Reading Sheet Music: The Very Basics

An article giving an outline of the bare minimum of what you need to know about sheet music, with links to explanatory images.

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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.

    Timing

    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
  • 94 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      casualty01
      oh piii..sss ooooff you arrogant little bag of worthless. you know, all this "americans are dumb and have to use simpler terms" ... it's quite ridiculous. especially coming from all these self proclaimed "cultured" european douchebags. are you seriously that ***ing stupid or do you just have your pompous european head so far up your ass that you actually believe that? let's see... "quarter notes" ... 1/4th of a whole note. 1/8th note ... 1/8th of a whole note and half of a 1/4 note... seems pretty ***ing explanatory to me? in fact it's actually much more logical considering about 99% of you have no clue why they're called what they are in europe. you just go along for the sake of it's what you're taught. but when something else is presented.. nooo... it's gotta be "dumb" cause that's what the americans use. what's the matter? math (oops, sorry... I mean "maths" ) too difficult for euro-trash now? look you amateur little armchair musician twats... music is a mathemetical language, and what better way to express this knowledge and fundemental rhythmic values than by fractions? it seems we've not dumbed it down, but rather have come up with a much better and much more obvious way of explaining it. sorry you can't handle that fact, but that's the way it is. so take your dirty little "cultured" society and outdated terms and shove them up your ass. and if you can't do that, then at least refrain from posting your elitist bullshit in the lessons section. p.s. lesson gets 1 start simply for the fact you used those garbage semidemi bullshit...
      bluetooth
      Basically, in the cultured world, we call the crotchets and quavers, in America, they need simpler words, because terminology that has been used for hundreds of years, by thousands of people, is just too complicated for them. Fucking morons, go count the stars on your flag.
      GuitarAj
      And now for an extremely inipropriate (i dont cur hows i speel)and badlytiming toilet joke: Why did the man fall in the toilet? cuz he had no legs!
      Corwinoid
      Oddly enough, those terms are only found in the UK. The french, spanish, germans, and italians all use distinctly different terms. Or is the UK the only civilized country in the world now?
      hoobariffer87
      Too many people don't know how to read sheet music or bother to learn. It's sad, because it really opens up a lot more music to you. Beethoven on guitar? Go for it. But reading sheet music is almost a must.
      Glennjoe
      its ironic how our country used to be one of the worlds great superpowers, but now we just follow suit with the americans
      casualty01
      lol ... actually, after I posted that, I thought about it and decided it was worth a three. voting it a 1 because of that would be rather uncalled for and petty. however, it would've gotten a 4 if not for the terms anyways.
      bluetooth
      casualty01, that would have been a nice little rant if you hadn't ended it with "lesson gets 1 start simply for the fact you used those garbage semidemi bullshit..." and Corwinoid, I'm not sure about france and germany, but, the Italians certainly dont use different terminology, and they invented this one. . .
      blitzballer1
      I live in australia,and there is much confusion over the names, ive been to several different guitar schools, and they all use the different terms, one will refer to a crotchet and another will refer to half notes, so its all ***e, but as long as you can identify themthe name dont matter.
      eek
      america is the only country that matters anyway.. the UK follows us around like a lost puppy. quarter notes for the win!!!
      Blackbullet
      funk_solo totally agree with you- in grade exams and stuff you usually get away with saying either the original classical terms or american terms becuase they are both 'right' But most use/prefer the original classical terms, in europe anyway.
      funk_solo
      DaveGilmour1189: whats with all the crochets, quavers and semiquavers? U from a different coutry or something? Most people call them whole note, quater notes etc. I have never heard about these. sorry while i crease my self. they are the actual terms m8, and in my experience that's wot ppl call them, maybe not in america, i dunno, buy u should know the right words man
      Bkkkk
      Also if you could get a little more into Accidentals, Compound Timing and Guitar specific notation, That would be great 5 Stars btw.
