Reading Sheet Music: The Very Basics

author: mud date: 07/12/2005 category: music theory tips
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This article will take 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 and bass clef
  • 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. Gracious thanks go to Corwinoid, by the way, for the section of the article regarding landmarks on the bass and treble clef.

    Notes On The Treble And Bass Clef

    Click Here. If the music you are reading is in the treble range, which it will be for guitar, the notes will lie as above. Here is where the notes lie if read on a bass clef, for music in the bass range. This is what a treble clef looks like, and this is what a bass clef looks like. I find these are useful mnemonics for remembering the notes on a treble clef:
  • 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. (You may be familiar with the Mudhoney album that takes this mnemonic as its name; if so, even better.) And for the notes on the bass clef:
  • The four notes that fall between the staves, A C E G, may spell out ACE Guy (lame, but you'll remember it.)
  • The five notes on the stave lines spell out Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always. 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 on the treble clef and G A B C D E F G A on the bass clef. It is imperative to know where the middle C is on both the treble and bass clef. It is the C that lies on the first leger line below the treble clef and the first leger line above the bass clef. Click here to see where the middle C lies in both the bass and treble range. The middle C lies here on a guitar (with standard EADGBE tuning): -------- -------- -------- -------- -3------ -------- And here on a bass (with standard EADG tuning): -5------ -------- -------- -------- There are also 'landmarks' for each stave, which can be used to quickly find where you are. When you have a good knowledge of intervals (the distance between two notes in a scale) the two landmarks on each stave can help you to find where you are much quicker. The landmarks on the treble clef are G (G is the perfect fifth of C) - the G on the second line, which the treble clef wraps around, and high G, the G in the space above the staff. The landmarks on the bass clef are F (C is the perfect fifth of F) - the F on the second line down, and low F in the space below the staff. Combine this with knowing where the middle C is, and it's pretty hard to get lost.


    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: 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.

    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. This 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 its 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 briefly add one more point about sharps and flats, because every note on the stave is a natural. Sharps and flats are simply indicated immediately after the treble clef, like so. That means that every B you play in the song should be flattened. If a note deviates from the indications given at the beginning of the notation, 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. Hope it helps ~Ben
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