How to read sheet music (with pictures)

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How to read sheet music (with pictures)
How to read sheet music (with pictures)

Written music is a language that has developed over the course of several millennia, although the music we can read today dates back 300 years. The musical notation consists of the representation of the sound by means of symbols, which include from basic notations for the tone, the duration and the measure, to more complex descriptions that refer to the expression, the timbre and even the special effects. This article will show you the basic principles of reading musical scores, teach you some more advanced methods, and guide you to learn more about the subject.


Part 1 of 8: The Basics


Step 1. Master the staff

Before you are ready to learn music, you should have an idea of the basic information that virtually anyone who reads music needs to know. The horizontal lines are a part of the music that makes up the staff. This is the most basic of all musical symbols and everything that we will present in this article is based on.

The staff is a set of five lines arranged in parallel and the spaces that form between them. To reference each line and each space, what you do is put a number on them, which always goes from least (the lower part of the staff) to greater (the upper part of the staff):


Step 2. Start with the treble clef

One of the first things you will find when reading music is the key. This sign, similar to a large, fancy italic symbol at the far left of the staff, tells you the approximate register in which to play your instrument. Every instrument or voice that is in the higher registers is governed by the treble clef and in the examples that we offer in this introduction to the reading of musical scores we will basically focus on this clef.

  • The treble clef consists of a stylized Latin letter G (the letter G corresponds to sol in several countries). A good way to remember this is that the line in the center of the clef spiral represents the note G. When we place notes on a treble clef staff, the notes take on the following values:
  • From bottom to top, the five lines represent the following notes: mi sol si re fa.
  • From bottom to top, the four spaces represent the notes: fa la do mi.
  • If you find that all this is very difficult to remember, you can always resort to some mnemonic technique, for example using a guide phrase. "Mi Sol Si Reluce Fastuoso" is the typical one for the lines, while for the spaces you can use "Fabrica La Dorada Miel". Practicing with an online grade recognition tool is another great way to reinforce these associations.

Step 3. Make sure you understand the bass clef

The bass clef is used for lower register instruments such as the left hand piano, bass, trombone, etc.

  • The bass clef is derived from a Gothic letter F (the letter F stands for "fa" in several countries), with the two dots located above and below the F line on the staff. In the bass clef the notes on the staff are represented differently than in the treble clef.
  • From bottom to top, the five lines represent the following notes: sol si re fa la ("Sun Glows Fabulous in Lake").
  • From bottom to top, the spaces represent the following notes: la do mi sol ("La Dorada Miel Sobra").

Step 4. Learn the parts of a note

The symbols for each note are made up of a combination of up to three basic components, which are: the head, the stem, and the bracket.

  • Head. It is an oval that can be open (white) or closed (black). Its most basic function is to tell the player what note to play on his instrument.
  • Escrow. It is the thin vertical line attached to the head of the note. If it is pointing upwards, it should join the head from the right side. If it is pointing down, it must be joined from the left side. The direction of the stem does not influence the note, but makes it easier to read by avoiding cluttered notation.
  • As a general rule, if the note is on the center line of the staff or higher, the stem should point down, if the note is below the center line, the stem should point up.
  • The bracket. It is the curve that sticks out at the end of the stem. It does not matter if the stem is attached to the right or left of the head, the bracket is always drawn to the right of the stem, never to the left.
  • The whole of the note, with its stem and its bracket (s), indicates to the musician the value that each note acquires in time, a value that is measured in units or fractions of a measure, or beats. When you listen to music and follow the rhythm with your foot, what you are doing is recognizing the beats of the measure.

Part 2 of 8: Metrics and Time


Step 1. Learn the measurement lines

In a sheet music, you will see thin vertical lines that cross the staff at very regular intervals. These lines represent the measurements; that is, the space before the first line is the first measure, the space between the first and second lines is the second measure, and so on. Measure lines do not affect the way the music sounds, but they help the musician to maintain their place in the music.

As seen earlier, another helpful tip about measurements is that each measure has the same number of pulses. For example, if you press “1-2-3-4” throughout a piece of music on the radio, you have probably already found the measurement lines unconsciously

2667 6 1
2667 6 1

Step 2. What is rhythm or metric

In general terms, it could be said that the meter is like the pulsation or the beat of music. We instinctively feel it when we listen to dance music or pop music. The "boom, tiss, boom, tiss" of a stereotypical dance floor is a simple example of meter.