      Bkkkk
      One thought just because you dont know the actual terms doesnt mean the article is bad, most of the Europeans use those terms because they are the classical terms for music notation. Anyway GREAT article
      concentus=music
      The terms used in the article are the PROPER names for the note durations. using the names "quarter note , half note" ect is purely american cause americans are lazy and couldnt be arsed to learn the correct terms its not purely a british thing is a whole world thing (excluding american)
      camrosti
      North American's tend to be more "sell out" - hence the simplified "pop" terminology being the only thing they get taught - shame really. It would suck to lose touch with what has FOREVER been such a fundamental language in music theory. I learned both - and all you N.Yanks should take your heads out of your arses and clean the crusty crap from round your eyes then open them up to other, and in this case, more traditional vocabulary. End. (5* article - ideal for begginers)
      weadyjones963
      Crotchets and quavers etc are the correct way to call them, they are still used in england and other places in europe because they are clever enough too
      voot_wheep
      Those terms are certainly not just british. If you learnt music without those terms, you obviously didn't learn from an educated person. They're the correct terms for the notes used universally, not just in the UK.
      voot_wheep
      I'm sure plenty of Americans use those terms. casualty01, you're contradicting yourself, calling it "semidemi bullshit" after insulting europeans for bagging out different terms.
      SublimeDragon
      Great article, I've been playing for years but only just started with theory... I like the fact that you mention technical terms (really, I don't know why it confuses people so much, both sets of terms seem related) although I would have to agree about the fact that you left out accidentals, that would've fit in there perfectly. 4 stars.
      originblueorion
      er to it however you want, and the guys over here in North America will refer to it however we want. And PantherGIRL, next time you go out for some fast food, why don't you skip the McDonalds (Billion dollar "uncivilized" industry.. jeesh, I guess America doesn't know anything about how to be a successful business) buddy and go straight for some fish and chips... I talked to Ronald today and he doesn't want your cheap-ass business.
      originblueorion
      You know, I am aware of two countries that have stuck together through thick and thin. Two countries that will be there standing next to eachother when the rest of the world gives up the ghost and rolls over for immorality and the slow decay of society... You guys who are representing America, you don't get to just speak as if all of America has your back and your opinion represent us all... And you guys who are representing Britian or Europe as a whole, who appointed you the spokesman on music for your countries? For a little bit of music history for you guys, the development of a civilized form of reading music began in it's most literal sence by the Greeks and Romans. It wasn't until the Catholic church started a system of musical notation that anything began to change or advance. you guys want to argue over it? Why don't you go to an island somewhere and bang your guitars together until you get it sorted out? And "PantherGIRL", you want to clown on America about not inventing anything worthwhile? Next time you get in your car why don't you ask yourself, "hmmm, I wonder if this car was designed in Detroit, Chicago or New York." Ya, so Karl Friedrich Benz may have been on the right track, it was America who propelled the production and invention of true automobiles. And lets just look at a few other SMALL things in our history... Do you talk on the phone much? Use high speed internet based on fiber optics? Hell, you are using the internet right now aren't you? I'm not saying that great inventions haven't come from Europe or other places, and I am certainly not dissing on Europe or surrounding countries. I am however saying that you guys smacking heads together over the terminology of musical notation is rediculous. I've got a great idea, who don't you guys over in your countries refer to it however you want, and the guys over here in North America will ref
      08L1V10N
      ledhed68 wrote: good article but i wasnt familiar with the words in the timing section. A lot of people learned them as quarters, half-notes, whole-notes, sixteenth-notes and so on. 4 stars
      crotchet and semibreve and such are british names for them.
      Apocalypse4162
      Lol enough with the crochets and quavers, who cares, its like potato-potahto, caramel-carmel. This didn't help at all sadly, because none of the links worked, they are all broken now. I understand it all from my music class anyway but if everything worked in this lesson, it would have my thumbs up
      rockahollic1
      JimiFloydStones wrote: I've never herd of the quavers crotchets and minims before either and ive been doing high school band for the past 5 years .
      I can't believe no one caught this hehe. Someone's a super-senior
      edgeyyz
      BlakeIsAGod wrote: Very good, even though I knew all of that. I think it will really help some people.
