Do you have a stroke every time you attempt to decode the seemingly complicated sheet music symbols?
Your search for a super-easy and user-friendly guide to reading sheet music is over!
While the prospect of deciphering unknown symbols can certainly be daunting, the rewards are well worth it. Who knows? You may even create something beautiful and discover a talent you never knew you had…
To help you on your way, we’ve prepared a guide to teach you to read music like the pros. So let’s start at the very beginning, shall we?
Here are the points we’ll talk about:
To start with, we are going to look at the clef
The word “clef” comes from the French word “clé”, meaning “key”. Think of the clef as the key to unlocking the meaning of each note.
The clef is found at the beginning of each line of music and tells you what note to assign to each line of the stave.
Each space and line on the stave represents a different letter, and therefore, a different note, ranging from A to G, with the notes getting higher as they go up the stave.
However, since staves only have five lines, it’s impossible to represent all the pitches on one stave; some instruments have a very low pitch, whereas others have a higher register. Because of this, there are several clefs, which makes it possible to write music for all types of voices and instruments.
There are two main clefs that you will encounter.
Here Comes Treble
The treble clef, also known as the “G clef” because it looks like a somewhat pretentious letter G, is used to represent higher registers of music.
You’ll most likely use it if you play an instrument with a higher pitch like the flute, the violin or the saxophone or if you’re a soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto or tenor (though the notes you read are an octave higher than the notes you sing if you’re a tenor).
It can be quite difficult to remember the note names for each line, here’s what Jon Fellowes, musician and music journalist for Last Minute Musicians has to say:
“It may sound silly, but there are lots of little rhymes and funny ways to remember the different notes of the clef that can really help at the beginning. For example, I was always taught that the notes in the spaces between the lines of the treble clef spell out FACE, from bottom to top.”Jon Fellowes, musician and music journalist
Likewise a helpful way of remembering the line notes is:
Every Good Boy Deserves Football
E G B D F
Hmmm…perhaps not applicable in all circumstances (myself included…)
How about…every good boy deserves food? That’s something I can get behind.
All about that Bass
The bass clef is also called an F clef because it wraps around the F note on the bass stave.
The bass clef is used to represent lower registers of music so you’ll most likely encounter it if you play an instrument with a lower pitch, like the bassoon, tuba or cello.
Likewise, if you’re a bass or a baritone voice, you’ll use a bass clef.
A useful mnemonic to remember the note names for the lines is:
Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart
G B D F A
There’s also a good one for the spaces as well:
All Cows Eat Grass
A C E G
Easy to remember, right?
It will take a while to remember the location of each of these notes and you might want to start by writing the letter of the note (in pencil!) next to the note to help you learn whilst you practice.
Watch out for…!
Look at the section of music below.
In the image shown above you will see that some of the stems of the notes point up, and others point down. Don’t worry! The direction of the stem doesn’t affect the pitch of the note. Notes above the middle bar (which is B, by the way) will generally have their stems pointing down, whilst notes below the middle line will have their stems pointing up. This does not change the note it is just meant to make it easier to read. This is the same for the bass clef as well.
Next, we have to understand rhythm.
Play in Rhythm
Now you know what the notes mean, but how long should you hold them for? Unfortunately, Maria von Trapp was not entirely correct – just because you know which notes to sing, it doesn’t mean you can sing most anything…
Where would “We Will Rock You” be without the pulsing stomp, stomp clap? Or “Come on Eileen” minus the powerful folk beat. We feel the rhythm in these songs within us. We become a part of the beat. Rhythm is just as important as pitch…
We’re going to look at the time signature and the beat of a note to help you give shape to the notes you play.
We got the Beat
An important part of reading sheet music is recognising and interpreting the time signature.
The time signature is the number found at the beginning of each stave, next to the clef. It determines the meter of the music. It is composed of two numbers. The top refers to how many beats there are per bar (the space of music between each vertical line). The bottom refers to the note value for a single beat.
This means if the time signature is 4/4, there are four beats in a bar, and each note is one beat.
4/4 is the most common time signature, and is therefore represented as C. Here’s an example of a piece in 4 /4 taken from our sheet music collection. You can play Adele’s “Someone Like You” along with her other songs at Jellynote.com.
If the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats in a bar, and each note is one beat. Likewise a 2/4 time signature means there are two beats in a bar and each note is one beat.
Now you know the time signature, you can get started on playing the notes themselves.
Notes have different lengths depending on what they look like.
A whole note is called a semibreve. You hold this for four beats. As you can see it is a round circle with no stem.
A half note is known as a minim. You hold this for two beats. It resembles the semibreve, but with a stem.
A quarter note is called a crotchet. You hold this for one beat. It looks like a minim, but its centre is filled in.
Using the rules of mathematics, we can work out that four crotches are equal to one semibreve. Simple.
Unfortunately, it does get slightly less simple. Check out this bar from the sheet music of “Part of Your World” from the film “The Little Mermaid” which you can currently access on jellynote.com!
Notice how the minim has a dot next to it? A dotted note means you halve the value of the note and add it to the original.
Get your calculators ready, folks…
So a dotted minim is equal to three beats… (2+1=3)
But a dotted crotchet is equal to one and a half beats… (1 + 0.5 = 1.5)
On the other hand, you can decrease the length of a note by adding a flag or a beam. Look at the end of the bar. Notice how there are two notes which are joined together? This is called a quaver. This means that each note is a half beat. You hold them for half the length of a crotchet. Make sense?
Finding the beat can be hard, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never lose it. The more music you listen to, the easier it will become to recognise the time signature.
