How To Read Musical Notes: Advice for all Musical Instruments

Learn the Notes on a Musical Staff and Identify Pitch, Half Notes and More

Boy playing with his piano

No matter which musical instrument you choose to master, it all begins with learning to read musical notation. Musical notes are to music as words are to literature or numbers are to mathematics. They are the critical basics that need to become second nature to musicians before any other musical theory can be appreciated. While there are complete lesson books dedicated to learning the notes on a musical staff, this article is a crash course on interpreting musical notation. 

Let's learn how to read musical notes:

  1. When you look at a piece of music written for the piano, you should notice two separate collections of five lines. One will have a very stylized letter G on the left hand side and the other will have a curved line and two dots. Originally, this was an equally stylized letter F, but the horizontal lines were dropped. These are called staffs or clefs. The one with the G is called a treble clef and the one with the F is called a bass clef. You may see a note written on a short line between the two clefs. The short lines above and below the main staffs are called ledger lines. A note called middle C is on that central ledger line.
  2. Every musical note has several values to interpret at one time. You need to know how high or low the pitch of the note is and how fast to play it. Let's start with reading a note for pitch. Each line or space on the staff represents one specific note on the piano. Musicians assign letters to each of these notes, A through G. We know middle C sits on its own ledger line below the G clef, so the space above it must be a D note. The first line of the treble clef is therefore an E, then the space above it must be an F and the next line a G. After G, the notes start over again with A and continue up the lines and spaces.
  3. If the music is moving in a lower direction, then how to read music notesthe space below middle C is a B, then the top line of the bass (F) clef is an A, followed by G in the space below and F on the second line from the top and so on down the spaces and lines of the bass clef. All of these notes correspond to a real note on the piano, so pitch is determined by how high or low the note is placed on the staffs. A note on the upper line of the G clef is going to sound higher than a note at the bottom of the F clef. This helps musicians learn to sing or play notes on sight, even if they can't see all of the staff lines.
  4. Now that you can identify the pitch of a note based on its position, the next thing to interpret is duration. A note may be played very quickly or very slowly, depending on the needs of the song. A musician needs to know how long to hold each note, so a musical note also has this information built into it. Next to the F or G are numbers such as 4/4 or 3/4 or 2/2. This tells the musician how many beats are in one measure of music, and which type of note gets a full beat. In the case of 4/4, there are four beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat. A measure is marked off by a vertical line, and the notes are divided into whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and so on.
  5. A whole note looks like an open, hollow oval. This note is held for all of the beats in a measure. A half note looks like a hollow oval with a vertical line extending from the right side. It is held for half the beats in a measure. The quarter note looks like a solid oval, again with a vertical line on the right. In 4/4 time, it is played four time in one measure. The notes are then divided into eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds and even sixty-fourths. These faster notes are connected with a number of flags at the top of the vertical lines. The more flags there are, the faster the note should be played.
  6. When a musician reads musical notation, he or she combines all of this information together. The note's placement on the staff tells him or her exactly which note to sing or play. Some instruments are pitched lower than others, so different musicians learn to read different staffs. A bass singer may rarely sing a note above middle C, but a soprano might sing notes above the G clef on several ledger lines.
  7. Once the pitch of the note is determined, then the musician translates the duration by timing each note against the established beat. He or she knows to hold a whole note for four counts, for example, or play eighth notes very quickly. Other notation might tell musicians to slur notes together or play them individually.
  8. One last thing to look for when reading musical notation is the changing of a pitch. Because different scales require different note intervals, composers often raise or lower pitches by a half-step. These notations are called accidentals. You may see what looks like a small letter b or a # in front of a note. This means the note should be played a half-step lower (flat) or a half-step higher (sharp). Another symbol, called a natural, cancels out any other sharps or flats. You'll learn more about these symbols and key signatures in a more advanced musical theory course.

You now know how to read music notes for all musical instruments you decide to play.


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