Learn To Read Music – A Gentle Introduction…

by Tania Gleaves on November 2, 2015

Figuring out how to learn to read music may seem intimidating — especially if you’ve never paid any attention to sheet music before. But once you learn the basics, you’ll discover a whole new world that paves a road of confusing symbols with a coat of comfortable, natural, and perfect logic. This article serves as a quick primer for what you’re about to encounter in music notation. And once you’ve finished reading, you’ll discover that it isn’t so intimidating after all!

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The Setting

Every piece of sheet music contains a set of staff lines. StaffTreble clef lines are groups of five lines and four spaces that hold the notes you’ll see and play. Also known as ledgers, they also hold the Clef symbol which indicates which hand you’ll play with. The Treble Clef (S-Shaped) indicates right hand work while the Bass Clef (C-Shaped) indicates left hand work. To make music legible, notes are separated by bar lines. Bar lines divide notes into measures which also make music legible. It’s much easier to read music that’s separated into parts than it is to read music that isn’t — much like the way it’s easier to read an article that’s separated into paragraphs.

The Music

Earlier we mentioned that staffs hold the notes that you’ll encounter. Notes, which can look like solid and hollow circles, sit right on top of a line or right in the middle of two lines. The placement of these notes corresponds to a particular pitch and each pitch corresponds to a piano key – and more…

Notes not only represent pitch, they also represent rhythm. A solid circled note for example, can represent a quarter or a whole beat while a hollow note can represent two beats or four whole beats at once. If you see a small dot next to a note, it means that note should be played a little longer.

Learn To Read Music Timing

While figuring out how to learn to read music, you’ll see other symbols that teach you when to play the notes we’ve been talking about. If a dot sits next to a quarter note for example, the quarter note (which is normally played for one beat) is then played for two beats. If you see an arc type shape that appears to connect two notes beneath or above it, it indicates that those two notes should be played as one.

Other symbols include rests and time signatures. Some rests look like little black hats whereas time signatures look like fractions. You’ll find a song’s time signature on the first staff. It tells musicians the number of beats that are in each measure and it describes kind of note counts as one beat. You’ll find rests all over the place however and since they’re the only shapes that look like squares, they’re fairly easy to locate. Try to remember that a solid “hat” on the second line of a staff indicates that you should stop playing for four whole beats. Half of a hat on the third line indicates that you should rest for two beats.

Two kinds of rests don’t look like hats at all. They look like lazy W’s (Ws pointing to the left) instead and if you see one, it means you should rest for only one beat.

Get a more thorough lesson on How To read music here

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Fractions In Music? Oh No!

Time signatures in music indicate a song’s rhythm. Sometimes called a meter, the time signature tells musicians the number of beats in each measure of music and what kind of note counts as one beat. Written as music, they look like fractions – but fortunately the only math that you need to do upon encountering one of these things is counting!

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The top number in a time signature tells musicians the number of beats in each measure of music and the bottom number tells them the kind of note that counts as one beat. The bottom number can be pretty confusing to understand without an illustration, so we’ll use the time signature: “3/4” as an example.

The 3/4 meter tells us that there are three beats per measure. It also tells us that the quarter note counts as one beat. A full measure would therefore contain three quarter notes or any combination of notes that when counted together, create three beats. Depending on how advanced your notation is (and how far you are in your music lessons), you’ll notice that there are some rather unique ways to shorten beats or lengthen them past their original count using ties.

A 4/4 time signature tells us that there are four beats per measure and that the quarter note counts as one beat. A full measure in this meter could contain four quarter notes, a whole note, or two half notes.

Understanding Time Signatures – Common Types

Although time signatures can get pretty complicated as your experience with piano music gets more extensive, the most common are 2/4 (popular in polkas or marches), 3/4 (popular in waltzes, minuets, and country/western ballads), and 4/4 (popular in classical and popular music). By the way, the 4/4 time signature is also denote with a “C”-like symbol:

Common Time Signatures

Dupal time meters indicate two beats per measure, and triple time meters indicate three beats per measure. And the more intricate your piano music gets, the more complicated its can meter get.

For example, marches, orchestra music, and theater music often employ the 2/2 time signature. Some of Brahms’ pieces is played to a 4/2 meter while jigs, and some rock music plays to a 6/8 meter. The 12/8 supports the blues and doo-wop styles. Songs that have no time signature at all have what’s called free time.

Unusual But Creative Meters

Things can really get complicated when musicians switch meters in the middle of a song! But that only makes things interesting. Most songs maintain a regular meter throughout their entirety, but it isn’t uncommon for a small section to switch from a 4/4 meter to a 3/4 meter (and then back again).

You can find the meter of the music that you play in the beginning of the song. It should be located right after the song’s key signature or clef. Just remember that when you play, the first beat of a measure’s meter — that is, the first beat of a series of beats — is the one that’s stressed as a way to help the audience identify a steady rhythm.

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