How to Read Music

Reading music could seem like a daunting task, especially for someone who does not have any background. Music uses its own language using signs and symbols. To understand music, you need to understand what the symbols mean. The shape and position of the symbols have meanings that the reader needs to understand.

I. The Staff – The staff is made up of five lines with four spaces in between. Each of these corresponds to a note. This is used as the basic space where the other symbols are placed.

II. Clefs – These are symbols placed at the beginning of staffs. These show the readers what kind of notes the staff corresponds to.

A. Treble Clef (G-clef)

This clef is used in writing music for musical voices, such as sopranos, altos, and tenors. Music played by most woodwind instruments, high brass instruments, and stringed instruments, like guitar and violin, are also written on a treble clef staff. In addition, the notes written with this clef typically corresponds to the notes played with the right hand on the piano.

The notes played on the lines of a treble clef staff, are (from bottom to top):

E G B D F

The mnemonic phrases “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” or “Every Good Boy Does Fine” can be used to remember the order of these notes.

The notes written in the spaces between the lines are as follows (from bottom to top):

F A C E

This sequence is easily remembered because it spells the word “FACE.”

B. Base clef (F-Clef)

This clef is used to write music for lower pitched instruments, such as the bassoon and the base, and low brass instruments, such as the tuba and the trombone. The notes written on a Base clef staff corresponds to the notes played by the left hand on the piano.

The following are the notes played on the lines of a base clef staff (from bottom to top):

G B D F A

The mnemonic phrases “Good Buritos Don’t Fall Apart” or “Good Boys Do Fine Always” can help remember the sequence of these notes.

The notes written in the spaces between the lines of a base clef staff are as follows, (from bottom to top):

A C E G

This sequence can be remembered with the aid of the mnemonic device “All Cows Eat Grass.”

III. Key Signatures – These symbols are located directly to the right of the clef. These symbols may be a flat, a sharp, or natural.

A flat written on any line or space of the staff indicates that the notes located on that line or space should be played flat. This means it should be played one semi-tone lower. This symbol looks like the lower case of the letter “b.”

A sharp written on a line or a space in any staff indicates that all notes written on that line or space should be played one semi-tone higher. This symbol looks like a number or a pound sign (#).

A natural sign written on a line or a space of any staff indicates that the notes written on these lines and spaces should be as one would normally play it. It cancels out the sharp or the flat by placing it before a particular note. It looks like this: ♮.

IV. Time Signatures – Time signatures indicate the number and kind of notes there are per measure. They usually consist of two numbers and appear like a fraction. The number on top determines the number of beats per measure. For example, the time signature ¾ means that there are three beats in a measure.

On the other hand, the number at the bottom typically indicates which note gets a beat. The number at the bottom could be 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16. These numbers corresponds to a specific note, as indicated in the table below:

Bottom Number Note

1 Whole note

2 Half note

4 Quarter note

8 Eighth note

16 Sixteenth note

Thus, the time signature ¾ means three quarter notes per measure, and 5/2 means five half notes per measure.

V. Types of Notes

  • Whole note – similar to a small unfilled circle. It is worth four beats in common time.
  • Half note – appears just like a whole note with a neck on its side. It is worth half the duration of a whole note.
  • Quarter note – similar to a half note, but with its center filled. It is worth ¼ the duration of a whole note.
  • Eighth note – similar to a half note with a curly line at the end of the neck. It may be placed in groups of four, three, or two. These notes are worth1/8 of the duration of a whole note.
  • Sixteenth note – similar to a quarter note, but has double curlies at the end of its neck. It may also be placed in groups of four, three, or two, joined by a double line. These notes are worth 1/16 of the duration of a whole note.

VI. Rests

  • Whole rest – appears like dark rectangles suspended from the second line from the top of a staff. They are worth the same duration as whole notes.
  • Half rest – appears like dark rectangles sitting atop the third line of a staff. It is worth the duration of a half note.
  • Quarter rests – these are represented by a distinctive symbol that looks like a bird flying sideways. These are worth the same length as quarter notes.