      Exactly what I thought. Good job covering all of the basics!
      Quadrocept
      instead of Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge , i like to say Even George Bush Deserves Food.
      azrael4h
      It was 'Every Good Boy Does Fine' IIRC. Though my music classes were way back in K-4, so I may be fuzzy. I'm having to relearn all of this myself, as I'm considering joining the church band once the music minister recovers enough from Chemo. My ear simply isn't good enough to pick up 3-5 new songs a week. Plus, it means that instead of the incredibly crappy quality recordings I get on what passes for my recording equipment (a cable run from my amp's headphone jack to the mic port on my computer), I can actually write what I write, instead of trying to figure out through the massive distortion and crappy sound what the heck I was playing. For the record, I seem to recall both Quavers, Crotchets and such, as well as Quarter, half, etc... notes. Remember, that was in K4, some 25 years ago.
      ~AdNy
      wow thanks so much, i raed this to review for an honors music theory class tomorrow. i havent read music in 3 years, so this really helped to refresh my memory. thanks man!
      Brendan DEwald
      good article reading music is important tabs is important dont get me wrong but music will help you develop a better understanding and also increase your ability to read because you hae to concentrate more. Cheers
      2ndslash
      casualty01 needs some councilling of some sort because a temper like that could hurt someone someday the wanker
      Panthergurl
      yanks, yanks, calm down, ur not completely stupid, u did after all invent the...ah...shit i cant think of anything worthwhile u guys hav dun! its just that ur complete disregard for the proper terminology of music is really disheartening. Crotchets, Semi-breeves and minims etc is the original and just a tad more sophisticated way of referring to note values in musical theory. quarter and half notes etc, is lazy and and sterile, and to be taught like that shows that whoever taught you music was seriously miseducated and is just making shortcuts. in proper musical examinations, they refer to the note values in the proper sense, and most people in civilised countries refer to the note values as the latin/italian words. im not saying that america isnt civilised...oh no, wait, i did. oops! its not a british concept, its a universal concept so if you wana have a conversation with sum1 about music that duznt involve grunting and guitar smashing to explain ur point of view, then get used 2 people using traditional terminology rather than ur quick-shit-oh-gotta-get-a -big-mac-before-the-songs -over mathematical jibberish. no offense meant guys, take this lighthearted. i just dont see the need to fight about this, the guy wrote a good article and you're nitpicking about this?
      Panthergurl
      yanks, yanks, calm down, ur not completely stupid, u did after all invent the...ah...shit i cant think of anything worthwhile u guys hav dun! its just that ur complete disregard for the proper terminology of music is really disheartening. Crotchets, Semi-breeves and minims etc is the original and just a tad more sophisticated way of referring to note values in musical theory. quarter and half notes etc, is lazy and and sterile, and to be taught like that shows that whoever taught you music was seriously miseducated and is just making shortcuts. in proper musical examinations, they refer to the note values in the proper sense, and most people in civilised countries refer to the note values as the latin/italian words. im not saying that america isnt civilised...oh no, wait, i did. oops! its not a british concept, its a universal concept so if you wana have a conversation with sum1 about music that duznt involve grunting and guitar smashing to explain ur point of view, then get used 2 people using traditional terminology rather than ur quick-shit-oh-gotta-get-a -big-mac-before-the-songs -over mathematical jibberish. no offense meant guys, take this lighthearted. i just dont see the need to fight about this, the guy wrote a good article and you're nitpicking about this?
      LosLobos
      I had no idea that people could get so worked up over music terminology. What is the point, in arguing about this. THe author didn't come off as a pompous ***** to me, o well some people just like picking fights for no reason.
      Panthergurl
      oops, sorry bout the dubl post hey the aussies just won the test match lockyer is a tool
      Kartman
      Great Article. You shoud have mentioned info on key signitures. Thats the hardest part to learn. For me, at least
      Tyler the Great
      Good, but that crochet/quaver stiff isn't necessarry. Even though it is technically what they are, the pretty much universal language for them is whole note, half note, quarter note, eigth note, sixteenth note, ect.