How to Read Sheet Music: A Simple Step-By-Step for Beginners - Careers in Music
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Are you struggling to learn how to read sheet music?

Musicians at all levels struggle with learning to read music, and this is especially true for musicians who started out learning by ear. In this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how to get started and how to improve your music reading skills. We’ll cover the basic music notation symbols and what they mean, what to look for in sheet music and how to understand what you see.

Music is a universal language and if you can create music, you can learn how to read and write it as well. You can accelerate your learning using my step-by-step process, which includes understanding the following:

  • The staff
  • Clefs
  • Note names and how to remember where they lie on the staff
  • Accidentals
  • Note lengths/values
  • Rest lengths/values

We’ll also explore rhythm, meter, and tempo, key signatures, and additional knowledge that’ll be helpful as you learn how to read sheet music.

If you are learning to read, start with the basics, and then you will make progress as you learn what all the symbols and terms mean. Reading (or performing) music means taking the notes off of the page and putting them into the air.

When I look at a sheet of music, I don’t hear anything. To really know what’s there I must either play it on an instrument or sing it. If you are an instrumentalist you should still be able to sing everything you can play on your instrument. Let’s get right to the basics.

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

Notation Basics

The Staff

Notes are written on the staff, which consists of five horizontal lines and the spaces in between. Two staves can be combined to create the grand staff which is a bass and a treble staff connected by a brace.

Multiple staves can also be connected by a bracket when representing multiple instruments playing together.

Leger lines and spaces are used to extend the staff upwards and downwards. Consider that the higher a note is placed on the staff, the higher its pitch or sound.

Grand staff with clefs, brace, and leger lines; multiple instruments with bracket:

Musical Staff

Clefs

Clefs are placed on the staff to indicate the range and location of the notes. The most common clefs are the treble clef (a.k.a. G clef) and the bass clef (a.k.a. F clef). Different instruments use different clefs, depending on their range.

The range is simply the distance from the lowest to the highest note payable on an instrument. Some instruments, like viola, use the alto clef (a.k.a. C clef).

Certain instruments, like guitar, bass, saxophones, trumpets, and clarinet, transpose to a different range, meaning the notes sound at a different pitch than they are written. Piano, voice, violin, and flute are non-transposing instruments, meaning they sound exactly where they are written.

Treble, bass, and alto clefs:

Treble, bass, and alto clefs

Note Names (and How to Remember Where They Lie on the Staff)

I learned to read music as an adult, and I remember telling myself that if a young kid could learn to read music, so could I. Now, I get to teach other beginning readers, and we use these simple phrases to remember where the notes lie on the staff.

For the treble clef, the five lines from bottom to top are E, G, B, D, F, or Every Good Boy Does Fine, and the spaces are F, A, C, E, which spells FACE.

For the bass clef, it’s G, B, D, F, A, or Good Boys Do Fine Always, and the spaces are A, C, E, G, or All Cows Eat Grass.

Easy-peasy. The more you practice recognizing the notes on the staff, the quicker and easier it becomes.

Here’s an exercise you can try: Look at an unfamiliar piece of sheet music and just speak the note names that you see in the order they appear on the staff. See how quickly you can name them. You don’t need an instrument or to play or sing the notes, just name them. This will improve your note recognition ability quickly.

Grand staff with note names:

Grand staff with note names

Accidentals

Accidentals are the symbols placed in front of a note, to raise or lower the pitch, or to return it to the original pitch after it was altered. The most common are the sharp, flat, and natural.

The sharp raises the pitch by a half-step (a.k.a. semitone) and the flat lowers it the same amount. A natural, when applied to a note previously sharped or flatted, will return it to its original pitch.

Accidentals are canceled by a barline.

There is also such a thing as a double-sharp and a double-flat though they are not nearly as common.

Accidentals:

Accidentals

Note Lengths/Values

Where a note begins and ends in time, or its duration, is called the sound envelope. The basic rhythmic note values we are most used to seeing are the whole note which lasts four beats, the half-note lasting two beats, the quarter-note lasting one beat, the eighth-note lasting one-half a beat, and the sixteenth-note which lasts a quarter of a beat.

Adding a dot after a note increases its duration by one half. Ties also extend the duration of a note.

We use stems, flags, beams, and ties to indicate the duration of a note.

