14 Oct How to Read Music Notes for Beginners in 7 Steps
When you first look at a piece of sheet music, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the dots and lines. It’s kind of like looking at a secret code that you have no idea how to crack. Don’t let yourself become too overwhelmed though because with some practice and a dedication to learning, figuring out how to read these almost hieroglyphic looking music notes isn’t as difficult as it may seem initially.
In this article, I’m going to be taking you through seven steps that will explain what each note is, how to tell them apart from each other, what each of the marks and symbols found on a music stave means, and how each of them applies to the notes. Hopefully, by the end of step seven, you’ll be ready to dive into some sheet music and begin reading.
Step 1: The Grand Staff – Treble Clef vs. Bass Clef
In order to be able to read notes, you must first determine whether the staff you’re reading is a treble clef or a bass clef. This is important because the notes are placed differently on each of the clefs. To determine whether the staff is a treble or a bass clef, look at the far left side of the staff. You will either see a treble or a bass sign. Whichever sign you see tells you which clef the staff is.
The treble sign looks like a capital “J” with the top continuing to form a line that swirls through the body of it. The bass sign looks like a backward capital “C” and has a colon sign next to it. Each clef has the same number of lines and spaces in their staff, and when they are placed on top of each other the treble clef always goes on top, and the bass clef always goes on the bottom. When they are shown together like this, it is called the grand staff.
Step 2: Reading the Notes on a Treble Clef
As mentioned before, both the treble and the bass clef have the same amount of lines and spaces in their staffs: five black lines with four white spaces in between them. Where the notes are placed on the staff is how you are able to read which letter that note represents. When reading the notes in order from left to right, you always start with the lowest note on the scale, which on the treble clef staff, is E. This note rests on the bottom black line of the staff. Then you continue to move up the scale, moving first to the bottom white space, then the second to bottom black line, then the second to bottom white space, and so on until you reach the top black line.
The notes on the treble clef go in this order: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F. As you can see, the letters go in the order that the alphabet goes in, stopping at the letter G and starting over at the letter A. There are no other letters that are also the names of music notes other than letters A through G which is seven notes total.
When you place all of the letters of the treble clef staff notes in their correct spots on the staff, you will notice that the letters on the lines are E, G, B, D, F, and the letters on the spaces are F, A, C, E. One easy way to remember the placement of these notes is to use the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to remember the letters on the lines and to remember the word “face” to remember the letters on the spaces.
Step 3: Reading the Notes on a Bass Clef
Now that we have a better understanding of how notes are placed on a staff, let’s move on to learn which notes are placed in which spots on a bass clef staff. Starting at the bottom line and moving up until we reach the top one, the notes on a bass clef staff are G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.
When you place all of the letters of the bass clef staff notes in their correct spots on the staff, you will notice that the letters on the lines are G, B, D, F, A, and the letters on the spaces are A, C, E, G. Similar to the treble clef, the bass clef has some two acronyms to help you remember the placement of the notes. The acronym for the notes that are placed on the lines is “Great Big Dogs Fight Animals,” and the acronym to help you remember the notes that are placed on the spaces is “All Cows Eat Grass.”
Step 4: Understanding Ledger Lines
Sometimes in sheet music, there will be a note that is higher or lower than what the grand staff can hold. When this happens, those notes that do not fit on the grand staff will be placed on small lines or spaces either descending below the bass clef staff or ascending above the treble clef staff. There is even one single line with a space both above and below it that sits right in between the two. These small lines and spaces are called ledger lines.
If you already know the order that the notes go in on whatever clef staff you’re reading, then reading the ledger notes will be very easy when you play. The letters continue to go in alphabetical order, meaning that if you were going to keep going up the bass clef staff after you reach the note on the very top line, A, that the note that sits on the next space above that top bass clef line would be B, the note that sits on the single middle line in between the bass and treble clef would be C, and the note that sits on the space right below the bottom line of the treble clef would be D.
That C note ledger line that sits in between the top of the bass clef staff and the bottom of the treble clef staff is called a Middle C because it sits right there in the middle of the two clefs. If you were to travel up past the top of the treble clef staff, the next space above the top line would be a G, and if you were to travel down past the bottom of the bass clef staff, the next space below the bottom line would be F.
Understanding the order of the notes is as simple as understanding the order of the alphabet. Just be sure that you remember the order of the notes on both the treble and bass clefs so that you can easily determine which notes are on the ledger lines. Remembering that the ledger line note that sits in the middle of the bass and treble clef is a C note can help guide you if you do happen to forget the order of either the bass or treble clef notes as well.
Step 5: Determining a Note’s Value
Not every note looks exactly the same and for a good reason. The way that a note looks is how you determine the value of that note. There are three components to look at when determining what type of note something is: the head, the stem, and the flag. The head is the circular part of the note. Sometimes it will be filled in and sometimes it won’t. The stem is the line that sticks up from the right side of the note’s head. Most notes have a stem, but there is one that does not. The flag, or flags depending on the note, is the small, curvy mark that sticks out from the top right side of the stem.
Perhaps the most common note is quarter note, which has a head that is filled in, a stem sticking up from its right side, and no flags. This note gets one beat per measure. When you see a note with a head
that is not filled in and has a stem but no flag, this is a half note, and it gets two beats per measure. If you see a note that has a head that is not filled and does not have a stem nor a flag, this is a whole note, and it gets four beats per measure which means it takes up the entire measure. These three notes are the most common ones to be found in sheet music. However, they are not the only ones.
There are also eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and even thirty-second notes. All of these notes have a filled in head and a stem. What differentiates them from each other and from other notes is their flags. An eighth note has one flag, a sixteenth note has two flags, and a thirty-second note has three flags. The value of an eighth note is one half of a beat, the value of a sixteenth note is one-quarter of a beat, and the value of a thirty-second note is one-eighth of a beat.
All of the notes in the measure should equate to a total of four beats. Meaning it only takes one whole note to fill a measure because it is four beats long. But if you had two-quarter notes and one-half note, that would fill a measure as well because two single beat notes plus one double beat note equates to four total beats.
Step 6: Determining a Rest’s Value
Knowing how to read rests and determine their value is just as important as knowing how to read notes. If you come across a rest and don’t know how long of a value it has, you can very easily get lost and end up either behind or ahead in the song.
Similar to notes, there are a total of six different rest values: whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second. They each have the same value as whatever value that type of note has, so if you know how many beats are in a whole note, then you know how many beats are in a whole rest, and so on.
A whole rest looks like an upside-down top hat, while a half rest looks like a right side up top hat. A quarter rest looks like a curved line, almost like a “w” that’s been flipped onto its side but much curvier. An eighth note is a slanted line with a flag with a dot at the end of it sticking out from its top left side. A sixteenth note looks the same as an eighth note but with two dotted flags, and a thirty-second note looks the same but with three dotted flags.
Step 7: Understanding Semitones
The last important thing you need to understand when reading music notes is what semitones are and how they affect a note. A semitone is a marking that is placed to the right of a note that causes it to either go up a half note or down a half note depending on which marking it is. If the marking is a sharp sign, then the note goes up a half. If the marking is a flat sign, then it goes down a half. A sharp sign looks like a pound sign, while a flat sign looks like a lowercase letter “B.” So if you come across a B note with a sharp sign to the right of it, that means that the note is B sharp rather than B.
Learning to read music notes as a beginner can be difficult at first. All of the notes and rests look like a foreign language to you and trying to remember which note goes where on a staff can seem like a lot to take in. However, by remembering the helpful acronyms of both the treble and the bass clef and taking the time to study and memorize the different note and rest values, you’ll be reading written music like a pro in no time at all.