  • In a score, the beat is expressed by a kind of fraction written next to the first clef symbol. This has, like any other fraction, a numerator and a denominator. The numerator, which is placed in the two upper spaces of the staff, indicates the number of beats that the measure has. The denominator indicates the musical value that each pulse receives (when you follow a music with your foot, you are following this pattern).
  • Perhaps the simplest metric to understand is that of 4/4 time or "common" time. In time 4/4, there are four pulses in each measurement and each quarter note is equal to one pulse. This is the time signature that you will hear in most popular songs. You can count the common time by counting “1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4…” for the pulse.
  • Changing the numerator changes the number of beats in one measure. Another very common time signature is 3/4. For example, most waltzes will have a constant pulse of 1-2-3 1-2-3, which makes them 3/4.
  • Some metrics will display with a letter C instead of two numbers. The 4/4 time is usually shown as a large C, which stands for common time. Also, the 2/2 metric is often shown as a large C with a vertical line running through it. The C with the line is called alla breve.

Part 3 of 8: The Rhythm

Read Music Step 7
Read Music Step 7

Step 1. Understand the rhythm

Similar to meter and time, rhythm is an important part of how music feels. However, while the metric tells you only the number of beats, the rhythm tells you how to use those beats.

  • Try the following: tap your finger constantly on your desk while counting 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4. It's rather boring, isn't it? Now try this: on beats 1 and 3 hit harder, and on beats 2 and 4 softer. Now you really feel something! And now try the other way around: hit hard on 2 and 4, and soft on 1 and 3.
  • Listen to this song, Don't Leave Me, by Regina Spektor. Here the rhythm is very clear: the bass plays the softest notes on beats 1 and 3, while on beats 2 and 4 there is a loud clap accompanied by a drum beat. Now you understand a bit how things are arranged in music. This is called rhythm!
Read Music Step 8
Read Music Step 8

Step 2. Imagine that you are walking

Each step is equal to one pulse. Musically, these quarter-note times are represented as quarter notes, because in much of Western music (not Western music, but what we know as the Western world! !) each measure is made up of four of these beats. If we think in musical terms, this is what the rhythm of your walk would look like:

  • Each step is a quarter note. In a score, the quarter notes are the solid black dots attached to the stems without any brackets. You can count them as you walk: "1, 2, 3, 4-1, 2, 3, 4".
  • If you now cut the speed in half, so that you only take one step every other beat on beats 1 and 3, then you have to use the white notes (which are the half notes). On a score, the white ones look like the black ones, only they are not solid black, but instead have a black stroke with a white center.
  • And if you slow down even more, to the point where you only take one step every four beats on beat 1, then you have to write it using a single round note - the entire note that spans an entire measure. In a score, the round ones look like "O" or donuts, similar to white ones but without stems.

Step 3. Pick up your pace

Time to go faster. You may have already observed that, by reducing the speed of the notes, they lose small elements. First we remove the solid part of the note, then we remove the stem. Let's see now what happens when we accelerate. Now what we have to do is add parts to the note.

  • Let's get back to our normal walk (you can help yourself by tapping your foot rhythmically). Imagine that the bus has just arrived at the stop, but you are one block away. What are you doing? You start running! And while you run, you try to signal with your arm so that the driver does not leave.
  • In music, the signal for the notes to go faster is a hook or bracket. Each bracket reduces the value of the note in half. Thus, an eighth note (which has a stem) has half the value of a quarter note, and a sixteenth note (which has two stems) has half the value of an eighth (eighth) note. Returning to our business, we went from our normal walking (black) to running at twice the speed (eighth note), and then rushing at full speed doubling the speed again (sixteenth note). Follow the previous example with your foot or fingers (remember that each quarter note is a step at normal walking speed).
Read Music Step 10
Read Music Step 10

Step 4. Unity is strength

As you can see in the previous example, things get very complicated when the page is full of notes. The eyes don't know where to move and we start to get disoriented. In order for the notes to be grouped into more visually coherent sets, we use the joins between them.

With joining, the hooks of the individual notes are replaced by thick lines running through the stems. These groupings have their own logic and more complex music requires even more complex joining rules, but here we will limit ourselves to joining just quarter notes. Compare the example above with the example below. Try to keep up again: you will see that the joins make everything much easier:


Step 5. Learn the value of ties and points

While the bracket reduces the value of a note in half, the function of the period is similar but inverse. With a few exceptions (which are not relevant here), the dot is always placed to the right of the note head. A dotted note is increased by half the length of the note's original value.

