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How to Read Sheet Music for Beginners

Learning how to read sheet music is essential if you want to play a musical instrument or sing. Sure, it may seem intimidating at first, but look at it this way:

Music is simply a language (the universal language, they say). And if you learned to read English, you can learn how to read sheet music. In fact, the basics are quick and easy to pick up. So let's get started.

Click a Subject... Treble and Bass Clefs Bars & Measures Notes on the Staff Rhythm
Accidentals Key Signature Time Signature Dynamics Articulation

Treble and Bass Clefs

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When learning how to read sheet music, we start with a blank music staff. 5 horizontal lines and 4 spaces. Every line and space represents a pitch of sound.

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The symbol you see here is called a treble clef, or a G clef. Why? Because it looks like the letter G and sits on the second line, which marks that pitch as G.

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The symbol you see here is called a bass clef, or an F clef. (Because it's centered on the fourth line, which marks that pitch as F.)

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Together, these two clefs look like this:

Both clefs are joined by a brace, forming what's called the grand staff. If the note appears lower on the staff, it's lower in pitch. If it appears higher on the staff, it's higher in pitch. So you sopranos and altos will usually read music on the treble clef, while tenors and basses read it on the bass clef.

The grand staff is your foundation for learning how to read sheet music.


Bars & Measures

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The vertical lines you see are called bar lines. They divide the staff into measures or bars. In this example, there are four measures. When you know how to read sheet music, they help you organize the music into beats.

The beat of a song is that pulse that you want to clap along with. The number of beats in a measure is determined by the time signature.

The double bar at the end tells you that the song is finished.


Notes on the Staff

Notes are markings of pitch on the staff, which we talked about earlier. The image below is strewn with little ovals (whole notes), one for each line and space on the grand staff. The name of each note is right above or below. Every note is labeled with one of seven letters, A, B, C, D, E, F, or G.

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Lastly, there's one imaginary line sitting in between the two clefs. The note on that line is called middle C, because it sits in the middle. But here's a trick for how to read sheet music:

The notes on the treble clef lines from bottom to top are: Every Good Boy Does Fine.
E, G, B, D, F.

And the spaces, from bottom to top spell the word face.
F, A, C, E.

The notes on the bass clef lines from bottom to top are: Good Boys Do Fine Always.
G, B, D, F, A.

And the spaces from bottom to top are: All Cows Eat Grass.
A, C, E, G.


Rhythm

When you learn how to read sheet music, rhythm is very important. Without it, we wouldn't know when to start playing a note, or when to stop. Look at this chart. It shows you the symbols for different notes and rests, and how many beats they're worth.

On the chart, you'll see that I mention rests. Rests are symbols that indicate silence. For example: If you see a quarter rest, you don't play or sing for one beat.

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One more thing about rhythm: If you see a dot next to a note or rest, it extends that note or rest by half its own value. For example, if you see a half note with a dot next to it, it's actually worth three beats. When you learn how to read sheet music, this comes naturally.


Accidentals

Imagine the keys of a piano. Until now, we've only talked about the white keys. Now we'll talk about the black keys. Accidentals are symbols that sit next to notes that modify their pitch.

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One type of accidental is called a sharp. If a sharp is sitting in front of a note, it raises the pitch of the note by one half step. In this picture, a C becomes C sharp.

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Another kind of accidental is called a flat. When a flat is sitting in front of a note, it lowers the pitch of the note by one half step. In this picture, a B becomes a B flat.

If an accidental shows up next to a note, it stays that way until the end of the measure. Or until another accidental takes its place. Which leads us to our next topic...


Key Signature

Have you ever heard someone say, "Oh, that sounds like Bach's Violin Concerto in E Flat Major." Well, they were talking about the song's key. Without the different keys, every song would sound the same. And that would be boring.

