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Music Notation

How to Read Music – Definitions to Help You Learn

by Tania Gleaves on April 18, 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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Classical piano music is an enigma in a world full of techno-laden pop slop. A capsule of a bygone era, the music style lives on with ferocious tenacity. The legacy lives on.

Generally speaking the age of this style of music spans between 1750 and 1820.

During this time master composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn were at the peak of their game. Many liken this age to the golden age of art and literature.

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Classical piano music is a written tradition. Music notation is the preferred correspondence when dealing with the medium. Most other musical styles are passed on through orally or through a recording, while classical piano music must be transcribed and passed along by paper.

This sense of tradition and posterity translates even to how it is played.

The original composers of the genre had specific visions for how and where the music should be performed. The effect of the music was important.

To really appreciate the complexity of classical piano music you experience it live.

No record, CD, or MP3 will ever be able to capture the mood of this style of music as vividly as a live performance. Most people think such a concert is boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Concertos and solos can be surprisingly stirring, even moving people to tears.

Improvisation is a cornerstone of the genre and even played a part in some of the most famous and revered works of the time. This sense of play and fun can fill a concert hall with action, drama, suspense and joy.

Who knew that listening to a symphony could be as exciting as watching a football game?

Classical music is a rich tapestry of complex relationships. Composers wanted to create a link between the emotional and intellectual content of their work. This happened through musical development where they created many of the musical phrases and devices that we take for granted in the music of today.

Some of the Composers of the Classical Era

Franz Joseph Haydn was considered one of the first most prominent figures of the classical era. He was considered by many to be the father of the symphony. Haydn’s music was bright and had a bit of humor mixed in.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most famous composers of the classical era. He created over 600 compositions for classical piano music and is a standard part of many concerts and symphonies.

Ludwig Van Beethoven is by far the most widely-known and regarded classical composer of all time. He is considered by many to be the first ever “rock-star”. He is responsible for some for some of the most sweeping piano classical music ever written.

Other famous composers from this era are Chopin and Bach. In fact, my favorite classical piece is “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach.

To sum it all up, piano classical music has a rich history full of intrigue and has been celebrated by kings, queens, princes and emperors all over the world. Learning to appreciate the genre will give you a better ear for music that can greatly affect your performance as a musician.

Just as a writer gains more skills in his bag of tricks by reading others work, so does the musician who listens to complexly structured music.

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Music Time Signatures – What Are They?

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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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Learn To Read Music – A Gentle Introduction…

February 24, 2015

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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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Key Signatures – A Beginner’s Lesson…

February 10, 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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