  • For example, putting a period after a white note gives it a value of half a note plus a quarter note. One point after a quarter note results in a value of a quarter note plus an eighth note.
  • Ligatures are similar to dots: they increase the value of the original note. A tie is nothing more than two notes linked by a curved line between the heads of the notes. Unlike dots, which are abstract and based exclusively on the value of the original note, ligatures are explicit: the duration of the note exactly increases the value of the second note.
  • A case in which you might prefer a tie to a point would be, for example, when the duration of a note does not fit musically in the space of a measure. In this case, you just have to move the remaining duration, in the form of a note, to the next measure and link the two notes.
  • Remember that the ligature is drawn from one head to the other, usually on the opposite side of the stem.

Step 6. Be silent

Some say that music is nothing more than a series of notes, which is only half true. Music consists of a series of notes and the spaces between them. These spaces are called silences and, although they are mute, they can give life and movement to the music. Let's see how they are scored on the score.

Like notes, they have specific symbols for specific durations. A round silence is noted as a rectangle hanging from the fourth line, and a blank silence consists of a rectangle resting on the third line. The quarter note rest is a curved zigzagging line, and the rest of the rest are represented as a slash with as many hooks as there are brackets the equivalent note has. These stems always extend to the left

Part 4 of 8: The Melody

Read Music Step 13
Read Music Step 13

Step 1. We already know the basics:

the staff, the parts of the note and the basic principles for writing the length of notes and rests. Once you understand the above, we can move on to the funniest part: reading sheet music.


Step 2. Learn the C scale

The C major scale is the first scale used when teaching to read music, as it is the only one that uses the white keys. Most of the other scales you will learn are derived from it. When your neurons have fully assimilated it, the rest will come naturally to you.

  • First of all we will show you how it looks; then you will learn to understand it and thus you will be able to start reading sheet music. Look at the image above to see what the "C scale" looks like.
  • If you look at the first note, which is a low C, you will notice that it is located below the lines of the staff. When that happens, what we need to do is simply add a line to the staff for that note - that's why here we see a small stripe going through the head of the note. The lower the note, the more lines we have to add. But we don't need to dwell on it, at least for now.
  • The C scale is made up of eight notes. These are equivalent to the white keys on the piano:
  • Whether you have a piano on hand or not, the important thing at the moment is that you get an idea not only of what the music looks like but of how it "sounds".

Step 3. Learn a little visual singing:

the "music theory". Don't be intimidated by the name, you may actually already know it: it's a fancy way of saying "do, re, mi".

  • Learn to hum the visual notes, so you will develop the ability to read them. This is a skill that can take you a lifetime to master, but it will be of great use to you from the start. Let's look at the C scale again, along with the music theory scale. Notice the "C II solfege scale" in the image above.
  • You may know the song "Do-Re-Mi" composed by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the film La novicia rebelde (translated in Spain as Smiles and tears; original title: The Sound of Music). If you can sing the "do re mi" scale, do it while looking at the notes. If you need a refresher course, you can listen to the song on YouTube (you can also find it in Spanish).
  • Here's a slightly more advanced version, which goes up and down the C scale, using the notes of the music theory. Look at the "C solfege scale" in the image above.
  • Practice singing this piece several times until it sounds familiar. The first few times you will have to do it very slowly, noticing each note as you sing. Then you can substitute the "do re mi" scale for C D E to practice the alphabetical representation, used in many countries (including Anglo-Saxon countries).
  • Remember the note values we saw earlier: the high C at the end of the last line and the low C at the end of the second line are white (middle) notes, the others are black (quarter notes). Imagine that you are walking again and that each step corresponds to a note. The white notes are equivalent to two steps.
Read Music Step 16
Read Music Step 16

Step 4. Congratulations, you are already reading sheet music

Part 5 of 8: Sharps, flats, naturals, and clefs


Step 1. Take the next step

So far we've covered the rudiments of rhythm and melody, and you should know enough by now to understand what all those wavy dots and lines mean. With this knowledge you could already become a master of the plastic flute, but you still have a few concepts to learn. First, the key signatures.

