How To Read Music

How To Read Music

Learning to read the notated language of music is not really any harder than learning any other technical jargon and skills. Written music has been developed over thousands of years and even the current form of music we read today has been around for over 300 years.   Written music will tell its reader things like pitch, note duration and timing, whether its loud or quiet, flowing or choppy.  Music is read left to right across the page.

To read music you will start with a stave (aka staff): Five horizontal lines with a curly symbol called a clef to indicate its pitch.

Treble and Bass Clef

Treble and Bass Clef

The diagram below will show you where each note on the piano is represented on the staves
 Piano keys and notes on the scale
The Notes Of The Treble Clef
The Notes Of The Bass Clef
notes of the bass clefThe reason that there are two clefs is that most instruments using the bass clef usually have a lower pitch (sound) and often play low notes. If they were to use the treble clef the notes would appear so far below the stave it would be hard to read.

Time Signature

Time signature is an indication of rhythm following a clef, generally shown as a fraction. The number on top is the number of notes per measure, and the bottom number is what kind of note.    
Lets use the most popular time signature, 4/4 as an example..  This means there are 4 somethings per measure.  Music notes are shown as different symbols to show the different time measures.  So our 4/4 time signature means there are four quarter notes (known as crotchets) in each bar
notes and rests
Example:  a 4/4 time signature is 4 crotchet beats to a bar (common in most pop music); a 3/4 signature is 3 crotchet beats to a bar (most waltzes have this time measure) and a 6/8 time signature have 6 quaver (8th) beats to a bar (has more of a swing rhythm than a waltz).  (The note names and values are explain below.)  On a piece of sheet music, you will see thin vertical lines crossing the stave at regular intervals.  These lines represent the time measures.  You may well have unconsciously found the time measure to your favourite songs by tapping along ‘1,2,3,4’ with the music.
commontimesignatures

Timing and Rhythm

Our basic 4/4 time signature using 4 crotchet beats to the bar will have a walking pace feel to it.  By mixing up the different note values and by using rests (where no music plays for set beats), you can create an infinite amount of rhythms.

 

example of rhythm

Tempo

Tempo is the speed of the underlying beat.  Tempo is measured in BPM (beats per minute).  60BPM is one beat every second.  Sometimes the tempo is written at the beginning of the music and is often called the metronome mark. In classical music Italian musical terms are often used to describe tempo. A few are described below:
Largo – slowly and broadly
Andante – slowish – a walking pace
Moderato – at moderate speed
Allegro – fast
Presto – very quick

Key Signatures

The key signature is the collection of sharps ♯ or flats ♭that you can see at the beginning of a staff.  Key Signatures tell us what scale the piece is made up from, so we know which notes to raise or lower to get the right “colour” of that particular tonality, or key. They tell us what notes are either raised (♯ ) or lowered (♭) throughout the piece.   The main reason for using a signature and not simply accidentals, is that it makes the music looks cleaner and easier to read.

keysignatures

major and minor keys

Major or Minor

What Is the Difference Between Major and Minor?

The difference between major and minor chords and scales boils down to a difference of one essential note – the third.   The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound.

If you’ve spent any time studying a few scales you should know many scales contain seven different notes. For example, the major scale contains a Root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th.   All of these scales and chords contain that important note the 3rd in them. A minor 3rd is one interval note (semi-tone) lower than a major 3rd.

Tip

How To Figure Out if a Key is in Major or Minor?

  • If the signature has one sharp, it means it could be either G major or its relative; E minor.
  • Now check out the last note or bass note of the final chord. This is normally the tonic (the first note of the scale):
  1. If the last note (or chord) is an E, the piece is in E minor.
  2. If it is a G it is in G major.

This is because most pieces finish on a note/chord that sounds like ‘home’ (tonic).

Dots and Ties

All notes have a certain time value, which determines how long a pitch should be held. Sometimes, however, you want to add to the value of a note to create syncopation or other interest in your musical piece. You can extend a note’s value in written music using dots and ties:

  • Dot: This dot indicates that a note’s value is increased by one half of its original value. The most common use of the dotted note is when a minim (half note) is made to last three quarter-note beats instead of two, as shown below.

  • Tie: Tied notes connect notes to create one sustained note instead of two separate ones. When you see a tie, simply add the notes together. For example, a crotchet (quarter note) tied to another crotchet equals a note held for two beats.

dotted note tied note

 

Elements of Music

Music is made up of many different things called elements. They are the building bricks of music. When you compose a piece of music you use the elements of music to build it, just like a builder uses bricks to build a house. When you listen to a piece of music, you’ll notice that it has several different characteristics; it may be soft or loud, slow or fast, combine different instruments and have a regular rhythmic pattern.

 

Timbre – the quality of a note, determined by its overtones.  Brass instruments sound different to string instruments, even when playing the same pitched note.

Pitch – the primary frequency of a note

Dynamics – the degree of loudness of a note

Texture – the thickness and feel of a note. How many sounds

Tempo – the speed at which notes are performed and the relative time between adjacent notes which give you the rhythm

Duration – the length of time a note is held

Structure – the overall plan of how you bring the elements together to create your sound

 

Some dynamic symbols you may see on sheet music

 

Symbol  Meaning
f Loud
ff Loud Loud
fff As loud as possible
p Quiet
mp Medium Quiet
mf Medium Loud
pp Quiet Quiet
cresc Louder
   
Effects  
sfz Hit note,  back off, then build back up
tr Trill
vibrato Add waves to sound
legato Smooth
   
Tempo
poco. Gradually
accel. Faster
rit. Slower
dim. Diminish
soli Shared solo in section
solo 1 person solo
 
music theory