How To Read Sheet Music

Learning to read sheet music can seem daunting to some people, especially those with no prior musical background. Sheet music contains its own little language documented on paper. The key is to find a way to crack the code, read music, and be able to play or sing on the pitch of each note.

If you want to learn how to read music, then you have come to the right place. The following article contains a guide that will teach you how to read sheet music as well as lists resources you can use to learn more about music, in general.

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  1. The structure of sheet music. Sheet music is set up with a specific structure. The staff of the sheet music is made up of everything you will need to be able to read music. Depending on a variety of factors, the staff will tell you exactly what notes you will need to play. The first thing you need to do is be able to identify the staff.

    • What is the staff? The staff is a set of five lines and four spaces. Each space and line has the name of a note. On the staff, you will find notes, a time signature, a clef sign, a key signature, and various markings that will affect the tempo and pitch of each note. All of these things work together to create the music that is played or sung.
    • What are clefs and why do we use them? Based on what instrument you play - piano, guitar (acoustic or bass), violin, trombone, you name it - or what voice you sing (tenor, bass, alto, soprano, etc.) your music will be written in one of two clefs (treble clef&bass clef). These clefs are used to let you know what octave you are playing the notes in, as well as what notes will be played.

      • The treble clef - The treble clef is used for most musical voices including soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, and tenor. It is also used for the higher pitched instruments such as the alto clarinet, the B-Flat clarinet, the flute, oboe, violin and trumpet. The treble clef can be memorized by the following acronyms.

        Lines - Every Good Boy Does Fine

        Spaces - F A C E
      • The bass clef - The bass clef is used for the bass and baritone voices and lower instruments such as the tuba, trombone, and sousaphone. The bass clef was created because the notes for these lower instruments would be so low beneath the Treble Clef staff it would be very hard to write music that was easy for players to read.

        The bass clef notes can be memorized by:

        Lines -Good Boys Do Fine Always

        Spaces - All Cows Eat Grass

    • The key signature: Some notes are flat, some are natural, and some are sharp. Which notes are sharp, flat, or natural will be marked either next to individual notes if they are played as such one or two times through a piece or in something called the key signature if they are played as such throughout the entire piece.

      The key signature is located directly to the right of the clef sign. Which notes are sharp or flat depend on scales and keys. To learn more about the various key signatures you can check out the following website:

    • The time signature: Near the beginning of the staff, there is a symbol marking, or a fraction. This tells how many notes per measure will be played. The staff is split up into measures. Each measure is separated by a vertical line. The standard key signature is 4/4 time. It is usually denoted by a large black C.

      Other common time signatures are 2/2 time (cut time), 2/4 time, 3/4 time, and 6/8 time. The time signature is written after the key signature, but before any notes on the staff.
  2. Notes, notes, and more notes. The fundamental structure of each pitch is denoted by a music note. There are plenty of things you need to know about a note before you can play or sing music. The most common things you will need to know is how long to hold each note, whether the note is sharp, natural, or flat, and what the name of each note is so it can be played.

    • Name that note: Notes have a letter name from A-G. Once a note gets to G, it starts over again at A. Notes from A to A, B to B, C to C, and so on denote one whole octave. Octaves can move up or down, and the standard singer has between two and four octaves their voice can sing comfortably.

    • Hold the note as long as you can! It would be difficult for an orchestra to make music together if they did not know how long to hold each note. Each instrument would go off on their own beat or melody, and nothing would come together properly. This is why it is so important you know what each note looks like and how long you are supposed to hold the note based on how they look.

      Whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes are common in sheet music. There are other types of notes though these are less common. The notes work together with the time signature to determine how many beats per measure should be held. The standard hold for each note is written with the time signature of 4/4 in mind. However, as time signatures change, how long you hold the note will change, as well.

  3. All those funny symbols. There are many different symbols throughout sheet music. Every symbol is important. Based on what symbol you are looking at you may need to play notes or the musical piece in general faster or slower, bars should be repeated, notes should be held, or the music should get louder or quieter.

    • Tempo changes. The changes in tempo are denoted by a symbol for an Italian word. Here is a list and pictures of the various tempo changes music can experience:

    • Volume changes. Changes in volume help to improve the mood of the piece. Not every piece of music is sung or played as loud as the person can sing. Changes in volume help to make the music more enjoyable and dramatic so works are not stagnant in tone. Here is a list of the following volume changes as well as pictures of their symbols:

    • Other symbols - There are many other symbols such as holds, ties, crescendo marks, repeats, rests, and so much more. Depending on how long you have studied music you may or may not know what these symbols mean.

      Check out Virginia Tech's music dictionary for an explanation of all of the terms and symbols that are necessary to know if you plan to read sheet music:

  4. Pianos do things differently. Pianos are unique in the fact that they are one of the few instruments which use both the treble clef and the bass clef at the same time. While a clarinet player only needs to know the treble clef to play and a bass only needs to know the bass clef to sing, pianists need to know both if they wish to learn piano and excel at their craft.

    The left hand of a pianist is used to play the notes on the bass clef of piano sheet music. The right hand of a pianist is used to play the notes on the treble clef of the piano sheet music. One of the hardest parts of playing the piano is learning to read both clefs and play them at the same exact time since piano music is written in such a way that both hands are used to play at the same time. This takes quite a bit of practice until a pianist can truly get the hang of it.

  5. Learn from a professional - Take music lessons. If you wish to become a singer or musician, you may choose to learn how to read sheet music from a professional. Solid music education is immensely helpful in learning to play guitar, piano, oboe, violin or any instrument. A professional has been trained to the point where it is second nature to read music, and all the various instrumentation markings that are listed in the music.

    There are many different places you can take music lessons. Your local College or University should be able to offer non-student music education to those who are willing to pay for it. Usually, these music lessons cost upwards of $20 per half an hour lesson. You may also know someone in your area that is interested in giving you lessons at a lower rate.

    To find a musical professional in your area you can check out:

  6. Study on your own. The Internet has given you the opportunity to learn how to read sheet music on your own. Many online music sites and music software programs go more in depth than this article has. It takes musicians years to learn everything they need to know about sheet music and even then it is a constantly evolving process.

    If you are serious about learning how to read music and play the instrument of your choice, check out the following music sites:

Learning how to read sheet music should be fun. However, it is also requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Nobody said learning to play piano is easy or learning guitar chords is a piece of cake. It all requires patience and practice. However, with the right motivation, it will be worth it and you will soon be playing, singing, or even learning to compose sheet music of your own.