“Music is a language. If you are learning a new language, you need to speak, listen, write and read it daily. Well guess what? That’s what you need to do with music”.Xantone Blacq, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and music teacher at The Institute of Contemporary Music
So listen to music with a variety of time signatures and rhythms daily. You’ll be playing like a pro in no time!
Now you have a grasp on rhythm, why not try playing one of our thousands of pieces of sheet music for piano, voice, guitar or whatever instrument you play! You can download all our sheet music direct to your device at jellynote.com, or by using our app. We have sheet music for beginners and for more advanced learners!
Relationship between notes
Ties indicate that two (or more) notes joined together are to be played at one note. To be a tie both notes need to be identical (see image below):
If the notes are not the same then it is called a slur. Slurs indicate that you must play two or more notes in one physical stroke (see image below):
So far, we looked at how to determine the rhythm of a piece of sheet music by looking at the time signature and the length of the notes. But what happens when you’re not expected to play? These moments of silence are indicated on sheet music using “rests.”
Give it a Rest
Rests are essential. Without them, music would just be a wall of sound and brass players would almost certainly be dead…
Just like notes, rests come in varying shapes and sizes depending on their length…
The crotchet rest
A crotchet rest has the same value as a crotchet. That means that we hold it for one beat, just as we would a crotchet. Take a look at this bar of music:
The squiggly line at the end of the bar is a crotchet rest.
The minim rest
Similarly, a minim rest (pictured below at the end of the bar) is held for two beats, just like a minim.
The semibreve rest
A semibreve rest (held for four beats like a semibreve) looks like this:
As you can see, a semibreve rest closely resembles a minim rest, so it can be quite confusing telling them apart.
Here’s a somewhat elementary, but surprisingly helpful, way of remembering the difference:
A minim rest sits on the line, so think of it as a “minim mountain”, whereas a semibreve rest hangs from the line, like a spider…so it’s a “semibreve spider.”
Adding to the value of a rest
Just as with played notes, you can add to the length of a rest by adding a dot. The same process of halving the value and adding it to the original note is applied.
The quaver rest
A quaver rest (pictured below) looks like a number seven. You hold this for half a beat.
All of the images of rests used above were taken from the sheet music for “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin, available to download at Jellynote.com along with our wide range of sheet music for piano, voice, violin and all types of instruments.
Not so much of an Accident
Now we’ve covered the basics, we move on to the more challenging aspect of music theory…accidentals.
An accidental is a note whose pitch is not a member of the scale and the sign raises or lowers the note.
The most common accidentals are the sharps (or for the millennials among you, the ‘hashtags’) which raise the pitch:
and the flats (the ‘bs’) which lower the pitch:
Like in the images generally you will see the sharps and the flats located at the beginning of the sheet music in between the treble/bass clef and the time signature. For example See You Again – Wiz Khalifa.
This is because throughout the whole sheet music the sharps or flats will stay the same so it is easier to put them once at the beginning rather then noting them the whole time throughout the music.
When you have just a few sharps or flats that appear in the song they will be marked in the actual sheet music next to the note like this:
The flat or sharp will then be valid for that bar.
For an example sheet music check out Summertime Sadness – Lana Del Ray.
The third and final accidental is the “natural” this symbol neutralizes the sharp or flat that is either indicated at the beginning of the sheet music or within the sheet music (as I have just explained). When the sharp or flat is within the sheet music they will continue within that bar unless you see a natural, so if you see c flat then a c by itself you would play it as a c flat again.
When you see the natural (as per the image below) you play the note as per normal.
Repeat signs and volta brackets
The repeat sign does as the name suggests and is a bar or passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no repeat sign on the left, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar. The colon part of the repeat sign will be on the inner side of the passage to be repeated, as the image below:
Volta is Italian for time and Volta brackets (or time bars) are horizontal brackets labeled either with numbers or letters and are used when the repeated passage has more than one ending:
So with the above image you would play G F E D C D E F G F E D G F E D – Check out our sheet music for Für Elise -Beethoven to see the Volta brackets in action!
The tempo is the speed or pace of a given piece and is indicated at the start of the sheet music by a note = XX BPM.
This precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score.
For example the tempo for All of Me – John legend is 124 which means that 124 quarter notes/ crotchets fit into one minute. As you can see from our tempo scale below is pretty slow.
Dynamics and articulation marks
Dynamics are indicators of the intensity or volume of a piece – which in other words is how soft or hard you play the notes!
A piano was originally called a piano-forte which is Italian for quiet loud! Piano (quiet) is represented by a p and forte (loud) is represented by an f!
Extremely soft. You will hardly ever come across softer dynamics than this, which are specified with additional ps.
Soft. This dynamic is quite common.
Moderately soft; louder than piano.
Moderately loud. If there is no indicated dynamic, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.
Extremely loud. You won’t come across this or louder very often – louder pieces are indicated with an extra f.
A gradual increase in volume which can be increased depending on how stretched out it is.
A gradual decrease in volume. Can also be increased like the Crescendo.
Check out all the different dynamics in Bella’s Lullaby.
Don’t confuse dotted notes with staccato where there is a dot located beneath or on top of the note-head (see below), these indicate that the note should be played shorter than notated without changing the tempo of the piece. They are to played a bit like as if your piano is on fire so your fingers jump off the notes!
There you go! Your complete guide to reading sheet music! Who says it has to be complicated?
Why not try practising what you’ve learned? You can download all our sheet music online at jellynote.com Whether it be sheet music for piano, violin, voice or any other instrument, we’ve got you covered.
If you’re interested in improving your music theory skills, check out our 9 tips for sheet music success, told to us by professional teacher and musician Steve Journé.
The Jellynote Team x
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