How to Read Music: The Illustrated Guide

Learning how to read music is essential for all musicians. Reading music opens up lots of new possibilities for your creativity.

Whether you want to write down your ideas, play sheet music, or just understand what’s going on in a song, reading music is the best way to move forward.

But reading sheet music is hard, especially for beginners. Music is a language and learning to read and write it can take some practice.

But the basic concepts aren’t difficult once you understand how they work. Once you grasp the foundation you’ll be on your way to reading music well.

In this article I’ll go through everything you need to learn how to read music.

How to read sheet music

When you first look at a piece of sheet music you’ll see lines, spaces and different types of notes and markings.

I’ll break down each element of music notation and explain how it works.

Music note names: The musical alphabet

The notes of the musical alphabet are A-B-C-D-E-F-G

The letter names of the musical notes identify their pitch. Each note letter has a specific place on the musical staff to let you know it’s letter name.

Let’s take a closer look at the staff.

Staff lines and spaces

The musical staff is made up of five lines and four spaces.

The position on the lines and spaces tells you the pitch and letter name of a note on the staff.

The position on the lines and spaces tells you the pitch and letter name of a note on the staff.

I’ll get to how to identify notes in a second, but first you’ll need to pay attention to the symbol at the beginning of the staff.

Treble Clef and Bass Clef

The staff marking at the start of each line tell you the register of the instrument and how to read the notes.

Notation for bass instruments is written in bass clef and notation for other instruments is commonly written in treble clef.

There are other clefs as well (like alto clef for viola music!) but they’re used much less often, so I’ll focus on bass and treble clefs here.

How to find notes on the staff

The names of the notes on the lines and spaces follow a set order that you can remember easily with a rhyme.

The names of the notes on the lines and spaces follow a set order that you can remember easily with a rhyme.

There are two for the treble clef:

  • Starting from the bottom line in the treble clef, the rhyme goes: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.
  • Starting from the bottom space on the treble clef, the notes spell out FACE.

note names treble clef

The pattern is the same for the bass clef, beginning on a different note:

  • Starting from the first line of the bass clef, the rhyme goes: Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always
  • Starting from the first space of the bass clef, the rhyme goes All Cows Eat Grass

note names bass clef

The notes above and below the staff follow the same pattern.

Ledger lines

Ledger lines are added to notate pitches above and below the staff. These notes follow the same order and naming pattern as the notes on the staff.

Ledger lines are added to notate pitches above and below the staff.

They’re written with short lines that just cover the span of the note head itself to help you see the lines and spaces.

Sharps and flats: Music accidentals

The notes on the staff alone won’t give you all twelve musical notes.

If you’ve been watching closely you might have noticed that the notes you’ve seen so far don’t include the black keys on the keyboard.

To write the notes in between the white keys you’ll need to modify the notes on the staff with accidentals.

sharps and flats musical staff

A sharp is written with the # symbol. It tells you to raise the note one semitone higher.

A flat is written with the ♭ symbol. It tells you to lower the note one semitone lower

The natural symbol cancels a sharp or flat and returns the note to its original state. It’s written with the ♮ symbol.

music accidentals sharp flat natural

Key signatures

The key signature is the collection of sharps or flats at the beginning of a line of sheet music that indicates the key of the song.

The key signature is the collection of sharps or flats at the beginning of a line of sheet music that indicates the key of the song.

Unless the score tells you otherwise with accidentals, maintain the sharps and flats on the lines and spaces written in the key signature throughout the song.

To fully understand key signatures you’ll have to take a look at the circle of fifths. But there’s a simple tip to read key signatures quickly to know which key you’re in.

For major keys with sharps: the last sharp in the key signature is the leading tone of the key.

The leading tone is 7th degree in the scale. Count up one semitone from the last sharp to determine the key’s root.

For major keys with flats, the second to last flat in the key signature is the key’s tonic—it’s as simple as that.

how to read key signatures

Time signature

Musical passages are divided into segments called measures. Each measure contains a set number of beats.

The time signature shows you how many beats are in a measure and which note value is equal to one beat. It’s written at the start of the piece with two numbers stacked on top of each other.

The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure and the bottom number tells you note value of a single beat.

The time signature shows you how many beats are in a measure and which note value is equal to one beat.

The most common time signature is 4/4. In 4/4 time there are four beats in a measure and the quarter note is equal to one beat.

music time signature

Underneath the time signature at the beginning of the music you will often see a tempo marking with a BPM range or an Italian term that describes the feel of the tempo.

This tells you how slow or fast to play during a performance.

How to read rhythm

Each note has a rhythm value that determines its duration in a piece of music.

Rhythms are written using the shape of the note heads, stems and the beams between connected notes.

Rhythms are written using the shape of the note heads, stems and the beams between connected notes.

Each rhythm value is a fraction of the total time in a measure.

  • A whole note lasts the entire bar. In common time (4/4) that means its duration is four whole beats. It’s written using a hollow note head with no stem.
  • A half note lasts half the bar or 2 beats. It’s written using a hollow note head with a stem attached.
  • A quarter note lasts for one quarter of a bar or 1 beat. It’s written with a solid note head and stem
  • An eighth note lasts for half a beat. It’s written with a solid note head and stem with a flag. When several eighth notes are written together, they’re connected with a beam.
  • A sixteenth note lasts for one quarter of a beat. It’s written with a solid note head and stem with two flags. When multiple sixteenth notes are connected with a beam.

 

rhythmic value of notes and rests in common time

Even further divisions are possible, but these are the main note values you’ll see as you’re learning how to read music.

Dotted notes and triplets

There are more rhythmic possibilities than just equal subdivisions of the measure.

A dot symbol beside a note means that it’s duration is extended by half its original value.

A dot symbol beside a note means that it’s duration is extended by half its original value.

That sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Let’s look at the common example of a dotted quarter note.

In 4/4 time a quarter note is one full beat. The dot adds another half quarter note value to its total duration.
Half a quarter note = one eighth note. That means that a dotted quarter note is worth a total of 1.5 beats—simple!

rhythmic value of dotted notes in common time

Hot tip: a dotted note is normally followed by the note value that will “fill in” the missing partial division.

For example, a dotted quarter note will often be followed by an eighth note.

Triplets are another special case. They’re written with a “3” symbol above the beam or bracketed above the stems.

Triplets are a type of irregular rhythm where three notes are meant to fit into the space of one. It sounds complicated on paper—but it’s easy to feel when you hear it in context.

Ties and rests

So far we’ve only talked about notes and how long they last. But what you don’t play is just as important.

Rests are the music notation for intervals of silence between notes. They have their own rhythmic values to tell you how long they last.

Rests are the music notation for intervals of silence between notes.

The duration of a rest is determined by its shape.

Here are the types are rests and their duration:

rhythmic values of notes and rests

 

The last element of rhythmic notation I’ll cover are ties.

Ties are curved lines that connect notes of the same pitch together. They tell you to hold the note for the duration of both values combined.

Read between the lines

Reading music is like learning a whole new language. It’s tough at first, but it leads to serious developments in your skills.

Use this guide to start learning how to read music, and refer back to it if you get stuck.

Now that you have a head start, go start playing—and reading—your favourite sheet music.

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