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how to read music

How to Read Music – Definitions to Help You Learn

by Tania Gleaves on September 11, 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:

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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!!!

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Piano Lessons Made Easier – How To Read Music Notes

by Tania Gleaves on August 24, 2014

One of the basic lessons of learning to play the piano involves how to read music notes. Reading music notes is like learning your ABC’s. Effectively reading music notes requires you to learn the basic parts of a music sheet; sometimes they call this song sheet.

If you look at the music sheet, you will notice that the notes are embedded on five horizontal lines with spaces in between them. This is called staff. It helps you how to read music notes correctly because each line and space represent different keys on the piano.

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blank staff Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

The symbol placed at the beginning of the staff is called clef, which serves as a guide to read the different pitches on the music sheet. There are actually two kinds of clef, one is called the treble clef and the other one is the bass clef.

 Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

 Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

When both clefs are put together with a vertical line, they form the so-called grand staff. These clefs play a vital role in playing the piano since both treble and bass clef shows you different notes to play together in order to produce the sweet sounding music.

grand staff Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

After learning the basic parts of a music sheet, the next agenda we have on how to read music notes is learning the different pitches corresponding to each line and space of the grand staff. The pitches are represented by the first seven letters of the alphabet. As mentioned earlier, these pitches correspond to different keys on your piano.

piano key notes Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

Knowing this, how do you know whether you have to play the corresponding key or not? This is where the role of the notes comes in. There are actually five notes you can play. When these notes are placed on the grand staff, you must pay attention where they are positioned and what they look like. These notes represent different symbols which show you the duration of each pitch played.

music note values Piano Lessons Made Easier   How To Read Music Notes

Here is the breakdown of the notes’ different duration:

  • Whole note – receives 4 counts
  • Half note – receives 2 counts
  • Quarter note – receives 1 count
  • Eighth note – receives half a count
  • Sixteenth note – receives quarter a count

How to read music notes is definitely easy once you have mastered all of these basics. The simple illustrations guide you in playing the piano effectively using the basic knowledge of reading music notes. So go ahead and start fumbling with your hands on the piano keys to play your favorite music sheets.

Click Here And Learn How To Read Music Notes The Right Way!

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The Play Piano Roadmap – Your Journey From Beginner To Advanced

August 12, 2014

Whether you already play piano or want to learn, I’m glad you stumbled across this page. It means there’s one more person out there looking for a better way to add music to his or her life, or perhaps to improve on an already established skill set. Either way, welcome. The good new is, I’ve […]

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Music Time Signatures – What Are They?

August 7, 2014

When you start studying piano lessons, you will learn the basic knowledge of music which also includes music time signatures. Time signatures are composed of two numbers in the form of a fraction which tells you the number of notes and the kind of note receiving one beat in each measure. Say what?! That might […]

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Music Bar Lines

July 17, 2014

Introducing the Bar In order to represent pitch and tone, music notes need a staff. If you’ll remember from our other lessons, the music staff is a system of five horizontal lines and it provides a foundation for all the beautiful music that we hear. Notes sit on, above, between, and below these lines. But […]

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Music Theory Key Signature – The Basics

July 13, 2014

You have been hearing about the music theory key signature during your first piano lesson but do you know what they are made of? Key signatures are actually one of the basic foundations of playing the piano. These music fundamentals guide you in “tuning” the music pieces you are playing. Music theory key signature can […]

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Piano Sheet Music Confidential

June 18, 2014

Piano sheet music has been around since the birth of the piano. It is the diary of the process of the composer. All of the heart and soul of piece lies within the notation of the sheet music. Sheet music can be used to record or to create a musical score. Musicians often use it […]

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Piano Music Notes – Hear Them Speak To You

May 8, 2014

Unless you plan to play music by ear, you’ll need to learn how to read sheet music for piano. Sheet music displays the notes of a song and musicians interpret it as if they were reading the words of a speech. It isn’t difficult to read piano music notes once you understand the basic structure […]

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Learn To Read Music – A Gentle Introduction…

March 30, 2014

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 […]

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Key Signatures – A Beginner’s Lesson…

January 15, 2014

What Determines The Quality And Quantity Of A Song’s Notes When watching musicians play piano, you may see them refer to a piece of music in the key of “A” or “C.” These letters refer to the key that the music is played in or its key signature. Key signatures are what determines the quality […]

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