How To Read Music

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How To Read Music

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Understanding the Staff

This is the staff:

unlabelled music staff with no notes

These five lines are where composers write notes for musicians to play.

You will notice that the staff has five lines and four spaces. Each line and each space on the staff represents a single note (if you are familiar with the piano, every line or space on the staff represents a white key on the keyboard).

As you learn to read music you will become intimately familiar with the staff and the notes written on it. Before long you will be able to read notes just as easily as you’re reading the words on this page, but it typically takes a few weeks to gain initial mastery so be patient with yourself.

To begin reading notes, the first thing you must learn about are clefs.

The Most Common Clefs: Treble Clef and Bass Clef

Songs typically have a wide variety of pitches, ranging from very low (think of the bass line), to very high (an example would be the melody sang by a female vocalist). This involves far more notes than can be written on a single staff and so composers use clefs to expand the number of notes that can be written.

The treble and bass clefs are by far the two most common clefs in music.

This is the treble clef:

treble clef with no notes

This is the bass clef:
bass clef with no notes

We write these two clefs on top of each other, joining them with an “invisible” line that will only appear when a note is written on it. That note (a C) is called middle C. Here is what it looks like:

middle C written on the grand staff

Reading Notes on the Treble and Bass Clef

Time to learn the notes! These are the notes on the treble clef:

labelled notes on the treble clef

These are the notes on the bass clef:

labelled notes on the bass clef

You probably noticed that the notes on the two clefs are sequential, repeating from A through G all the way from the bottom of the bass clef to the top of the treble clef.

Actually, we should explain something real quick. Come into this blue box with us for a second:

Notes A through…G?

You may be surprised to discover that there are not that many notes in music. A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are all the notes there are (though their pitches are modified with sharps and flats, as you’ll discover in a later chapter).

As you move higher or lower on the staff these notes will simply repeat over and over again.

Extending the Staff with Ledger Lines

From time to time composers will run out of notes on the treble and bass clefs. When this happens they use ledger lines above and below the clefs to extend each staff.

Ledger lines continue the sequential order of the notes written on the staff. With the first ledger line drawn on the treble clef, we can place the next note, an A:

quarter note on a ledger line

Composers can place a lot of ledger lines…

quarter note on a very high ledger line

Depending on the instrument you play, you’ll get very comfortable reading these types of notes in the coming weeks and months.

Composers don’t necessarily have to use ledger lines because there are additional clefs above and below treble and bass clef that can be used in their place. If you are consistently playing notes well above or below treble clef you might end up using these other clefs, but for the most part it’s easier for composers to simply write ledger lines so that’s what they tend to do.

What do Stacked Notes Mean?

If you see notes stacked on top of each other, that means to play the notes all at the same time. In this example you will play the C, E, and G simultaneously:

notes C, E, and G in chord on treble clef

When notes on the line and space next to each other are to be played simultaneously, they are written in a special way:

notes C and D on treble clef

Learning the Staff

You may only have to learn one of the clefs – or both – depending on the instrument you’re playing, Not sure which to learn? It depends on the range of your instrument:

  • Clarinet or trumpet players will only learn treble clef.
  • Tuba players will only learn bass clef.
  • If you’re playing piano you will have to master both treble and bass clef when learning to read music.

Before moving on, take a second to refer to the clef(s) you need to learn and memorize the notes.

Now that you understand the music staff and clefs, the next chapter will look at bar lines and measures.