Reading Music Basics

There are 2 basic kinds of clefs. The clef you will see on your music depends on what instrument you play.

Treble Clef
Bass Clef

You might wonder why there are 2 different clefs. The reason is that most instruments using the bass clef usually have a lower pitch (sound) and regulary play low notes. If they were to use the treble clef the notes would appear so far below the staff it would be hard to read.

Here are the the names of the notes for both clefs. Although you only really need to know 1 or the other, it is good practice to know both.

The treble clef:

Time Signatures

Time signatures tell you how many and what kind of notes per measure there are. The number on top is the number of notes per measure, and the bottom number is what kind of note. Let us explain further.

Let us take for example the most popular time signature, 4/4.
This means there is 4 quarter notes per measure. How is this so?

Looking at 4/4, you saw the 4 on top. You already knew that meant there were 4 somethings per measure. Then looking at the bottom number probably confused you. The bottom number can be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. Look at this chart.

Bottom Number Value
1 Whole note
2 Half note
4 Quarter note
8 Eighth note
16 Sixteenth note

For example:
3/4 is 3 quarter notes per measure.
5/2 is 5 half notes per measure.
6/8 is 6 eighth notes per measure.

There are also 2 other common things you might see where the time signature should be.

Common Time
Same as 4/4 time
Cut Time
Same as 4/4 but everything is cut in half.
Example: a half note = 1 quarter note, a whole note = 1 half note.

Types of Notes:

1 of the most important parts of music is learning the types and values of notes. Here you will gain some understanding of how the notes look and sound. The icon means you can listen to it. All of the music samples are recorded at the same speed and are just 1 measure.

The whole note:

an egg on its side, either with a line through it or not


The half note

the same as a whole not but with a vertical line attached to it.


The quarter note

the same as a half note except the circle is filled in.


The eighth note

the same as quarter notes but with a curly off the line. They can also be put in groups of 4, 3, or 2.


The sixteenth note

the same as an eighth note but has double curlies. Can also be grouped in 4, 3 or 2 but are joined by a double line.


Types of Rests

The whole rest... a dark rectangle attached to a bar line, facing downwards.

The half rest... a dark rectangle attached to a bar line, facing upwards.

The quarter rest... a squiggly line.

The eighth rest... a slanted line with a dot.

The sixteenth rest... a slanted line with a double dot.


Basic Counting 1

One of the most obvious questions is how musicians know when to play. Well, its easy.. they learn to count the beats.

First let us present you with this.

1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes = 16 sixteenth notes.
Keep that in mind while looking at these examples.

Lets start with this example.

First off, looking at the time signature you know that there are 4 quarter notes per measure.

In the first measure the whole note gets all the beats (1, 2, 3 and 4) because 1 whole note = 4 quarter notes, and there are a total of 4 quarter notes per measure.

In the second example, each half note gets 2 beats because 2 quarter notes = 1 half note.

In the third example, each quarter note gets its own beat because there are 4 quarter notes per measure (time sig).

Let's intermingle the 2 quarter notes and a half note.

The half note get the first 2 beats, and each quarter its own beat. This makes sense because the 4/4 time signature means there is 4 quarter notes per measure. 2 quarter notes + 1 half note (which is really 2 quarters) = 4 quarter notes, the total number of quarter notes for that measure (time sig).
Lets add in the eighth notes.

In this example there is something new. The + sign. It just means "and". If you said 1 + 2 + ... out loud it would sound like this.

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

Each eight note is 1/2 of a quarter note, therefore it takes 2 eighth notes to equal 1 quarter note.
Think of it like this: the 1 and the "and" are both half of one quarter note and together they form 1 quarter note and from the time sig we know there are 4 quarters per measure.

This may seem a little confusing now, but all of the sudden it will click. You will hit yourself in the head and wonder how you never understood it.

After you understand this, go on to the basic counting 2

Basic Counting 2

Let's introduce a mixed example

The quarter note is obviously beat 1 because from the time sig you know there are 4 quarter notes per measure. You also already know one half note = 2 quarter notes therefore the half note must be beats 2 and 3. Finally, you know that two eighth notes = 1 quarter note so they must be the "4 +".

