a treble clef or a bass clef.

  • The treble clef, also called a G clef because it wraps around the "G" note line of the staff, indicates notes that are higher in tone. Notes on the treble clef are usually played with the right hand on the piano.
  • The bass clef, also called the F clef because its two dots surround the "F" note line on the staff, is associated with notes lower in tone. Bass clef notes are usually played with the left hand on the piano.
  • Some musical instruments only use one clef when reading music. For example, the cello, tuba, bassoon, bass guitar and trombone only read from the bass clef. The flute, saxophone, violin, clarinet, trumpet and cornet are examples of instruments that read the treble clef. Other instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, organ and some percussion instruments read both clefs simultaneously.
  • When the treble and bass clefs are used together it's called the grand staff. The treble clef line is at the top and the bass clef line at the bottom.

Time Signatures

Time signatures are found at the beginning of a piece of sheet music, after the clef.

  • Time signatures contain two numbers, one number on top of another.
  • The top number of a time signature represents the number of beats per measure.
  • The bottom number represents the type of note that gets one beat. The time signature example shown here represents 3/4 time. In this signature, there are three beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

Reading Notes on the Staff

To play a piece of music, you'll need to know how to read notes on the staff.

  • Notes and rests are found on the lines and spaces of the staff.
  • Each line and space represents a musical tone and letter of the musical alphabet.
  • The notes on the treble clef lines are, from the bottom line to the top: E, G, B, D, F. An easy way to remember the treble clef line notes is, "Every Good Boy Does Fine."
  • The notes on the treble clef spaces are, from the bottom space to the top: F, A,C, E. An easy way to remember the treble clef space notes is the word, "FACE."
  • The notes on the bass clef lines are, from the bottom line to the top: G, B, D, F, A. An easy way to remember the bass clef notes is, "Good Boys Do Fine Always."
  • The notes on the bass clef spaces are, from the bottom line to the top: A, C, E, G. An easy way to remember the bass clef spaces is, "All Cows Eat Grass."

Learning Note Types

There are numerous musical symbols and note types that direct how loud or soft to play a piece, what style to play in, or the tempo of the piece. As you gain more experience reading music, you'll begin to incorporate more of these symbols.

To get started learning to read music, you'll need to learn some common types of notes and rests and their beat values. Notes are played or sung, while rests indicate that you should not play or sing.

Notes and Rests

  • Eighth: Hold note or rest for 1/2 beat.
  • Quarter: Hold note or rest for one beat.
  • Half: Hold note or rest for two beats.
  • Whole: Hold note or rest for four beats.

Counting Beats

When you read music you'll be counting the beats in your head while you play. While this sounds tricky, it soon becomes second nature.

Quarter, Half, and Whole Notes

The following music line has four beats per measure:

  • In the first measure, each quarter note is played and held for one beat to equal four beats in the measure.
  • In the second measure, each half note is played and held for two beats to equal four beats in the measure.
  • In the third measure, each quarter note is played for one beat and the half note held for two beats to equal four beats in the measure.
  • In the final measure, the whole note is played and held for four beats to equal four beats in the measure.

Eighth Notes

The following music line has four beats per measure:

  • In the first measure, eight eighth notes are played to equal four beats in the measure. They are counted: one and, two and, three and, four and, where each syllable equals half a beat.
  • In the second measure four eighth notes are played to equal two beats and two quarter notes equal one beat each, to make up four beats in the measure. The beats are counted: one and, two and, three, four.

Combining Notes and Rests

Some measures combine notes and rests. The following line has four beats per measure:

  • In the first measure, the quarter notes are played for one beat, and each quarter rest signals to rest for one beat.
  • In the second measure, each quarter note is played and held for one beat and the half rest signals to rest for two beats.
  • In the third measure, the quarter note is played for one beat, the half note played and held for two beats, and the quarter rest signals to rest for one beat.
  • In the fourth measure, the eighth notes are played for two beats (one and, two and), the quarter note for one beat, and the quarter rest signals to rest for one beat.

A Fun and Valuable Skill

Whether you want to play music as a hobby or you dream of becoming a concert pianist, learning to read music can be fun and rewarding. As with most new things, it takes time to understand the concepts. For best results, practice one concept at a time and build upon it. With a little patience and perseverance, you'll soon master the basics of the musical language which are universal to every musical instrument.

Beginners' Guide to Reading Music