THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876

THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876

THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876


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How to Read Sheet Music

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Whether you play an instrument or sing, we highly recommend that you learn to read sheet music. Just as learning a language allows you to read and write, becoming musically literate opens a vast world of opportunities. Once you master the basics of musical notation, you’ll have the tools to play any piece and even write your own!

In this article, we’ll discuss how to read notes in treble and bass clef, key signatures, time signatures, rests, and accidentals.

How to Read Treble Clef

Composers and arrangers typically use treble clef to indicate pitches at and above middle C (link to “how to find middle C” article). Since middle C is the fourth C on a standard piano (moving from left to right, from the lowest notes to the highest), we call it C4.4 Common Clefs Often Used in Music

When reading treble clef, the first line of the staff represents the E immediately above middle C, or E4. From top to bottom, the five lines are E, G, B, D, and F. An easy way to remember this is with the mnemonic device “every good boy does fine.”

As you can see in the image above, the body of the treble clef encircles the line for G4. For this reason, the treble clef is also known as the G clef.

From top to bottom, the five spaces are F, A, C, and E. They spell out the word “face!”

The illustration below shows the notes of the treble clef staff in context. Count each line and space, moving from the bottom to the top line, to read the notes in any piece of music.

How to Read Bass Clef

Composers and arrangers typically use bass clef to indicate lower pitches (below middle C).

Bass Clef

When reading bass clef, the first line of the staff represents the G two octaves below middle C, or G2. From top to bottom, the five lines are G, B, D, F, and A. An easy way to remember this is with the mnemonic device “good boys do fine always.”

As you can see in the image above, the body of the treble clef encircles the line for F3. For this reason, the bass clef is also known as the F clef.

From top to bottom, the five spaces are A, C, E, and G. An easy way to remember this is with the mnemonic device “all cows eat grass.”

The illustration below shows the notes of the bass clef staff in context. Count each line and space, moving from the bottom to the top line, to read the notes in any piece of music.

How to Read Ledger Lines

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “what about the notes that don’t fit on the main staff?” You will only see E4 through F5 (in treble clef) and G2 through A3 (in bass clef) placed on one of the five lines or spaces of the staff. 

To accommodate notes that do not fall within the range of the staff, composers and arrangers use small lines called ledger lines. Count each line and space, going up or down, to identify these notes.

How to Read Note Values 

Now that you can identify each note’s pitch, we’ll move on to note values. The three components of each note—the head, the stem, and the flag—work together to communicate this information. We’ll start by breaking down the values of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes in 4/4 time (more on time signatures below).

How to Read Sixteenth Notes

This is a single sixteenth note:

Sixteenth notes have a closed note head, a stem, and two flags. Sixteenth notes are so named because sixteen of them make up one measure of 4/4 time. As such, they each get one quarter of a beat, and you’ll often see them connected with a double beam like so:

Four sixteenth notes equal one beat in 4/4 time

Use the syllables “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a,” and so on to count sixteenth notes.

How to Read Eighth Notes

Eighth notes have twice the duration of sixteenth notes. In 4/4 time, eight of them make up one measure, and two of them make up one beat.

One eighth note

Eighth notes have a closed note head, a stem, and one flag. You’ll often see them connected with a single beam like so:

Eight eighth notes equal one beat in 4/4 time

Use the syllables “one-and, two-and,” and so on to count eighth notes.

How to Read Quarter Notes 

Quarter notes have twice the duration of eighth notes. In 4/4 time, four of them make up one measure, and each gets one beat. Quarter notes have a closed note head and a stem.

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One quarter note

Count quarter notes like so: “one, two, three, four.”

How to Read Half Notes

Half notes have twice the duration of quarter notes. In 4/4 time, two of them make up one measure, and each gets two beats. Half notes have an open note head and a stem.

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One half note

Count half notes by emphasizing the start of each note and deemphasizing the held beat: “one-two, three-four.”

How to Read Whole Notes

Finally, whole notes have twice the duration of half notes. In 4/4 time, one of them makes up one measure, and each gets four beats. Whole notes have an open note head and no stem.Icon

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Count whole notes by emphasizing the start of each note and deemphasizing the held beats: “one-two-three-four.”

The diagram below summarizes each note’s value in relation to each of the others. In 4/4 time, one quarter note equals four beats, as do two half notes, four quarter notes, eight eighth notes, and sixteen sixteenth notes.

How to Read Dotted Notes

A dot to the right of the note head increases a note’s value by half. Since a quarter note receives one beat, we add half of that value to find that a dotted quarter note receives one and a half beats. Dotted half notes receive three beats, and dotted whole notes receive six beats.

The math becomes slightly more complicated when it comes to eighth and sixteenth notes: an eighth note receives one half of a beat in 4/4 time, so a dotted eighth note receives three quarters of a beat. A sixteenth note receives one quarter of a beat in 4/4 time, so a dotted sixteenth note receives three eighths of a beat.

Add whole note to our version of this chart

How to Read Time Signatures and Key Signatures

Next, we’ll shift our focus from reading notes to interpreting the symbols that you’ll see immediately to the right of each clef. 