You may have come across sharps and flats by now: Sharp looks like the pound sign (♯) and flat looks like a lowercase B (♭). They are placed to the left of the head of a note to indicate that the next note should be played half a step higher (if sharp) or half a step lower (if flat). As we saw earlier, the C scale encompasses the white notes on the piano. The flats and sharps are the black notes. Since the C major scale has neither flats nor sharps, it is written like this:

Read Music Step 18
Read Music Step 18

Step 2. Whole tones and semitones

In Western music, the notes are separated from each other by a distance of one full tone or one half tone. Look at the piano keys: you will see that between the note of C and the next one, the note of D, there is a black key. In musical terms, the distance between C and D is called a complete or whole tone. The distance between C and the black key is called a semitone. You may be wondering what the black key is called … The answer is: "it depends".

  • In practical terms, if you go up the scale, that note is like a sharp version of the previous note. If you are going down the scale, the note would be a flat version of the previous note. So if you want to play from C to D through the black key, you will have to type a sharp sign (#).
  • In this case, the black key is written as C # (or C #). If you go down the D scale and want to use the black key as an intermediate tone, the black key will be written using a flat (♭).
  • These conventions make sheet music easier to read. To write those same three notes in ascending scale, using a re ♭ instead of a C #, the notation would be written using a natural (♮).
  • As you may have noticed, here we have a new sign: the calf. The natural (♮) indicates that, for the note in question, the effect of any sharp or flat you have previously written is canceled (returns to its "natural" pitch). In this example, both the second and third tones are re: the first is a re ♭, and therefore the second re, since it rises a semitone from the first re, needs a "correction" in order to be designated. the correct note. If there are many flats and sharps scattered across the sheet of music, the player will have to pause longer to study the notation before starting to play.
  • It often happens that, after having marked accidents throughout the first bars, a composer decides to put "unnecessary" calipers to make it easier for the interpreter to read. For example, if in a piece in D major an A # has been used in one measure, in the next measure in which the tone of A appears, it will be written as a natural A, that is, with a natural square.

Step 3. Understand how armor works

So far we have only talked about the C major scale: eight notes, only the white keys, starting with the key of C. However, we can start from any note to start a scale. To play a major scale, however, it is not enough to simply play the white keys: that would be what is called a "modal scale", and it is a concept that is beyond the scope of this article.

  • The opening note, or tonic, is the one that lends its name to the clef. You've probably heard the phrase: "it's in the key of C" or something similar. This means that the basic scale used starts at C, and includes the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, Si, C. Notes on a major scale have a very specific relationship to each other. Look at the keyboard in the image above.
  • As you can see, between most notes there is a distance of a whole step. But there is only half a step (a semitone) between E and F, and between B and C. This relationship is the same for all major scales: integer-integer-half-integer-integer-integer-half. If you start your scale in G, for example, you could write it like this:
  • Notice the fa # near the top. To maintain the proper ratio, it is necessary to raise the F a semitone, so that it is half a step from the G pitch, rather than a full step. In isolation it's easy to read, but what if you started a major scale in C #? It would look like this:
  • Now things are starting to get complicated! The armor was created to avoid confusion and to allow easier reading. Each major scale has a specific set of sharps or flats, which are displayed at the beginning of the score. If we go back to the treble clef, we will see that it has a sharp: F #. Instead of placing the sharp sign next to the F on the staff, what we do is move it to the extreme left, and then it is assumed that from that point on, every F we see we will have to play it as if it were an F #. It looks like this:
  • This sounds, and is played, exactly the same as the G major scale without a key signature. In the section "Key signatures table" you can see a list of all the key signatures.

Part 6 of 8: Dynamics and Expression


Step 1. Turn up the volume… or turn it down

You have probably noticed that when listening to a piece of music, the volume is not even all the time. There are parts where the volume can be extremely high, and in others extremely low. These variations are known as "dynamics."

  • If rhythm and meter are the heart of music, and notes and clefs are the brain, then dynamics is undoubtedly the voice of music. Consider the first version of the image above.
  • Follow this rhythm by tapping on your desk: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8, etc. (musicians use and when they are "reciting" the eighth notes). Make sure each note struck is the same intensity, so that it sounds like a helicopter. Now look at the second version.
  • Notice the accent mark (>) placed above every 4th G note. Follow the beat again, but this time accentuate each note on which you see an accent mark. Now instead of a helicopter it sounds like a locomotive. A slight alteration in the accent is enough for the character of the music to change completely!

Step 2. Play it piano, or fortissimo, or somewhere in between

In the same way that one does not always speak at the same volume, but modulates the voice to adapt to each situation, music also modulates the volume of its notes. To communicate these variations to the performer, the composer uses dynamic markings.