Notes on the staff with stems, flag, beams, and ties:

Notes on the staff with stems, flag, beams, and ties

Rest Lengths/Values

It’s important to understand that a rest is also a note, except the note is played silently. Yes, we actually have to “play” rests! This is such an important concept to grasp because we won’t know when to play the next note if we can’t tell the duration of a rest.

Rests use the same divisions of time as the notes in relation to the beat, but they are written differently. In reading, we learn to emphasize the value of the rests internally to compensate for there being no sound made during the rest.

Rests:

Rests

Rhythm, Meter, and Tempo

Meter

Meter is a recurring pattern of stress in an established pattern of strong and weak beats.

A meter of 3 will have the first beat stressed with the 2nd and 3d beats having less stress.

A meter of 4 will have recurring groups of 4 beats where the first beat has the primary stress, the 3rd beat secondary stress and the 2nd and 4th beats have less stress.

Meter of 3 and 4:

Meter of 3 and 4

Measure

A measure is a single complete pattern of the beats (meter) which is framed by bar lines. A measure is the exact same thing as a bar. See the image above.

Time Signature

Time signature is the arrangement of 2 numbers placed vertically in the staff following the clef and key signature. The top number indicates the number of beats in the bar, while the bottom number indicates the note value of each of the beats.

Time signature:

Time signature

Simple vs. Compound Time

Simple time means there is only one primary kind of beat, for example, 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4.

Compound time, as the name implies, has an underlying grid, usually of three 8th notes per beat. Thus, 6/8 would be 2 groupings of three 8th notes each, 9/8 would be 3 groupings, and 12/8 would be 4 times three 8th notes. These are the most common examples of compound time.

Simple vs. compound time:

Simple vs. compound time

Tempo Markings

Tempo markings are usually found at the very top of a piece of music, or at the beginnings of sections where there is a change in tempo. The tempo can be stated in subjective terms, using terms such as brightly or slowly, medium, medium-fast, allegro, andante, and so on, or they can be indicated using beats per minute.

Sometimes a stylistic rhythmic feel is indicated, such as swing or ballad.

Tempo and feel markings:

Tempo Markings

Accelerandos and Ritardandos

Music uses mostly Italian terms, as a convention. Accelerando is an instruction to the player or Conductor to increase the tempo gradually, while ritardando (usually marked as rit…) means slow the tempo down.

Accelerando and ritardando:

Accelerando and ritardando

Fermatas and Holds

The fermata looks like a little birds-eye (sometimes we call them that) and means the music should pause for a moment. The length of the pause may be left up to the players or Conductor.

Fermata:

Fermata

A tempo

A tempo means the players should return to the previous tempo that was in place prior to the change that was indicated by a fermata, accelerando, or ritardando.

A tempo marking:

A tempo marking

Key Signatures

Circle of 5ths

A key signature is placed at the beginning of the music on the staff, after the clef, and before the time signature. It’s a series of flats or sharps which ensure that notes written on the staff conform to the major scale in the key, or sometimes the relative minor.

Learning your key signatures is important to learning to read music, and the place to start is the circle of fifths. For each new key in the cycle, there is an order that the sharps or flats occur to maintain the 7-note sequence of the major or minor scale.

Circle of 5ths:

Circle of 5ths

Sharp Keys

If you look at the image above, you will see the clockwise direction starting from the top cycles through the seven sharp keys. A new sharp is added to the key signature for each key in order, up to seven sharps, the key of C#.

Flat Keys

If you look at the image above, you will see the counter-clockwise direction starting from the top cycles through the seven flat keys. A new flat is added to the key signature for each key in order, up to seven flats, the key of Cb.

Note that there are a total of 15 possible major keys and that some are enharmonic, for example, G flat is the same as F sharp. (I’ll explain what enharmonic means in a moment).

Relative Major and Minor Key

Also looking at the image above, you will see the relative minor keys listed inside the circle. Note that there is a relative minor key for each major key based on the 6th degree of the scale, or a minor 3rd below the root.

Additional Knowledge

Chord Symbols

Chord symbols are a kind of shorthand notation to indicate which chords are to be played for each bar or beat of music. Chord symbols provide information about the harmony, whether triads, seventh chords, or using added tensions (color tones representing the logical upward extension of the 6th or 7th chords, usually indicated as 9, 11, #11, 13, b9, #9, b13).

