How to Read Sheet Music

How to Read Sheet Music

In this article, we will explore ways to approach reading music from a page (sheet music). We will examine the different kinds of music reading, describe various forms of written music such as melodies, chords, and bass lines, describe some different kinds of sheet music, and offer tips to help musicians of all levels and abilities improve their reading.

Some areas we will explore in our discussion of how to read sheet music are:

  1. What is “reading” and why it’s important
  2. Reading on your instrument
  3. Different types of reading: sight-reading vs. reading
  4. Different types of sheet music
  5. How to improve your reading ability (Chops)
  6. A few final notes: transposition, clefs, counting

Most of my students are surprised when I tell them I didn’t learn to read music until I was 25 years old. As a rock guitar player without any formal training, I had taught myself to play by learning songs from recordings and off the radio. I knew a lot of songs and could play many chords and scales, even though I didn’t know what they were called. When I finally entered music college I had to learn to read quickly. It took me about two years, and it wasn’t easy. I told myself at the time that if a five-year-old child could learn to read music, so could I. It took some time, hard work, and patience, but I eventually became a good reader on my instrument.

It didn’t help that the guitar happens to be a difficult instrument to read music on, because of the inconsistent tuning of the six strings (all are tuned in 4ths except there is one 3d in the middle). Also, on guitar, there is almost always more than one place a note can be found. I had never learned to read tablature and consider myself lucky in that respect. I don’t like tablature for guitar because I feel it isn’t any easier to learn than regular music reading, and it limits your choices of where to play the notes on the neck. For those that read tablature, don’t worry; I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” about using it, I just never did so myself. For guitarists, whether or not you use tablature, you should still learn to read actual written music, so you can play melodies written for other instruments.

Reading on Your Instrument

As my story with reading and the guitar implies, your choice of instrument will affect how you read music. It might even affect what you read. For example, the guitar and piano can play chords (3 or more notes simultaneously), while a trumpet, flute, or saxophone can only play single notes. A trumpet cannot play a chord, so readers on that instrument will be reading melodies only, while a guitar or piano may be reading melody, bass line, and chords all at the same time. I remember once seeing a Church Organist playing a Bach piece with three melodies going on all together: one for the right hand, one for the left, and a bass melody using the pedals. Back then, I found it amazing that anyone could do that, and I am still amazed by it. It takes a lot of training and practice to be able to do that.

Accessing professional opportunities was my main motivation for learning to read and write music in my mid-twenties. I knew how to play my instrument fairly well, but I could not arrange music, or play with groups using written parts, such as pit orchestras. I could play with small rock and blues combos, but there wasn’t a lot of other kinds of music I could play in groups, and I wanted to broaden my musical horizons and become more versatile as a musician. Learning to read and write music was the key.

What Is “Reading” and Why Is It Important?

A musician (in Western musical traditions) spends his or her life doing two things:

  1. Taking music on the paper and putting it into the air
  2. Taking music from the air and putting it on paper

The first activity is called “reading” or “performing,” and the second is called “transcription” or “writing.” The sum of the two might be called “music literacy.” Not all professional musicians read and write music. It’s a good skill to have and most musicians eventually do learn to read. (The Beatles famously didn’t read music when they were writing all their songs, but Paul McCartney knows how to read music today.)

Imagine if you lived in a foreign country and could speak the language but couldn’t read or write. You wouldn’t understand signs or newspapers, or be able to follow current events and read about the history of the country — you would be at some disadvantage to all the others who could read and write the language. Music is a universal language, so the analogy holds. Music literacy opens the door to all kinds of new knowledge, experience, and capabilities. It also can open professional career opportunities to you.

Accessing professional opportunities was my main motivation for learning to read and write music in my mid-twenties. I knew how to play my instrument fairly well, but I could not arrange music, or play with groups using written parts, such as pit orchestras. I could play with small rock and blues combos, but there wasn’t a lot of other kinds of music I could play in groups, and I wanted to broaden my musical horizons and become more versatile as a musician. Learning to read and write music was the key. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. I recommend that if you are not a music reader or writer, that you become musically literate as soon as possible. It will enhance the depth and breadth of your musical experience, and open up professional opportunities if you are seeking them.

Different Types of Reading: Sight-reading Vs. Reading

Let’s get right to the point: there are actually two kinds of reading: what we call reading and sight reading. There is one important difference between the two. Reading is when you have practiced playing a piece of music but have not yet memorized it. This means you are reading the music from the page and playing it on your instrument after preparing to do so (voice is also an instrument). Sight-reading is different from reading in that you are playing a piece of music from a page, without ever having seen it before. In other words, you are seeing a piece of written music for the first time, and playing it on your instrument immediately. You only get one chance to sight-read a piece of music, whereas you can take your time to practice and study a written piece for performance, and then read it.

These two types of reading are related but they require some different skills. Sight-reading demands that the musician very quickly size up the music on the page, noting the key of the piece, analyzing the structure and form, and looking ahead to see where any difficult passages might lie. With only a few seconds to look it over, the sight reader practices quickly finding the notes and executing the rhythms, while one eye looks ahead in real-time at the next few measures to play. Sight-reading is a special skill musicians hone through daily practice over long periods of time. To become an excellent sight-reader takes patience, hard work, and long periods of dedicated practice with reading new and unfamiliar material. Though it seems like magic to the uninitiated, anyone can learn to do it if they are willing to put in the time and effort.

