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how to read music

How to Read Music – Definitions to Help You Learn

by Tania Gleaves on August 21, 2015

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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(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:

  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.

Note/ Rest Equivalents:

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 Example

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.

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: 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!!!

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Music Bar Lines

by Tania Gleaves on August 17, 2015

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 there’s another kind of line that you’ll find in sheet music, and it’s the bar line. This *vertical* line also sits on the staff but it doesn’t indicate pitch or tone. It instead, indicates measures or groups of notes. Measures and music bar lines make sheet music easier to write and read.

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To understand the role of the bar line, you can compare it to any type of punctuation that ends a sentence. Imagine for a moment, a paragraph of four or five sentences that doesn’t use any periods, question marks, or exclamation points. As you can see, this paragraph would look more like a gigantic run-on sentence than it would look like a group of complete statements. Punctuation lets us know when its specific parts start and finish. This is similar to what music bars do. Music bars let us know when specific parts of a song start and finish.

Like with our paragraph analogy above, music without bar lines would look as though it played continuously without any indications of rhythm or rest. It would also be difficult to reference because quite often, a conductor, tutor, or music book will ask us to play from “measure five” or “measure eight.” That doesn’t mean that “bar-less” music doesn’t exist or isn’t purposeful. Creative types like to reference such music as unmeasured, where music moves freely without a steady beat.

What’s in a Measure?

The measure usually divides notes into three to four beats each, depending on a song’s signature. If the signature of a song indicates 3/4 time for example, each of its measures will contain three beats. Measures of a song played in 4/4 time then contain four beats each. All of this is of course, applicable to the single bar line. The double bar line and thin double bar line indicate other things.

There’s More Than One Bar

Take the double bar line for instance. Two lines make up the double bar line. One line is thin and it sits in front of a second, thick line. This double bar line sits at the very end of a song’s movement and/or completion. The thin double bar line one the other hand, is made of two thin lines only, and it’s used to indicate sections. Like measures, sections are frequently referenced in practice mode. But when a number sits atop a double bar line, it means its section has changed key or meter.

Another kind of bar line is the repeat bar. Music between a double bar that sits in _front_ of two dots — and a double bar that sits _behind_ two dots (the repeat bar) — is played twice. In complicated pieces, you may find repeat bars *and* repeat endings with accompanying numbers. These numbers tell musicians that there’s more than one ending in a song, and that each successive play ends with a corresponding ending.

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Key Signatures – A Beginner’s Lesson…

August 13, 2015

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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Piano Lessons Made Easier – How To Read Music Notes

August 11, 2015

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 […]

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Learn To Read Music – A Gentle Introduction…

July 10, 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 […]

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Music Time Signatures – What Are They?

May 22, 2015

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 Theory Key Signature – The Basics

February 20, 2015

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 Music Notes – Hear Them Speak To You

February 17, 2015

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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Piano Sheet Music Confidential

January 23, 2015

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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The Play Piano Roadmap – Your Journey From Beginner To Advanced

January 17, 2015

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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