Chord symbols:

Chord symbols

Dynamics and Articulation Markings

Dynamic markings are used to indicate the intensity of the music, also sometimes thought of as volume. They comprise a spectrum from pianissimo (very quiet, marked as pp) to fortissimo (very loud, marked as ff) and are specific to an instrument.

For example, a solo violin marked ff could in actuality be softer in volume than an electric guitar marked pp. Gradual increases or decreases in volume are marked by a crescendo or decrescendo, sometimes called “wedges.”

Articulations are added to notes to indicate how the note is to be attacked, and the relative duration, stress, or phrasing of each note compared to others. Common articulations are the accent, staccato, tenuto, slur, bend, and fall markings. Articulations can also be used for an effect.

Dynamics and articulations:

Dynamics and articulations

Sheet Music vs. Lead Sheet and Tablature

When we are talking about sheet music we should realize that this term could mean different things to different people. For example, many songbooks contain music written for the piano, vocal, and guitar.

They may have a double-staff with piano accompaniment written in an arrangement to support the melody which is written above the lyric on a separate staff, with the guitar chord symbols placed above.

There is also sheet music for choir written in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass (or SATB for short). These types of sheet music are very different from a lead sheet which often shows only the chord symbols and melody written on a single stave.

Lead sheets are usually the simplest solution to learning a song with a band, mainly because you can get a lot of information in a very small space. I always prefer a lead sheet to piano/vocal/guitar sheet music because you can avoid lots of page turns, and can more easily create your own arrangement if you know how, instead of having to play someone else’s arrangement of the song.

I also abhor tablature (for guitar and bass) because it’s actually much easier to just read the music once you learn how.

Modes for Improvisation

Sometimes you will see music that is modal; that is, based on a specific mode, usually of the major scale. The mode might be indicated for an entire section or a few bars, meant to guide the accompaniment (chords, bass line), or for an improvised solo.

In this case, it’s assumed that the reader will be familiar with the mode, which most musicians are. For example, there might be a section of the music showing a number of bars with D Dorian indicated. In this example, the performers should limit themselves to only using notes or chords from the Dorian scale based on D minor, the second degree of the C major scale.

D Dorian mode:

D Dorian mode

Ad Lib

A section of music with the notation ad lib means the performer is literally “at liberty” to create their own part for the music. This is usually within a harmonic setting as indicated by a chord symbol, and could be a solo section, or a short fill somewhere in the music.

Sometimes you will see ad lib marked on an ending (usually with a fermata) which means the musician can play whatever they want on the last hold of the piece. Keep in mind that whatever is played ad lib still needs to honor the specific context, whether stylistically, harmonically, or melodically.

Ad lib marking on a part:

Ad lib marking on a part

Enharmonic Spelling

A note or a chord can have more than one name. For example, a Db is the same note as a C#. We would say that this is an enharmonic spelling.

There are times when it is more appropriate to use an enharmonic note or chord since it fits in more with a certain key. Enharmonic spelling is something to be aware of since we sometimes see errors that could confuse us in a piece of sheet music.

Special Instructions

Sometimes you will see some special instructions written on a part, as it seems the Composer or Arranger couldn’t find the exact musical symbols to express the sound they wanted. The imagination seems to be the limit, as you will read that you are to negotiate a passage playfully, or perform a note with a growl.

Using a written word can sometimes express in a unique way what the intended sound should be like. The player will often be asked to interpret descriptive terms, and a skilled musician learns how to get creative when reading music off of a page. After all, it is the musician who must breathe life into the music.

Conclusion

Learning by ear is how musicians learn traditionally, by emulating sounds they hear either on voice or an instrument. Only later do they learn to put names on the sounds and then learn to read. So don’t worry too much if you haven’t yet learned to read sheet music.

It’s probably better that you don’t start grappling with learning to read until you are ready for it since the process also comes with a certain amount of frustration and will take some patience on your part. There’s also a seemingly endless amount of variation and symbols in use. It’s more useful and appropriate to start reading when you have some performing skills already in place.

There are many advantages to learning how to read sheet music, for example, the ability to play with a group or to play music written for another instrument on your own instrument. Whether you decide to do it on your own or with a Teacher, once you make up your mind you want to learn how to read music, rest assured with the knowledge that you will do it.

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