When many different kinds of notes are intermingled, it starts to become tricky to count. Musicians will sometimes subdivide the notes so the counting flows more easily. Let's use the above example, but this time sub divide it.

Here every note in the measure is subdivided into 8th notes thus making it a lot more "fluid" to count. Its pretty easy to understand too... one quarter note is two 8th notes, so it gets "1 +". The half note is really four eighth notes so it get "2 + 3 +". And the each 8th note get a half so one is "4" and the other is the "and" of 4.

Here would also be a good place to throw in a few examples with rests. These will just show the counting and will not explain them. Just think of the rests in terms of their corresponding notes and you'll have no problem!

Counting the 16th note.

asically counting 16th notes is similiar to 8th notes except that you need to add more things to count with. I was taught using "e" and "a", but feel free to use what you want. Each part, the "1", "e", "+", "a" are all 1/4 of 1 quarter note. Together they add up to 1 beat according to the time sig. (4 sixteenths = 1 quarter)

Different time sigs and different notes.

Here you are.. the top of the note hill. Just look at these and the counting section is over!

Remember.. from this time sig you are counting the 8th notes.

Remember you are counting half notes, and therefore you have to subdivide the eighth notes and quarter notes accordingly.

Symbols in Music

This section contains some of the symbols you might come across while reading music.

Play the note 1/2 step up (Sharp)
Play the note 1/2 step down (Flat)
Play the note normally; pay no attention to the key signature
The above 3 symbols can also appear at the beginning of each line of music affecting the whole line. Also, if they are included in an individual measure, they override each other and carry through ties or slurs.
Compressed Rests. The number on top specifies how many measures of rest.
Fermata. Hold the note until cut off.
Repeat. Play through normally until 2nd symbol, then go back to 1st symbol and play again, this time ignoring 2nd symbol.
Begin and End. Marks the beginning and ending of a piece
Tie. Make each note flow into the next. (Do not break them up)

Shaping and Volume of Music

For music to have some real feeling and expression it must be shaped.

Volume of notes
f Loud
ff Loud Loud
fff As loud as possible
p Quiet
mp Medium Quiet
mf Medium Loud
pp Quiet Quiet
cresc Louder

Stuff that affects notes
sfz Hit note then back way off and build back up
tr Trill
vibrato Add waves to sound
legato Smooth

Stuff that affects the speed of note
poco. Gradually
accel. Faster
rit. Slower
dim. Diminish
soli Shared solo in section
solo 1 person solo (wow)

In order to play music, you need to know its meter, the beat you use when dancing, clapping or tapping your foot along with a song. When reading music, the meter is presented similar to a fraction, with a top number and a bottom number, we call this the song’s time signature. The top number tells you how many beats to a measure, the space of staff in between each vertical line (called a bar). The bottom number tells you the note value for a single beat, the pulse your foot taps along with while listening.

In the example above, the time signature is 4/4, meaning there are 4 beats per bar and that every quarter note gets one beat.
In the example below, the time signature is 3/4, meaning there are 3 beats per bar and that every quarter note gets one beat.

Let’s look again at the above examples, notice that even though the 4/4 time signature in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” calls for 4 beats per bar, there aren’t 4 notes in second bar? That’s because you have two quarter notes and one half note, which added together equal 4 beats.

In addition to your note values and time signature, the last piece to feeling the rhythm is knowing your tempo, or beats per minute. Tempo tells you how fast or slow a piece is intended to be played, and often is shown at the top of a piece of sheet music. A tempo of, say 60 BPM (beats per minute) would mean you’d play 60 of the signified notes every minute or a single note every second. Likewise, a tempo of 120 would double the speed at 2 notes every second. You may also see Italian words like “Largo,” “Allegro” or “Presto” at the top of your sheet music, which signify common tempos. Musicians use a tool, called a metronome, to help them keep tempo while practicing a new piece. Click on the circles next to the BPM values to see how a tempo can speed up and slow down.

