Reading sheet music - the very basics


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07-04-2005, 03:09 PM
I posted a pretty in depth response to a question in musician talk, and then the thought struck me that it might make a pretty good article, so here it is in draft form.

The article essentially takes you through the very basic elements of reading sheet music - a kind of crash course in what you need to know. This includes:

Where the notes are on a treble clef (the lesson was designed for guitar)

How to read notation timing

Time signatures

How sharps and flats are written.

Once these are learnt, you will have enough knowledge to be able to read and understand sheet music.

Notes on the treble clef

If the music you are reading is in the treble range, which it will be for guitar, the notes will lie as above. This is what a treble clef looks like:

As well as that there are two alto clefs and the bass clef, but you won't need to learn them if you are reading music for guitar.

I find there are useful acronyms for remembering the notes:

The four notes that fall between the lines of the stave spell F A C E

The five notes that fall on the lines of the stave are an acronym of Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

So, from the note on the first line of the stave to the note on the last line of the stave, you have: E F G A B C D E F


The other imperative thing to know is time - how long a note lasts for, and what time signature the song is in.

A crotchet: lasts for one beat. In standard 4/4 timing there will be four of these in a bar. By these terms it is a 4 note, or quarter note.

A quaver lasts for half a crotchet: there are 8 in a standard bar of 4/4 and as such it is an eighth note.

Here, with the semiquaver, we begin to see a pattern emerging. This a sixteenth note, so there are four in a crotchet and sixteen in a standard 4/4 bar.

That's right... a demisemiquaver and a hemidemisemiquaver. Quite simply, these denote 1/32 notes and 1/64 notes (eight and sixteen per crotchet respectively). Depending on the beats per minute of the song, these may or may not be ludicrously fast measurements.

Going the other way, with notes that last longer, we have:

A minim. This is a half note (lasting two beats) and is the equivalent of two crotchets.

And finally...

A semibreve. This is a whole note, worth four crotchets, and lasts a full 4/4 bar.

Each of these notes has an equivalent rest, where nothing is played for however long the rest denotes. Here are 1-16 notes with their equivalent rests:

07-04-2005, 03:11 PM
How to read time signature:

Time signature tells you how many beats are in one bar of the music you're reading, and what length each individual beat is. It comes as two numbers, one on top of the other, which immediately follow the clef. The number on top tells you how many beats per bar, and the number on the bottom how long those beats last for.

That is 4/4 - that means there are four crotchet beats in a bar. This is the most common time signature, as it is the simplest and easiest to work with.

3/4 means that there are three crotchet beats in a bar. Any time signature which is not divisible by, or does not multiply into, four, is what is known as a compound time signature. Such time signatures provide more interesting and abstract listening, but are harder to work with. The best example of the creative use of compound time that I can think of is on Dave Brubeck's 'Time Out'.

The number on the bottom will, I hope (!), be one of the notes we have dealt with: i.e. those that are divisible by or multiply into four.

Dotting notes.

Music would be very sterile if in fours all the time, and you'll frequently encounter dotted notes. They look like this:

They basically mean that you lengthen the note you are playing by half of it's value. E.G. a dotted crotchet:

Is a quarter note with an eighth added to it. If it is dotted twice you add a half and a quarter of that notes value, so the crotchet above which is dotted twice lasts for a quarter plus an eighth plus a sixteenth. I know it may seem daunting, but music is simply the practical application of very basic mathematics and will soon become second nature to you.

Sharps and flats

I feel I should add one more point about sharps and flats, because every note on the stave is a natural. Sharps and flats are simply indicated after the treble clep, like so:

That means that every B you play in the song should be flattened. If a note deviates from this in the song, it will look like this:

That means you play that B as a flat, but every other one as a natural, unless indicated similarly.

There it is. Being able to sight read music is very difficult - it is essentially another language. You need to be able to understand both what you are looking at, and your instrument - you need to instinctively know where the notes are on the fretboard. But practice, and eventually it will become second nature.

I believe that I have included the basics you need to read sheet music fairly effectively. There are whole books on it, and the material I have given you is not definitive by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, what I feel to be a suitable crash course to get you started.

It goes without saying, I'm sure, but comments and suggestions are welcomed.

07-04-2005, 03:30 PM
i think its a great article worthy of publication on this site.

07-04-2005, 03:33 PM
Wow this is amazing, i am jsut attempting to learn to read sheet music, this will no doubt help me. One question though, i understand F A C E and Every Good Boy deserves Fudge but what about the C,D,G, and A notes that are outside of the lines?

