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How to Read Music Notes: The Complete Guide

So you’ve decided you’d like to learn how to read sheet music! That’s great as it opens up a whole world of new music for you!

Music is a language, but you’ll be glad to know that learning how to read sheet music is far easier and quicker than learning to read a spoken language. It’s a different type of “code” and doesn’t have as many variables as a spoken language. Go slowly through these steps, making sure you’ve grasped each concept before you move on, then practice daily with some videos, games, and apps, and you’ll be reading music in no time. 

So let’s get down to work! 

 

The Staff

Music is written in groups of 5 parallel lines. One set of 5 lines is called a staff.  

A staff is used to place notes on, but first, we have to determine whether the notes are high or low. If they are high, we place a ‘treble clef’ at the beginning of the staff. If the notes are low, we place a ‘bass clef’ at the beginning. If the music is written for the piano, the notes placed on the treble staff are played by the right hand and the notes placed on the bass staff are played by the left hand. 

High pitched instruments, such as the violin, use one staff with a treble clef while low pitched instruments, like the cello or bass, use a staff with the bass clef. Those instruments only have one staff because the instrument can only produce one note at a time, whereas the piano produces multiple notes at once. This is why piano sheet music has two staves joined together like this: 

In music, the notes step up in alphabetical order, getting higher, up to the letter G, after which we start again with A. The first note that sits on the treble staff is E. Notice that the parallel line runs right through the middle of the note head – we call this a “line note”. The next note up sits in between the first two lines and is the note F. We call this kind of note a “space note” because it’s in the space between two lines. Here is a chart of all the notes on the treble staff from bottom to top of the five lines. Notice that they alternate between line notes and space notes. 

To easily remember the note names, it’s best to use a mnemonic. The line notes are, Every Good Boy Deserves Football,:

and the space notes simply spell out the word F A C E:

Notice that if you are reading a space note, and the next note is also a space note, then you’re jumping over a line note, so you jump over a note on the piano. Likewise, if you’re reading a line note and the next note is also a line note, you’re jumping over a space note. In other words, you’re skipping over a note. This is another way to read piano sheet music that’s quick and easy.  

When you’re ready, get a hold of some music and practice reading some treble notes until you’re quick at naming them. To learn how to read piano sheet music quickly, it’s best to use an app that will tell you if you’ve named the notes correctly.

Now that you’re fairly confident with the treble notes, let’s look at the bass notes. They look exactly the same on the staff, but the bass clef at the beginning changes the notes.  While the first line note in the treble is an E, in the bass, it’s a G, much lower down. Here are the notes in the bass from the first line note to the top line note: 

The mnemonic for the bass line notes is, Green Buses Drive Fast Always. 

The space notes are A C E G.  You can remember this with the phrase, All Cows Eat Grass. 

Ledger Lines

Some notes go below or above the staff. These are called “ledger lines” and are just a continuation of the alphabet pattern.  Here are some treble ledger line notes:

And here are some bass ledger line notes: 

Before you move on, reinforce your ability to read piano sheet music by watching this video. The first 7 minutes focus on the treble notes, and the rest focuses on the bass notes. It also discusses jumping notes and shows the notes on a piano keyboard, which makes it easier to understand.

 

Sharps and Flats 

The black notes on a piano are sharps and flats. Sharps are represented by a hashtag sign in the front of the note it affects. A sharp pushes the note up to the nearest black note. Flats are represented by a little ‘b’ in front of the note it affects and it pushes the note down to the nearest black note. An F that’s been sharpened is then called “F sharp”. The note B, when flattened, is then called “B flat”. 

Although a piano keyboard doesn’t have black notes between the notes B and C or E and F, we can still flatten and sharpen those notes by pushing them up or down to the nearest white note. In other words, E sharp is actually F and C flat is actually B.  

There is one other symbol called a “natural” sign, and that cancels a sharp or flat so that the note becomes a normal one again. One other very important thing to know when learning how to read piano sheet music is that any sharp, flat, or natural applies throughout a whole measure.  

