How To Read Music

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How To Read Music

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CHAPTER 8

Music Symbols


Below are musical symbols composers use when writing sheet music.

Articulations

These symbols are used to mark different ways of playing a note.

Staccato

staccato music symbol on quarter note

This symbol means to play the note very briefly. Do not hold or “sustain” the note for any length of time.

Accent

accent on quarter note

When you see an accent you will play the note louder. An accented note should sound considerably more aggressive than the non-accented notes around it.

Marcato

marcato on quarter note

A marcato is a stronger accent. When playing a note with a marcato marking you will typically play a loud accent and then quickly lower the volume (if possible on your instrument). Hit the note hard, then back off.

Fermata

fermata music symbol

A fermata means to hold a note longer – it should feel as though you are drawing the note’s duration out for a considerable period of time (about half as long again is the general rule). This is stylistic, so don’t feel like you need to precisely stick to this duration. If you’re in a band, your director will conduct when to release a fermata.

Tenuto

tenuto music symbol on quarter note

Music symbols like this mean you should hold the note for the entire duration – do not release it early.

Dynamics

Dynamics instruct how loud or quiet notes should be played.

Pianississimo (ppp)

pianississimo music symbol

Play very, very softly. This is the musical equivalent to a whisper.

Pianissimo (pp)

pianissimo music symbol

Play very softly. This dynamic means to play just above a whisper and is only slightly louder than pianississimo.

Piano (p)

music symbol for piano

Play softly. The volume should be notably quieter than your speaking voice but well above a whisper.

Mezzo Piano (mp)

mezzo piano music symbol

When you see a mezzo piano symbol you will play moderately soft – just a touch quieter than your speaking voice.

Mezzo Forte (mf)

mezzo forte music symbol

Play moderately loudly. The volume should be just a little louder than your speaking voice.

Forte (f)

forte music symbol

When you see a forte symbol you will play loudly.

Fortissimo

music symbol for fortissimo

Play very loudly. This is the equivalent to speaking with a substantial amount of volume, like talking in a busy restaurant.

Fortississimo

fortississimo music symbol

Play very, very loudly. This is the equivalent to yelling.

The following symbols are used to show changes in dynamics:

Crescendo

crescendo music symbol

The crescendo, which is sometimes abbreviated Cresc., means to gradually become louder.

Decrescendo

decrescendo or diminuendo music symbol

The decrescendo, which is sometimes abbreviated Decresc. or written as diminuendo (abbreviated dim.), is the opposite of a crescendo and means to gradually play softer.

Sforzando

sforzando music symbol

These music symbols mark a sudden and powerful increase in loudness. May also be abbreviated as sf, or sz.

Other Symbols

Here are a few other common music symbols found on sheet music:

Tempo Markers

tempo marketing of quarter note equals 80 bpm

Tempo dictates the speed at which a song should be played. In the example to the left we see that quarter notes should be played at 80 BPM, or 80 beats per minute. 60 BPM is one beat per second and 120 BPM one beat per half second (two beats per second).

Tempo markers typically are placed at the beginning of the song.

Click here to learn more about tempo.

First and Second Endings

music symbols for first and second endings

These symbols mean to repeat sections in a song. Here’s how they work:

The first time playing through a section you will play the first ending. At the end of the first ending you will find an end repeat sign. Find the begin repeat sign and continue playing from there. When you get back to the first ending skip it and go directly to the second ending.

Learn all about repeating sections here.