How to Read Sheet Music – 5 Basics You Must Know Before You Can Play

Reading sheet music is daunting to many people who want to learn how to play musical instruments. Learning how to read sheet music requires understanding some basic points. You must know five basics before you can play.

Learn the notes on the staff

Before you can play music, first you have to learn the names of the notes on both the lines and the spaces of the staff. To learn them, look at the clef symbol at the beginning of each staff. It tells you the clef of your piece. The treble clef is usually the common clef used for many beginning musicians. For this clef, from bottom to top, the five lines are E-G-B-D-F. Remember, “every good boy does fine.” Next, learn the word “face” to know the space notes from bottom to top (F-A-C-E).

Learn the various dividers of the piece

Second, you have to know the basic marks that divide the entire piece into measures and sections. Single vertical lines called bar lines divide the piece into measures. At the end of the piece, there will be an ending bar line formed by a bar line followed closely by a thick vertical line. Some songs will also have one or more pairs of closely spaced double vertical lines that divide the piece into sections.

Learn the time signature

Third, you must know basic information about the overall timing of the song in each measure. At the beginning of the piece, after the clef symbol, look at the two numbers stacked one on top of the other. These numbers are the time signature for the piece. The top number tells you how many beats there will be in one measure. The bottom number tells you what kind of note will get one beat. These numbers along with the time values of the notes show you how to count each measure.

Learn the notes and the rests

Fourth, learn some basic information concerning the time values of various notes and rests. Every note will have an oval note head. It may also have a vertical stem (attached to the note head on the right side of the head in simple songs) and one or more flags (attached to the stem on the side opposite the oval). Based on differing combinations of these parts of the notes, you will play and hold notes for differing numbers of beats. In a song with a time signature of 4/4, here is the duration of four basic notes that you will play:

  • Whole note – clear note head – lasts for 4 beats – count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” but play only on beat 1
  • Half note – clear note head with stem – lasts for 2 beats – count “1 and 2 and” but play only on beat 1
  • Quarter note – blackened note head with stem – lasts for 1 beat – count “1 and”
  • Eighth note – blackened note head with stem and flag – lasts for 1/2 a beat – count either using the number of the beat alone (if the eighth note is on the first half of a beat) or the word “and” (if it is on the second half of a beat)

A dot after any note increases the time value of the note by fifty percent of its original value. Rests that denote silence for different time durations match the four basic note durations above and are counted in the same way:

  • Whole rest – thin horizontal rectangle hanging down from the D line of the staff – silence for 4 beats
  • Half rest – thin horizontal rectangle sitting on the middle line of the staff – silence for 2 beats
  • Quarter rest – special symbol that looks somewhat like a vertical lightning bolt – silence for 1 beat
  • Eighth rest – looks somewhat like a fancy cursive “7” – silence for ½ a beat

Learn the accidentals

Finally, you need to know the basics about special symbols called accidentals that indicate when the pitch of a note is altered from its normal pitch. The accidentals found between the clef symbol and the time signature show what notes are altered each time they occur in the piece. The basic accidentals to learn are the following:

  • Sharp – looks a lot like a pound sign; raises the pitch of your note half a step (move to the next key to the right on a piano or to the next fret closer to the body of a guitar)
  • Flat – lowercase letter “b”; lowers the pitch of your note half a step (move to the first key on the left on a piano or to the next fret closer to the head of a guitar)
  • Natural – cancels the effect (for the rest of the measure that it is in) of a preceding sharp or flat; a natural also cancels (for the rest of the measure that it is in) any sharp or flat indicated at the beginning of the piece in the key signature; a natural thus restores a note to its normal pitch

Besides the accidentals that may be found at the beginning of the piece, accidentals can also occur elsewhere in the piece. Such accidentals only apply for the rest of the measure in which they are found and will be right before the note head whose pitch they alter.

These are only basic points in learning how to read sheet music; you will be learning a lot more as you further increase your ability to play from sheet music. By learning, however, these five basics that you must know before you can play, you will be well on your way to knowing how to read sheet music.

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