Look at the following measure. The first note, F, has been sharpened. Then there are some other notes, and then there’s another F.  This second F is also F sharp, because the first F was sharpened.  

The only way it wouldn’t be sharp is if the second F had a natural sign in front of it, like this: 

Here is a video explaining more about how to apply sharps and flats to notes when you’re learning how to read sheet music:

 

Key Signatures

Some pieces of music need certain notes sharpened or flattened throughout the whole piece. Instead of placing a sharp or flat in front of every note that needs one, it’s tidier to place the sharps or flats at the beginning of each staff. This then tells us they apply throughout the whole piece, and is called a “key signature” which tells the reader what “key” the piece is in. 

The ‘key signature’ is placed right next to the clef. The sharps and flats are written on the lines and in the spaces of the notes they affect, and they always appear in the same order. 

Let’s say the piece of music you’re looking at has 4 sharps after the clef. This means that every F, C, G, and D are to be sharpened up to their nearest black notes throughout the whole piece.  It looks like this: 

You can get up to 7 sharps and there is a mnemonic to help remember what order they go in.  It’s, “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”.  

The same applies to flats. There can be up to 7 of them and the mnemonic to remember the order of the flats is, Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’s Father. Notice that this is the order of the sharps done backward! 

Key signatures can be confusing but it’s not really essential to understand them in order to learn how to read piano sheet music. You do, however, need to sharpen or flatten the appropriate notes. Learning scales really helps with understanding how key signatures work. If you understand scales, you can think of a key signature as telling you what scale the piece of music is written in.  

 

Beat Boxing 

A measure is a box containing a certain number of beats. Learning to recognize the pitches of the notes is only half of learning how to read piano sheet music. You also need to learn to read the note values so you can get the correct rhythm in your music. 

The basic note values are whole note, half note, quarter note, 8th note, 16th note. A whole note can be broken into two half notes or into four quarter notes. It’s basic fractions. 

Notice the symbols next to each note – these are “rests” – beats that are silent. For each note value, there is a rest value that appears right next to the note. The first measure is completely filled with a whole note, worth four beats, so doesn’t have a rest in it. In measure 3, you’ll see a quarter note, a quarter rest, and a half note rest.  

When there are multiple eighth notes or sixteenth notes, these can be grouped together like this: 

 

Dotted Notes

A note that has a dot placed beside it is extended by half its value again. For instance, a half note which is worth 2 beats, becomes worth 3 beats. A quarter note with a dot beside it becomes worth one and a half beats. 

Using some sheet music, practice reading the note values, saying out loud what they are – half note, whole note, dotted half note, quarter note, etc. 

 

Ties

To make notes longer they can be tied, like this: 

The first note, B, is a whole note – i.e. 4 beats long, but as it’s tied to the second B, it becomes 8 beats long. The second B shouldn’t be played, just held for an extra 4 beats. The next three notes are regular quarter notes, but the fourth is a quarter note B, tied to a whole note B, making it 5 beats in total. 

 

Time Signatures

After the key signature, we see the ‘time signature’. This tells the reader how many beats there are in each measure. It consists of two numbers, the most common one being 4-4, like this: 

The top number is the most important one.  If it’s a 4, then there are 4 beats in each measure.  If it’s a 3, then there are 3 beats in each measure, and so on. The staves are divided into measures by vertical lines, as you see above and each measure or “box” has the correct number of beats in it, as determined by the time signature. 

The bottom number is simply a code for what the value of those beats is. If it’s a four, it means they are quarter notes, if it’s a 2 it means they are half beats and if it’s an 8 it means they are 8th notes. So 4-4 means there are 4 quarter beats in each measure. 

To get really good and fast at knowing how to read piano sheet music, you need to practice reading daily for a few minutes.  Like learning a new language, it takes a while to get to the point where you hardly have to think about it, but it does come with plenty of repetition.

There are many platforms that support learning how to read sheet music. Try several and see which one you like best. Before you know it, you will have learned how to read piano sheet music and be expanding your repertoire and can move on to sight-reading!