How to Read Time Signatures

The two numbers to the right of each clef, one on top of the other, are the time signature.

Each piece of music is broken down into measures: these are the vertical bar lines that continue across the staff. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number tells you which type of note gets one beat.

When we discussed note values in the previous section, we did so in the context of 4/4 time, which is the time signature you will see most often. 4/4 time is so common that it’s also known as “common time,” and you’ll sometimes see composers and arrangers indicate it with a c.

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4/4, also known as Common Time

In 4/4 time, each measure has four beats, and quarter notes get one beat. In 2/4 time, there are two beats in each measure, and in 3/4 time, there are three beats in each measure. Since the bottom number is four in each of these commonly used time signatures, quarter notes get one beat (and eighth notes get half a beat, sixteenth notes get one quarter of a beat, and so on).

Another time signature you’ll see often is 2/2, also known as “cut time” and sometimes indicated with a c with a line through it: 

2/2, also known as Cut Time

In 2/2, there are two beats in each measure, and half notes get one beat. The relationships between note values remain the same: quarter notes get half a beat, eighth notes get one quarter of a beat, and so on.

The final time signature we’ll discuss here is 6/8. In 6/8, there are six beats in each measure and eighth notes get one beat. This means that quarter notes get two beats, half notes get four beats, and so on. You’ll typically feel this time signature in three, counting the six beats with an emphasis on beats one and three: one, two, three, four, five, six.

Two measures of 6/8 time

As a beginner, it’s rare that you’ll see a bottom number other than 2, 4, or 8.

How to Read Key Signatures

Between the clef and the time signature, you will see between zero and seven sharps (♯) or flats (), which represent the music’s key signature.

A sharp in the key signature means that each time the indicated note appears, you should play or sing it one half-step higher than written. A flat in the key signature means that each time the indicated note appears, you should play it one half-step lower than written.

Sharps will always be added to the key signature in the same order: F, C, G, D, A, and finally, E. When you see one sharp in the key signature, it will always be F; when you see two sharps in the key signature, they will always be F and C, and so on. This is because all the major scales follow the same pattern of whole and half steps: two whole steps, one half step, three whole steps, and finally, one half step. The C major scale follows this pattern without any sharps or flats. The G major scale follows this pattern by including F sharp, the D major scale follows it by including F sharp and C sharp, and so on.

Flats function in the same way. They will always be added to the key signature in the same order: B, E, A, D, G, C, and finally, F. When you see one flat in the key signature, it will always be B; when you see two flats in the key signature, they will always be B and E, and so on. The F major scale follows the required pattern of whole and half steps by including B flat, the B flat major scale follows it by including B flat and E flat, and so on.

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Since F sharp is one half step above F and G flat is one half step below G, F sharp and G flat are the same pitch. The same equivalence applies to G sharp and A flat, A sharp and B flat, and so on, as is evident on the piano keyboard:

How to Read Rests

Rests indicate silence. The illustration below features the symbol for each rest along with its corresponding note value:

Understanding Rhythmic Notation on Ukulele - Rock Class 101

Rests follow the same rules as their corresponding notes within the context of each time signature: in 4/4 time, whole rests get four beats, half rests get two beats, and so on.

How to Read Accidentals

Accidentals are sharps, flats, and naturals that are not part of the key signature. To review from our discussion of key signatures above, the sharp symbol (♯) indicates a pitch one half-step higher than written, and the flat symbol () indicates a pitch one half-step lower than written. Here’s an example:

These three measures have F sharp in the key signature. The first accidental in the second measure, a flat, lowers the pitch of its corresponding note (a B) by one half step. So, instead of a B natural, you would play or sing a B flat.

Now, let’s use the same example to discuss the natural sign (♮).

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The natural sign restores a note to its original pitch. While there is an F sharp in the key signature, the natural sign attached to the F in the second measure tells you to play or sing an F natural. 

Accidentals carry through the measure in which they appear.

Now that you’ve mastered these fundamentals, we’ll move on to bar lines, tempo, dynamics, and articulation.

How to Read Bar Lines

You’ll recall that the top number of the time signature indicates the number of beats in a measure (and that the bottom number tells you which type of note gets one beat). Measures, also known as bars, are separated by single bar lines:

The “12” in this example identifies the twelfth measure (or bar) of the piece. Count from left to right to find measures 13 through 18.

Next, we’ll discuss double bar lines:

Double bar lines are most often used to indicate the start of a new section of music. In the example above, there is a double bar line at measure 14 because there is a change in key signature. Other common circumstances in which double bar lines appear are a new tempo (which we’ll discuss next) or time signature.

A special type of bar line, called a repeat bar line, indicates that you should play a section of music again:

The dots that look like colons are repeat signs. When you see a repeat sign at the end of a measure, rather than continuing to play or sing down the page, go back to the closest repeat sign that you see at a start of a measure and play or sing that section of music again. In the example above, once you reached the end of measure 24, you would return to measure 20 and continue until you reached measure 28. Then, you would return to measure 25 and continue to measure 29.