A key signature appears right after the clef symbol. It makes things easier by telling you which key the song is written in. Otherwise, you'd see a whole song written like this:

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Accidentals everywhere! What a mess! But if we establish B major from the start, it looks like this:

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So every time a note appears in those five places, you actually play it sharp (one half step higher). Much simpler.

This chart shows you every possible key signature. You could just memorize it, But here's an even better way to determine the key of a song:

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If you see sharps (#): Look at the last sharp (the one closest to the right), and go one half step up the staff. For example: What is the last sharp in the key signature to your left? G sharp. Go one half step up the staff to find out what key we're in: A major. (Or f minor.)

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If you see flats (b): The second to last flat is your key. For example: The second to last flat is C flat. So your key is C flat major. (Or a flat minor.)

Pretty soon, you won't need these tricks anymore. You'll just know how to read sheet music by instinct. How exciting is that?!


Time Signature

Right after the key signature, we see the time signature. It kinda looks like a fraction. The top number always tells you how many beats are in a measure. The bottom number always tells you what kind of note equals one beat.

In the example to the below, the top number is a four. That tells us there are four beats in each measure. The bottom number is also a four, which tells us that the quarter note is equal to one beat. See for yourself:

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Four quarter notes make up one measure: One, two, three, four, Four quarter notes make up one measure: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four...

But it doesn't have to be four quarter notes. It can be eight eighth notes. Or a half note and eight sixteenth notes. Or a whole rest. But whatever goes in that measure must add up to four beats.

Let's look at another widely used time signature: Three-four. Three beats in a measure, and the quarter notes gets the beat. This is called waltz-time. Have you ever heard of a waltz? Of course you have! You've even sang one, it's called the Happy Birthday Song.

One, two, three, one, two, three... Now you've got it.

These two are the most common, but there are all kinds of time signatures: two-four (or cut time), five-four, six-eight, nine-eight, and so on. Just remember what each number means and you'll be fine. When you know how to read sheet music, you get used playing all kinds of times.


Dynamics

Now that we know which notes to play and how long to play them, we need to know how loud to play them. When learning how to read sheet music, this is ultra important. Look for these symbols:

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    Pianissimo: Italian for "very softly", it means to sing or play very, very quietly. It's marked by a double P.

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    Piano: Italian for "softly", it means to sing or play quietly. It's marked with a single P.

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    Mezzo-Piano: Italian for "moderately softly", it means to sing or play somewhat quietly. It's marked with an MP.

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    Mezzo-Forte: Italian for "moderately strong", it means to sing or play somewhat loudly. It's marked with an MF.

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    Forte: Italian for "strong", it means to song or play loudly. It's marked with an F.

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    Fortissimo: Italian for "very strong", it means to sing or play very, very loudly. It's marked with a double F.

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    Crescendo: Italian for "growing", it means to gradually increase your volume for as long as the symbol appears above or below the staff.

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    Decrescendo: Italian for "shrinking", it means to gradually decrease your volume for as long as the symbol appears above or below the staff. It's also known as diminuendo.


Misc. Articulation

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    Accent: Means to play the note louder and harder than the surrounding notes. If you know how to read sheet music, you'll find a lot of these.

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    Fermata: Also called a birds-eye. Means to play the note for longer than its real value. Exactly how long is up to the performer/conductor.

  • Legato: Italian for "tied together", means to play the notes smoothly, in one long phrase, with no silence in between. There's no real symbol for legato, except for maybe a slur.

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    Staccato: Italian for "detached", it's the opposite of legato. Play the notes abruptly, leaving lots of room for silence in between.

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    Slur: A curved line over a series of notes on the staff, which means the notes should be played legato and in one breath, forming a single musical phrase.

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    Tie: Looks similar to a slur. The difference is this: It only connects two notes of the same pitch, which means to play the two notes as one single note.


All of these elements comes together to create a piece of music. They tell you what notes to play, when to play them, how fast to play them, and how loud to play them. Now that you know how to read sheet music, go out and use your new skills!

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