  • In a piece of music there may be dozens of dynamic marks, but some of the most common are those designated by the letters f, m and p.
  • p means "piano", that is to say "gently".
  • F means "forte", that is to say "with force".
  • m it means "mezzo", that is to say "moderately". It is used to modify the dynamics mark that follows the expression. For instance: mf and mp stand for "medium strong" and "medium soft" respectively.
  • Between more pyes FIf you get, softer or louder you should play the music. Try singing the notes of the previous example (using the solfege: in this example the first note is the tonic or C), and use the dynamic marks to observe the difference.
Read Music Step 22
Read Music Step 22

Step 3. Increase the volume, or lower it more and more

Another very common dynamic notation is the crescendo, as well as its corollary, the decrescendo. These are visual representations of a gradual volume change, which resembles stretched "" symbols.

  • The crescendo is louder and louder, while the decrescendo is decreasing in volume. You will notice that with these two symbols, the “open” end represents the highest dynamic while the closed end represents the lowest. For example, if the music gradually leads you from forte to piano, you will see a F, then an extended ">" and then a p.

Part 7 of 8: Advanced Knowledge

Read Music Step 23
Read Music Step 23

Step 1. Keep learning

With the scores it happens as with the alphabet. It takes a bit of learning the basics at first, but overall it's pretty easy. However, the nuances, concepts and skills that you can learn are so many that it could take you a lifetime to learn about them. There are composers who write their music on spiral-shaped lines, or arranged in various patterns; There are even those who do without the pentagram. In this article we have offered you a solid foundation so that you can grow.

Part 8 of 8: Key signatures chart


Step 1. Learn these armor

There is at least one key signature for each note of the scale and if you apply yourself in the study, you will discover that in some cases there are two keys for the same note. For example, the treble clef # sounds exactly the same as the clef of ♭! When you play the piano (and for the purposes of this article) the difference is only academic. However, some composers, especially those who compose for strings, recommend playing A ♭ a little more "sharp" than G #. Here are the armors for the major scales:

  • Keys that do not use sharps or flats: C
  • Keys that use sharps: G, D, A, E, B, F ♮, C ♮
  • Keys that use flats: F, B ♭, E ♭, A ♭, D ♭, G ♭, C ♭
  • As you can see above, as you go through the key signatures with sustains, you add one sustain at a time until each note is played in sharp in the key of C ♮. As you go through the flat signatures, you add flats until each note is played in flat in the key of C ♭.
  • You may find it comforting to know that composers, with performers in mind, often use easy-to-read signatures. The key of D major is very common for string instruments, because the strings, played in the open air, are closely related to the tonic, the note of D. There are few works in which the strings are played in E ♭ minor, or the brass in E major. This would be as difficult for the composer to write as it would be for the performer to read.


  • Perfect your music theory. The voice is the least of it: music theory will help you train your ears to "hear" what appears on paper.
  • Be patient. As with languages, learning to read musical scores takes time. And like when you learn anything, practice makes perfect.
  • Try to have fun with your music because if it is not your thing then it will be difficult for you to learn to play.
  • If you have sheet music but can't remember all the notes, start small, like writing the letter of the note under each one. Don't do it too often, as you will have to remember them as time goes on.
  • IMSLP houses a vast archive of public domain musical performances and scores. If you want to perfect your musical reading, we recommend that you look for works by composers you know and read their music while listening to it.
  • Repetition and constant practice are the key. Make flashcards or use a note reading workbook to ensure you build a solid note reading foundation.
  • Get the scores of the songs that you like the most. At your local library or neighborhood music store, you'll discover hundreds, perhaps thousands, of "guide sheets" with the basic notation and chords of your favorite songs. Read the music while listening to it, so you will learn in a more intuitive way.
  • It is very good to know western notes and sheet music. Knowing western notes will help you in the future and it is much easier to remember the notes.
  • Practice in a quiet place or when there is no noise. It is best to start with the piano, because the piano is easy to play if you practice. If you don't have a piano, you can always use one of those virtual pianos available on the Internet. From here you can apply the lessons to any other instrument. Hopefully this will do you some good.
  • Practice with your main instrument. If you play the piano, chances are you already know how to read sheet music. Instead, many guitarists learn by ear, without the need to read. When you learn to read sheet music, forget everything you know: learn to read first, you will improvise later!


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