Repeat bar lines sometimes include first and second endings:

The bracketed measure with the “1.” above it is the first ending, and the bracketed measure with the “2.” above it is the second ending. The first time playing or singing the music above, you will follow the repeat sign’s instruction and go back to the beginning of the piece. The second time through, you will skip the first ending and go directly to the second ending.

Finally, the end or final bar line tells you that you have reached either the end of a movement or the end of a piece of music. This bar line resembles the double bar line, but the second vertical line is thicker and bolder than the first.

How to Read Tempo

The speed at which you play or sing a piece of music is the tempo. Tempo is measured in beats per minute, with a lower number indicating a slower tempo and a higher number indicating a faster one. 

Above the first staff of music, you’ll see the tempo indication, which could be a number, a word, or both:

In the example above, the quarter note gets 132 beats per minute: a relatively fast, lively tempo. This tempo falls within the typical allegro range: the Italian word “allegro” translates to “cheerful.” Remember that the quarter note gets the beat in 4/4 time. In other time signatures, the beats per minute may correspond to any other type of note or dotted note.

Reference the chart below for definitions of the most common tempo markings as well as their BPM range, from slowest to fastest:

Italian Tempo IndicatorDefinitionBeats Per Minute
GraveVery slowly, solemnly25–45
LargoSlowly, broadly40–60
LentoSlowly45–60
AdagioSlowly, stately, expressively66–76
AndanteAt walking speed76–108
ModeratoModerately98–112
AllegroQuickly, cheerfully, brightly120–156
VivaceFast, lively156–176
PrestoVery fast168–200

Use a metronome—either a physical one, an online tool, or an app—to get a sense of each of these tempi. When you’re learning a piece of music, practicing along with a metronome can help you get used to keeping a steady tempo (rather than unintentionally rushing or slowing down).

The tempo does not always stay the same throughout the entirety of a given piece of music. There are several common terms you may encounter that mean you should change your speed: accelerando, for example, means “to speed up,” and ritardando (commonly abbreviated as rit.) means “to slow down.” Use a music dictionary or do a quick online search whenever you encounter unfamiliar terms.

How to Read Dynamics

The dynamics within a piece of music are the variations in volume—in other words, how loudly or softly you play or sing. Reference the chart below to interpret the most common dynamics from softest to loudest:

SymbolItalianEnglish
pppPiano pianissimoVery, very soft
ppPianissimoVery soft
pPianoSoft
mpMezzo pianoMedium soft
mfMezzo forteMedium loud
fForteLoud
ffFortissimoVery loud
fffForte fortissimoVery, very loud

Keep an eye out for the following symbols:

SymbolNameMeaning
CrescendoGradually get louder
DecrescendoGradually get softer

It’s all too easy to overlook dynamics—especially when you’re still getting used to reading notes, key signatures, and so on. Remember, though—they are there for a reason! Try playing a piece of music at one consistent volume, then play it again with all the indicated dynamics, and you’ll notice a huge difference in the overall effect.

How to Read Articulation

Articulation is the style in which you play a note or phrase.

Legato

The curved lines connecting two groups of notes in the measures below, called slurs or phrase marks, tell you that those notes should be played legato: in a smooth, connected style with no break in between. 

It’s important not to confuse slurs with ties. A tie connects two notes of the same pitch and value, and you should play them with no break in between. In the example below, the half note (C) gets two full beats, the half notes (C and D) each get half a beat, and the tied quarter notes (E) get two beats.

Slurs, Staccato and Ties Explained - Do Re Mi Studios

Staccato

Staccato is the opposite of legato. When you see a staccato marking—a dot above or below the note head—you should play that note in a very short, detached style, leaving a distinct space or separation. Here’s a musical excerpt in which all the notes should be played staccato:

How to Read Accents

Accent marks (>) indicate that you should put strong emphasis on a note. Play or sing it louder and with a stronger attack than you would otherwise. Unlike staccato and legato markings, accents do not affect the value (length) of a note.

Marcato

The marcato mark, a vertical open wedge (^), is like an accent, but even more so. It indicates that you should play a note noticeably louder and with a sharp attack.

Tenuto

A tenuto mark is a small line that you’ll see underneath a note. When you see notes marked tenuto, hold them for their full value and use a smooth, fluid style. Unlike the legato style, however, there should be some separation between notes.

Fermata

A fermata, a half-circle with a dot in its center, indicates that you should hold a note longer than its prescribed value. The duration of the note is at the musician’s discretion. You’ll often see fermatas at near the end of a musical selection or at a transition point, as they can provide a dramatic effect. Here’s an example:

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If you are playing or singing in an ensemble, make sure to look up at your director when you see a fermata. He or she will indicate how long you should hold the note.

We’ve now covered most of the fundamentals that you’ll need to know as you learn new pieces of music! As we discussed, make sure to look up any unfamiliar words or symbols that you may come across. We also recommend listening to recordings or consulting your teacher or director to help with the learning process. Happy music-making!

jwpepper
jwpepperhttps://blogs.jwpepper.com/
Pepper has served musicians since 1876. We hope you find our blog posts informative and a wonderful gateway to news in the world of music.

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