How to read music notes

How to read music notes is an easy skill to learn. Don't be afraid of it and let it hold you back from becoming a fine musician.

Billy Joel, Rolling Stone no. 486, November 1986
← Billy Joel - doesn't read music

I'm always amazed when I hear that some famous singer doesn't know how to read music notes. Billy Joel, for example.

Ray Charles and Jose Feliciano don't read music either, but they have a good excuse.

I hear what you're saying, though. Those guys don't know how to read sheet music, but it hasn't held their careers back! True. But unless you're planning to become the next Billy Joel, learning to read musical notation might be a good skill to nail down.

There are many ways to learn how to read sheet music. Music notation is designed to represent two things...

  1. Pitch
  2. Duration (how long the note is held)

Pitch
Pitch is represented by the placement of the note on the staff. The staff has five lines and four spaces in between those lines. Each line and space on the musical staff is a different pitch.

For example, in the treble clef, the bottom space is an F, the next space is an A, the third space from the bottom is a C, and the top space is an E.

The lines, starting from the bottom, are E-G-B-D-F

So if you go space, line, space, line, etc., you have the notes in alphabetical order: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F

Pneumonics
Notice something about the space note names? The letters spell FACE. This is an easy way to remember what the notes are.

For the lines, we use an acronym - Every Good Boy Does Fine.

If these tricks help you learn how to read music notes, great!

Clefs
Above I mentioned the treble clef. The treble clef is used for female voices (soprano and alto) and high-pitched instruments, including flute, violin, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, etc.

There is also a bass clef. This clef is used for male voices and low-pitched instruments, including trombone and tube.

The spaces for the bass clef, from top to bottom, are A-C-E-G. Notice something about the spaces? They would spell FACE (like the treble clef) if the F was added at the beginning. But you can add it by including the note that is placed just under the bottom line of the bass clef. Then you can spell FACE.

The lines of the bass clef are G-B-D-F-A. You guessed it, there's a correlation with the treble clef saying, but let's make it: Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Leger lines
Sometimes a pitch is higher than the notes available on the staff. In that case, a small extension is made to the top or bottom of the staff. This extension is called a ledger line.

Duration
The other part of musical notation is duration so that music can have the rhythm that the composer wants.

The basic note values are...

Whole note
Half note
Quarter note
Eighth notes
16th notes

These cover most of the notes you'll see, but it's possible to add another flag or bar for 32nd notes or even 64th notes.

In addition, a dot can be placed next to the note head. This adds half the value of the note to it.

For example, a dotted half note gets an additional count so that it is worth 3 beats in total.

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