Metronome by

Play a Melody

Congratulations, you’re almost on your way to reading music! First, let’s look at scales. A scale is made of eight consecutive notes, for example, the C major scale is composed of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The interval between the first note of your C major scale and the last is an example of an octave. The C major scale is very important to practice, since once you have the C scale down, the other major scales will start to fall into place. Each of the notes of a C major scale corresponds with a white key on your keyboard. Here’s how a C major scale looks on a staff and how that corresponds to the keys on your keyboard:

You’ll notice that as the notes ascend the staff, and move to the right on your keyboard, the pitch of the notes gets higher. But, what about the black keys? Musically, whole tones, or whole steps between the note letters, would limit the sounds we’re able to produce on our instruments. Let’s consider the C major scale you just learned to play. The distance between the C and the D keys in your C scale is a whole step, however the distance between the E and the F keys in your C scale is a half step. Do you see the difference? The E and the F keys don’t have a black key in between them, thus they’re just a half step away from one another. Every major scale you’ll play on a keyboard has the same pattern, whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. There are many other types of scales, each with unique sounds, like minor scales, modal scales and more that you’ll come across later on, but for now let’s focus just on major scales and the major scale pattern. Look at the C major scale again on the keyboard below.

emitones, or half-steps on the keyboard, allow us to write an infinite variety of sounds into music. A sharp, denoted by the ? symbol, means that note is a semitone (or half step) higher than the note head to its right on sheet music. Conversely, a flat, denoted by a ? symbol, means the note is a semitone lower than the note head to its right. You’ll notice on the keyboard picture and notated staff below, showing each half step between the C and the E notes, that whether you use the sharp or the flat of a note depends on whether you’re moving up or down the keyboard.

There’s one more symbol to learn regarding semitones, and that’s the natural, denoted by a ?. If a note is sharp or flat, that sharp or flat extends throughout the measure, unless there’s a natural symbol. A natural cancels a sharp or flat within a measure or a song. Here’s what playing C to E would look like with natural symbols.

Finally, in order to read music, you’ll need to understand key signatures. You actually already know one key signature, the key of C! The C major scale you learned above was in the key of C. Scales are named after their tonic, the preeminent note within the scale, and the tonic determines what key you play in. You can start a major scale on any note, so long as you follow the whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half pattern. Now, following that pattern in keys other than the key of C will require you to use sharps and flats. Since that’s the case, we place the sharps or flats for your song’s key signature right before the meter, after the clef, on your sheet music. That tells you to maintain those sharps or flats throughout the music, unless of course there’s a natural symbol to override it. You will begin to recognize the key signatures of pieces based on what sharps or flats are shown. Here’s a quick glimpse at some key signatures using sharps and flats:

Rhyming is a great memorization tool. If you can make anything rhyme, you'll recall it much faster simply by reciting the rhyme.

Acronyms are another great way to remember difficult bits of information. We'll use both these memorization techniques to help you read music faster!

Mnemonic Devices Are Tricks for Memorization

Mnemonic devices are tricks that we can use to help us remember things more easily.

Rhyming is a great memorization tool. If you can make anything rhyme, you'll recall it much faster simply by reciting the rhyme.

Acronyms are another great way to remember difficult bits of information. We'll use both these memorization techniques to help you read music faster!


Remember- The top staff is called the Treble Clef. Use these Mnemonic devices for the Treble (top) lines and spaces:

FACE is for the Space

Every Good Boy Does Fine is for the lines

The bottom staff is called the Bass Clef. Use the following memory tricks for the bass cleff lines and spaces (bottom):

Lines = Good Burritos Dont Fall Apart

Spaces = All Cows Eat Grass

Use the memorization tricks, we talked about! You'll get faster at reading the grand staff (both clefs in piano music). Counting up each note works, but its a slower method than saying to yourself Every Good Boy Does Fine.

We hope you’re excited to start reading music!

Dynamic Markings: Notice at the beginning of this piece there is a little ‘p‘. That means ‘pianissimo/piano’ which means softly. The dynamic markings allow the composer a way to articulate her musical vision. When we are reading music, we must be aware of the dynamics to fully bring the piece to life.

To be continued...

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