How to Read Music – Definitions to Help You Learn

by Tania Gleaves on July 2, 2014

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 Here And Learn How To Read Music Effortlessly!

fur elise sm21 300x177 How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

(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

bar measure How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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.

treble clef How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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.

bass clef How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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.)

grand staff How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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:

treble staff How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

On Bass Staff:

how to11 How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

Each of these pitches correspond to a key on the piano:

notes on piano sm How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

(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:

  1. Notes
  2. Rest
  3. 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.

notes and rest How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

Note/ Rest Equivalents:

notes How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

Time Signatures

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:

time signature How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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.

ties slurs How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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.

flats and sharps How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

A sharp (sharp How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn) is a sign which is written in front of a note and raises the pitch of that note by one half-step. A flat (flat How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn) 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 (natural How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn ) 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.

key sign How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

This is also called the key signature. In this example, it’s the key signature for F Major. The circle of fifths is a good way to remember the various key signatures.

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:

Symbol Meaning
ff fortissimo : very loud
f forte; Loud
mf mezzo forte: moderately loud
mp mezzo piano: moderately soft
p piano: soft
pp pianissimo : very soft
crescendo How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn crescendo: increasingly louder
diminuendo How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn 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).

tempo example How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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?
piano fingering How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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):

hand positioning How to Read Music   Definitions to Help You Learn

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!!!

Click Here And Learn How To Read Music Effortlessly!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

corpsebryde April 14, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Thanks i need this i play piano but don’t know how to read notes haha funny right

corpsebryde April 15, 2009 at 1:09 pm

i love this site

jun May 27, 2009 at 7:51 am

Im a begginer and im not that very familiar with this kinds of notes. are there piano sheets that are already translated into numbers like, ABCDEF is translated into 123456..by the way im using the octave kind of piano

Angel December 29, 2009 at 9:35 pm

i am fourteen years old and juz started to learn piano,how can i improve my piano skill and read the notes fast and accurate.i like piano very much.i hope to learn fast

Brian December 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Hi Angel,

The best way I know to do this is focused PRACTICE :)

Gulia May 25, 2010 at 10:52 am

thanks to the site. i learned a lot

Alexandra August 13, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Oh, this site is wonderful. Thank you. [: <3

rizal August 23, 2010 at 3:15 am

nice site…it did helped me..thanks a lot…..

kaveh September 6, 2010 at 2:55 am

hi,
this is the best site for piano that i have ever seen !!
bau i have a question:
what is star sign ( * ) mean in piano note?
and if it’s possible pleas send the answer of my question to my Email.

thanks alot

sparta September 15, 2010 at 6:17 pm

i play alto sax already And what i noticed is bass clef notes are 1 line down further than treble clef notes

Scott October 13, 2010 at 6:04 pm

This was very helpful. Thank you!

toontin October 21, 2010 at 1:25 pm

thanks.

shelby October 23, 2010 at 8:54 pm

i was having truobles in band but this helped alot!!!!!i love it <3

sreejith titus December 10, 2010 at 9:02 pm

its very very good. its very helpfull

Erik Thiede January 17, 2011 at 1:30 am

Goes back to corresponding “beginning repeat” for that section…

ciera February 10, 2011 at 4:00 am

it helped me cuz i already know how to play piano very well but didnt know how to read any of the sheet music. thanks! :) it really helped me.

Blessie Hernandez March 14, 2011 at 6:52 am

This is very helpful….:D

Lama April 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

This website is very very helpful thanx so much

Jon S Kircher April 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Liberace would always play his piano with ascending or descending notes or keys in a sweeping motion using his thumb or other finger running it right down or up the piano keyboard in very fast motion. Is this a form of arpeggio and if not what is that called ?

Thank you, Jon Kircher

mary jane September 3, 2011 at 10:01 am

i want know how to play a piano!?

Hoàng September 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Thx vry much. I learn both English and Music…

bob December 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Hi i like Piano

Jessica January 31, 2013 at 8:34 pm

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Cowell April 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm

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