L earning how to read music is like learning another language. It has its own letters, syntax and grammar. Whether you are learning to play the piano through the classic method or the chord method, you’ll have to be familiar with how to read music.
A page of music has a lot of symbols and notations that are easily interpreted when you know a few basics. By the time you finish reading this page, you will understand everything from this excerpt from Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Für Elise:
(Click on picture to enlarge)
Here are some of the basic terms in learning how to read music:
How to Read Music – The Staffs:
Bar Line– The vertical line that separates notes into groups.
Measure – The distance between two bar lines. Normally 3 to 4 beats long
Treble Clef – This is a S-shaped symbol that appears before the first bar line. It signifies that these notes will be played with the right hand. It is also sometimes called the G clef.
Bass Clef – This is a C-shaped symbol that appears before the first bar line. It indicates that the following notes should be played with the left hand.
Staff – The five lines (ledger) and four spaces that create a line of music and defines the pitch (A,B,C,D,E,F,G). The Staff with the Treble Clef combined with the Bass Clef make what’s called the Grand Staff. (This is typically how sheet music is display for piano music.)
How to Read Music – The Pitch or Tone:
Pitch – The pitch or tone is denoted by the position of the note on the staff lines and spaces:
On Treble Staff:
On Bass Staff:
Each of these pitches correspond to a key on the piano:
(Click on picture to enlarge)
Notice that the pitches repeat from A to G
How to Read Music – The Rhythm:
When you learn how to read music, you also need to know the rhythm a piece should be played. This is represented in sheet music in three ways:
- Time Signatures
Notes and Rest
- Whole note – This symbol looks like a circle on the staff. It gets four counts of sound.
- Whole rest – This is a solid half block that hangs off the second line on the staff.
- Half note – This is a music note with a hollow note head and stem. It gets two counts of sound.
- Half rest – A solid half block symbol that sits on the third line of the staff. It gets two counts of silence.
- Quarter Note – This is a music note with a solid note head and a stem. It gets one count of sound.
- Quarter rest – This is a musical symbol that looks like a sideways W. It gets one count of silence.
- Eighth Note – This is a music note with a solid note head and a stem. It gets 1/2 count of sound.
- Eight rest – This is a musical symbol that looks like a sideways W. It gets 1/2 count of silence.
Note/ Rest Equivalents:
Time Signature – The top number specifies
the number of beats are in each measure and what note value constitutes one beat (bottom number). The example shown below would be written 3/4 (3 beats per measure and the 1/4, quarter, note gets one beat), which is highlighted in blue:
Note: This simple explanation only applies when the top number is 4 and under- simple time. Most beginner music uses simple time.
How to Read Music –
Connecting the Music:
Ties and slurs connect two or more notes together. Ties connect notes of the same pitch, forming essentially one longer note. Slurs smoothly connect notes of different pitch. This means to play the notes without breaks. The first set of notes below exhibit a tie. The second show a slur.
How to Read Music – Flats and Sharps:
The black notes take their names from the white keys on either side on them. We have enlarged a portion of the keyboard, starting from ‘middle C’, to make this clearer. A black key immediate to the right of a white key is said to be ‘sharp’ while a black key immediate to the left of a white key is said to be ‘flat’. Because every black key has a white key on either side of it, it bears two names. These are both shown on the diagram below. C sharp and D flat are the same key and will produce the same note when played on a keyboard.
A sharp () is a sign which is written in front of a note and raises the pitch of that note by one half-step. A flat () is a sign which lowers the pitch of a note by one half-step. That particular note remains sharp or flat for the entire measure. To cancel a flat or sharp, a natural ( ) is placed on the staff before the note it is to affect or when a new measure begins. If the same note is always going to be sharp or flat, music writers use key signatures to indicate once and for all (see below).
The flat, sharp and natural symbols are referred to as accidentals and only affect the note in the same octave in which it has been written. They do not affect the same note in other octaves unless they have been labeled with an accidental. This is why a natural is needed, just in case you happen to need the same note again in the same octave but without any variation in tone.
How to Read Music – Key Signatures:
There are times when a composer may want you to flat (or sharpen, #) all of the B’s, for example, in a particular piece. In such a case there is a shortcut that eliminates the necessity for using a flat symbol every time a B appears.
How To Determine the Volume of the Music:
Dynamic signs refer to the softness or the loudness of that the notes should be played. They are signs and marks that set or change the dynamic level during a piece of music. In some case, the dynamic level is related to the mood; in other cases the mark is much more direct. They are generally at the beginning of a measure (and at the beginning of the music) and usually located in the space between the treble and bass staffs. Once set, it’s in effect until another dynamic symbol is display or for the entire piece.
Here are some of the common dynamic symbols:
|ff||fortissimo : very loud|
|mf||mezzo forte: moderately loud|
|mp||mezzo piano: moderately soft|
|pp||pianissimo : very soft|
|crescendo: increasingly louder|
|diminuendo or decrescendo: increasingly softer|
Determining the Speed of the Piece:
Typically, the composer will suggest the speed or feeling the piece should be played. The notation is usually right above the Treble clef at the beginning of the piece. In our example, it’s “Poco Moto” (little motion).
As you can see, the speed notation is the composer’s attempt to convey the feel at which the piece should be played.
Playing the piano seeks to express and convey emotion and feeling through the music; so many times the composer will user emotional words and leaves it up to the musician to translate that into an appropriate tempo. For example, you’d know that a piece that’s played with excitement will be played faster than a piece that’s played
with sadness, etc…There’s no exact science to it…Remember music is expressive!
Here are some common traditional words to denote tempo used mostly in classical music:
|Tempo Name||Beats per Minute (BPM) Range|
|Largo||40 – 59|
|Largetto||60 – 65|
|Adagio||66 – 75|
|Andante||76 – 107|
|Moderato||108 – 119|
|Allegro||120 – 167|
|Presto||168 – 180|
Piano Fingering Numbers:
Have you noticed the numbers above some of the notes?
Well, that’s the recommended hand position that the song should be played. The numbers correspond to the fingers of the left hands (LH) and right hands (RH):
The numbers above the notes on the treble staff are typically for the right hand and numbers about the notes on the bass staff.
These terms will help you become familiar with the symbols on the musical page. Looking at a page of music and understanding it will be easy once you know these definitions. From there, you can continue learning how to read music and playing whatever kind of music that you want.
Now, you have everything you need to play almost any piece of sheet music! Pat yourself on the back…Good Job!!!