Learning to read well likewise takes practice and effort. The main difference is that music readers have time to prepare and learn the music on the page, perhaps even listening to the established recordings of the piece of music. Reading well demands attention to detail and respect for all the intricacies of a piece, such as interpreting dynamics, articulations, and phrasing. If you’ve ever watched an orchestra performance, you’ve seen musicians reading music.

Different Types of Sheet Music

There are also different kinds of written music we as professionals are expected to be able to read (and write). Sometimes we have a simple chord chart with only the chords, number of bars, and rhythmic figures shown. Often, less is more. If I am playing guitar accompaniment for a singer, I do not need to see the melody written. In fact, it would be a distraction. (There is one exception to this: when we use Rubato time.) If I am playing a horn melody, it might be better to not have the chords there. Arranging music for bands and orchestras is an art form, and much relies on what the players need to see, or not see. A pet peeve of mine is when singers at an audition or rehearsal bring in piano/vocal sheet music and ask the band to read it. There’s way too much information on the sheet, which can make it nearly impossible for the bassist or the drummer to follow, for example. They would much rather look at music written specifically for their instrument, or a simple chord sheet showing just the form and measures of each section of the song.

Nashville studios musicians are known for their Nashville number system, which uses numbers instead of chord symbols, in order to make it simple to change the key of the song. There are other types of written music systems, such as the figured bass used by Classical musicians hundreds of years ago, no longer in use today outside of historical music ensembles. Regardless, it’s a useful skill to be ready for reading all kinds of music, even when it is full of mistakes! One pointer: don’t rely on published sheet music to be accurate. For singers, it’s a good idea to take any music you want to use for an Accompanist at an audition to a skilled instrumentalist first, so they can tell you if it will work and if there are any mistakes. Published sheet music is notoriously full of errors, so beware!

Musicians call this acquired ability to do something chops and practicing diligently is part of paying dues as a musician. One way to look at it is that the time is going to go by anyway, whether you practice or not. The only difference between practicing and not practicing is, if you fail to practice, your ability will be the same (or worse) after the time has passed. If you invest the time and effort, you will see great progress.

How to Improve Your Reading Ability (Chops)

There’s that old joke about the man who stops a bystander on the street in New York City to ask how to get to the legendary Carnegie Hall. The bystander answers: Practice! It’s a funny joke for musicians, as they know it to be based in an element of truth, as most funny jokes are. There aren’t any shortcuts for learning how to read. To become a good reader of music, you must sit down every day to practice. Steady and consistent practice is really the only way to get there. I recommend you practice reading music every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you need to take a break sometimes to get away and clear your head for a few days or a week, go ahead and do that, but come back at it as soon as you feel you are able to focus on it with renewed vigor. The more you do it, and the longer you do it for, the better you will become.

Musicians call this acquired ability to do something chops and practicing diligently is part of paying dues as a musician. One way to look at it is that the time is going to go by anyway, whether you practice or not. The only difference between practicing and not practicing is, if you fail to practice, your ability will be the same (or worse) after the time has passed. If you invest the time and effort, you will see great progress. Progress can seem slow at times, but don’t let that discourage you. Keeping at it, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year is what will turn you into an expert reader and sight-reader. And those are highly valuable and impressive musical skills. The best part of it is that you will know you earned it.

A Few Final Notes: Transpositions, Clefs, Counting

You should be aware that certain instruments are transposing instruments. This means that they do not read in the same part of the staff as where they sound. For example, the guitar and bass transpose up one octave. This means that in order for them to play a middle C on the piano, one would need to write the note an octave higher on the staff. Pay attention to the clef an instrument reads in. Guitar reads in the treble clef while bass reads in bass clef. Piano and harp use both clefs together. The woodwinds all read in treble clef, but they transpose up different intervals. For example, the alto and baritone sax transpose up a major 6th and 13th respectively, while the tenor sax transposes up a major 9th, the soprano sax up a 2nd, as does the clarinet and the trumpet. Flute and violin are non-transposing and use the treble clef, while the trombone normally uses bass clef but can also read in treble clef. Viola reads in the alto clef unless the notes get high in the range; then they can switch to treble clef. It can get a bit confusing when you are first learning, but it’s really not so difficult once you have an understanding of how the various instruments read, and what their ranges are. Most important at the outset is to know about your own instrument, whether or not it transposes, and what clef is normally used.

A correct pitch, when played at the wrong time, is a wrong note. Learning to count rhythms is, therefore, a very important aspect of learning to read music. To help you improve your rhythmic reading ability, there are exercises and tutorial programs one can find either online, using apps, or in books. Drum books often have simple to complex rhythms written out that anyone could use to practice reading rhythms. There is also rhythmic solfege (naming the notes based on where they fall, e.g. “1 + 2 +”) to show where the down-beats and up-beats are. The word syncopation refers to notes that are off the beat, and written music is often highly syncopated, so learning to recognize and read these kinds of rhythms is important.

Just like when you learned to read English, you first had to learn the letters and rules of spelling before you could recognize words and phrases quickly. Learning to read music is no different. You get the basics of the alphabet first, and how the letters sound. Then you put these letters and sounds into words, and later, sentences. Things that were difficult early on, later become easy. Anyone who makes up their mind to learn to read music can do so if they are willing to invest the time and practice.

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