Tips for Learning to Read Sheet Music: Uncover your Inner Maestro with these Easy Steps!
Learning to read sheet music is akin to learning a new language. Like all other languages, it is composed of symbols that have been used for hundreds of years. While written languages denote meaning, symbols used in the language of music represent the pitch, speed and rhythm of the song they convey, as well as expression and techniques used by a musician to play the piece. It is helpful to think of the notes as the letters, the measures as the words, and the phrases as the sentences. Learning to read music really does open up a whole new and exciting world to explore!
As aforementioned, music is composed of a variety of symbols, the most rudimentary of which are the staff, the clefs, and the notes. In order to begin your musical journey, you must first familiarize yourself with these fundamental components. Continue reading for an overview of the basic symbols of notation which will help you on your way to learning your first piece of music!
The staff consists of five lines and four spaces, each of which represents a different letter (A-G repeating), which in turn represents corresponding notes to be played on your instrument. The note sequence repeats alphabetically up the staff, alternating line and space.
If your desire is to learning piano, then there are two clefs you need to familiarize yourself with. The treble clef notates the higher registers of music, so on your keyboard these notes will appear on the right side (generally) after middle C and are commonly played with your right hand. You can use common mnemonics to memorize the line and space notes. For the lines, from the bottom to the top, we recall EGBDF by the word cue “Every Good Bear Deserves Fish”. Likewise, for the spaces we recall FACE by the word cue “Face”. These helpful mnemonics will make note reading a breeze!
The bass clef notates the lower registers of music, these notes will generally appear below middle C on the right side of your keyboard. These notes are often played with your left hand. To recall the note names in the bass clef GBDFA, you can employ the common mnemonic “Great Big Dragons Fly Around”. And for the spaces: ACEG, you can employ “All Cows Eat Grass”.
Occasionally notes will appear above or below the staff, in this case we use ledger lines to extend the staff lower or higher. A ledger line is just a short line through, on top, or below a note. For example, if you wanted to play a middle C in the treble clef you would count back from the bottom line note on the staff, E. Therefore D would be in the hanging space below E and C would appear on the ledger line and so forth.
Notes can appear in a variety of different ways, their differences will inform which note you play and the duration of which you should play it. There are three parts to a note: the note head, the stem, and the flag. The note head will appear ether filled in (black) or opened (white).
The note stem is a thin line that extends up or down from a note, if the note is below the middle line it extends up, and if it is above the middle line it goes down. It is easy if you remember that notes below the middle line look like lowercase d’s, while the notes above the middle line look like lowercase p’s. The only note value without a stem is the whole note, all others will appear with a visible stem which, combined with whether the note head is black or open white, will inform how long you hold the note while playing.
The note flag is a curvy line to the right of the note stem. It only appears with notes that have a quick duration. The more curvy lines added, the faster the notes become. Sometimes flagged notes will be written as doubles, triples, or quadruples with the use of beams.
Each note has twice the value of the next note down, so if your math skills are decent these calculations should be no problem. We simply break the timing down as the notes get smaller. For example, a whole note we would count to four, a half note we would count to two, a quarter note to one, an eighth note only half, a sixteenth note a quarter, and so on.
While notes tell you where and for how long to play, rests are a little bit easier as they tell you when not to play. All you need here is to remember the value of each rest and simply pause your playing for the duration of that rest and resume playing after the appropriate time.
Now that you’ve got your notes, rests, staff, and clefs down, we have to discuss time signatures. A time signature will let you know how many beats will be in every measure. Measures are separated by a bar line that stretch from the top to the bottom of the staff. Depending on the time signature, there will be a different number of beats in every measure depending on the song of choice. The most basic time signature is a 4/4 time signature. Read simply, we take the top number four, and that tells us we need four of something, then we look at the bottom number and we see that it is also a four, this four means quarter notes. So, in a 4/4 time signature you would have the equivalent of four quarter notes in each measure. For easy playing just count 1,2,3,4 so you can try to stay on beat! The same method can be employed in a 3/4 or 2/4 time signature!
The last step before you can begin playing at the beginner level is to familiarize yourself with the piano keys that correspond to the notes you have just learned! The piano is lovely as it has a repeating pattern of notes which makes them easier to discern.
Sharps and Flats:
Sometimes notes will appear with a sharp or flat before the note. If this is the case you move one black key (semitone) back for a flat, or move one black key (semitone) up for a sharp. Sharps look like number signs, while flats look like slanted lower case b’s.
Many songs are played in a key signature other than C major which has no sharps and flats. If you encounter a more challenging song with a key signature, do not fret! A key signature will always appear between your time signature and your clef. Your knowledge of sharps and flats that you learned above will help out. For example, if you had a key signature with one sharp it would mean that all the F’s that you come across in your song will be F sharps. Alternatively if you see one flat it would mean that all B’s in that song will be B flats. If there is more than one sharp/flat you can use this simple mnemonic to help figure out which of the notes in your song need to be sharps/flats:
That’s it! By following these basic guidelines you’re all set to start exploring the world of music. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun on your journey!