07-04-2005, 03:48 PM
^You basically just count from the top or backwards from the bottom, but I wouldn't have much to worry about - the lowest note on a guitar tuned EADGBE is the E that falls on the first line of the stave. So basically you won't be reading much guitar music that is written with what are called 'ledger lines' (these):

However, they pop up quite frequently when reading music for piano, which has a range of several octaves. In this instance, there's not much else to do but use the FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge aids to memorise the notes within the stave, and then just count downwards or upwards by two or three ledger lines and memorise them as well. It's all about rote practice.

In a lot of instances where many notes would be played unusually high or low, you will encounter this:

For the duration of the 8va (octave) marker, you play the notes you are reading one octave higher (or lower, if the marker appears below the stave). This prevents confusion through excessive use of ledger lines.

07-04-2005, 10:41 PM
^ That's wrong, the lowest E on a guitar is an octave below the bottom line on the staff.

Edit: And it's 8vb for bass; or 15va/vb (ma/mv are seen sometimes) for double octave transpostition.

07-05-2005, 01:22 AM
That's good stuff. A lot of people could use that. Unfortunately JPG's can't be shown without linking them, but apart from that everything is fine!


(Unless SD has any problems, but I doubt it)

07-05-2005, 03:54 AM
Thanks. I can't include that third post because of the mistake that Corwinoid pointed out (for some reason I completely lost the middle C and put the open low E and octave higher than it should go).

I'm not sure if I should also briefly outline the bass clef and two alto clefs? What d'you think Corwinoid.

07-05-2005, 11:27 AM
^ Bass clef yes, alto clefs no--we don't really even teach the C clefs (there are more than 2) in theory even, I mean, someday... but most teachers just blow it off for a bit. The only instrument that still uses it is a viola.

I'd also mention using landmarks (the preferred method of reading music), and not just the mnemonics (FACE/EGBDF or ACEG and GBDFA). When you start reading by interval (as you should), it's a lot quicker to figure out where the hell you are on a staff by jumping to one of two points and finding the interval (especially on leger lines) than it is to actually read the notes (trust me, you can't when you start reading 'fast' music).

Your landmarks are treble G, the G on the second line, which the treble clef wraps around, and high G, the G in the space above the staff, for the treble clef. For bass its the oposite, bass F on the second line down, and low F in the space below the staff. Combine that with knowing where middle C is, and it's pretty hard to get lost.

07-05-2005, 11:33 AM
^Fantastic, thanks for that input. I'll credit that bit to you.

Finished article should be submitted to Zappp later tonight, tomorrow at the latest.

07-05-2005, 11:19 PM
Don't you think it may be a good idea to put links to a place to practice this new skill of reading actual music? Some people may be stupid enough not to figure it out themselves.

07-05-2005, 11:23 PM
What about putting information about rests in there? Or other basic symbols you might come across, such as naturals, tied notes and whatnot.

The image used at the end shows tied notes, and a complete beginner will have no idea what that line means.

edit: Oops, missed the part written about rests. That image didn't load for me.

07-07-2005, 10:19 AM
I'm not sure you're allowed images in Lessons. Other than that, you're good, I approve as well, unless Cor has some other words of wisdom ;)

-SD :dance:

07-07-2005, 05:38 PM
If you didn't make those images yourself, you should consider creditting them the their respective owners, or copyright them someway so people can't steal them from you.

07-14-2005, 10:47 AM
'3/4 means that there are three crotchet beats in a bar. Any time signature which is not divisible by, or does not multiply into, four, is what is known as a compound time signature. Such time signatures provide more interesting and abstract listening, but are harder to work with. The best example of the creative use of compound time that I can think of is on Dave Brubeck's 'Time Out'.'

Mud, has anyone pointed this out to you yet? It's quite wrong: compound times are when the individual beats divide into three, the most common being compound duple (6/8), compound triple (9/8) and compound quadruple (12/8). 3/4 is simple triple time, just as 2/4 is simple duple, and 4/4 simple quadruple.

Cor noticed it and pointed it out in another thread, but I can't believe this wasn't spotted before this was submitted.

07-17-2005, 04:58 PM
Looks good..... very good for a basics lesson. Maybe write one up on reading notes on the fretboard??

08-03-2005, 12:36 PM
Yea I play bass in my school band so I know all this stuff :cheers:

I think you should've at least added the bass clef and talked about it a little. It wouldn't hurt anything.


and so on and so on......

Or how about certain symbols?

Like C = common time 4/4
> = Attack the note louder (appears above the staff and note)

Or dynamics?

Forte and piano?

All those things you could've added and more. But it was still a good article. A very good one...

07-28-2011, 05:49 AM
Looks good..... very good for a basics piano lessons ( Maybe write one up on reading notes on the fretboard??

Hey cool. I remember studying this when I was still taking formal piano lessons. I had a hard time with the 'rest'. I always count wrong, well I was still a kid back then :D