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Learn to Read Music in 4 Steps

By Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta

Many people all over the world would love to be able to read music. The skill of taking musical symbols in a written format and knowing how to turn that into actual live music is both impressive and useful

It is entirely possible to play musical instruments without actually knowing how to read music. In fact, there are many skilled musicians who can carve up an impressive tune without even knowing the names of the notes they are playing. It isn’t necessary to learn how to read music to play it, but it certainly helps to make things a lot easier. 

Most music experts agree that some level of formal musical education should be studied if a student wants to get the most out of their musical journey. Part of this is learning how to read music which can be difficult or even overwhelming. Learning how to read music is, after all, a lot like learning a new language. It’s a process of learning to recognise symbols and characters and applying meaning to them that can later be translated into sound. 

Like learning a new language, learning to read music isn’t something that will just happen overnight. It takes practice and consistency to ensure the best results. It isn’t something that can be mastered in a flash, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. 

There are four basic steps to take in order to get a bit of a handle on learning to read music, and luckily they’re all in one convenient place; below! 

Step 1: Learn the Basic Symbols of Notation

The written language of music is made up of a bunch of symbols. These symbols can represent lots of different things, and the first step to understanding how to read music is to get acquainted with the different symbols and what they represent. The most common basic symbols of music notation are listed below. 

The Grand Staff

The Grand Staff is the basic structure that music is written onto; it is composed of five lines and four spaces. Think of it as the musical equivalent of the lined paper of a notebook. Each one of the lines and spaces on the Grand Staff represents a musical note. The lower notes are at the bottom, and the higher notes are at the top. 

The Treble Clef and Notes

A clef is a symbol that is put at the beginning of a piece of music. It tells the player if the notes on the staff are higher or lower. There are two main clefs that newbies to reading music will need to become quickly familiar with. The first of those is the treble clef. It’s unmistakable with its fancy, swirled shape. The treble clef is actually a stylised version of the letter G

If a student sees a treble clef at the start of a piece of music, it means that the notes will be in a higher register. Instruments like violin, saxophone or the flute will usually have sheet music that begins with a treble clef. 

There are some hints to remembering the notes on each line and space of the treble clef. From lowest to highest, the lines are; EGBDF, and the spaces spell FACE. 

When learning these notes, it can be fun to come up with interesting phrases to help commit them to memory. Things like ‘Every Good Burger Deserves Fries’ are always helpful.  

The Bass Clef and Notes

Just as the treble clef informs the musician that the notes will be in a higher register, a bass clef tells them that the notes will be at a lower pitch. The bass clef is sometimes referred to as the ‘F’ clef because it is positioned on the line that corresponds with the note ‘F.’

Instruments like the cello, tuba and bassoon tend to have sheet music that begins with a bass clef. The notes for the lines on the bass clef are GBDFA, and the spaces are ACEG.

The Grand View of All Notes and the Lines and Spaces in a Treble and Bass Clef

In the image above, both the treble and bass clef notes have been laid out to easily see. It can be a good idea to just take the time, day by day, to look at an image like this one and remember which line or space belongs to which note. 

When learning the appropriate notes, always learn them from the bottom to the top. Start with the lower notes and move towards the higher ones. 

Ledger Lines

Ledger Lines are special lines that exist outside of the normal range of a Grand Staff. The only time they are present is when a piece of music requires notes that are either higher or lower than the grand staff of the song. 

The First Ledger Line Note

One of the most common notes referred to in music actually lives on a ledger line. Any time the term ‘Middle C’ is mentioned, it is talking about the ‘c’ note in between the bass and treble clefs. 

The note above the middle ‘C’ is ‘D’, and then the next note is the first line on the treble clef, which is an ‘E.’

Moving below the middle ‘C’, the next note is a ‘B’, and then the next note is the last line on the bass clef, which is an ‘A.’

The Notes

The position that a note sits on the grand staff will dictate its pitch, but the appearance of that note actually contains a lot more information. Every note in music has a value; this is how long the note should be played. This value is shown by whether or not the note is filled in or open and if it has a stem or not. 

The longest note is an open note. Open notes look a bit like the letter ‘o.’ An open note isn’t coloured in and has no stem. This is a whole note and should be played for four beats. 

A closed note head with a little stem is known as a quarter note; this gets played for one beat. An open note head with a stem is a half note, and it gets plated for two beats.  

There are other symbols that can change the length of time a note is played. If a dot is placed after the note head, this means that the note is played for an extra half of the note’s original length. So, for example, a whole note (four beats) with a dot after it would be played for a total of 6 beats. 

Two different notes can also be linked together with a tie; this looks like a little swing underneath or over the two notes. If there are two notes tied together, they should be played for the total time of their value put together. 

The appearance of a note can also shorten how long it is played. Generally, faster notes have little flags attached to them. Each flag will half the value of the note, so if a note has one flag, its value is ‘half of a quarter note; two flags means ‘a quarter of a quarter note.’

Step 2: Learn the Beat

Every piece of music has what’s known as a metre; this is a measure of regular patterns that happen throughout it. The metre of a song is what people normally tap along to. Anytime the phrase, being out of time is uttered, it’s normally referring to the metre. 

Metre is very important in music because it’s the way multiple musicians can stay in time to play the same piece of music. The metre of a song is written a bit like a fraction; it has a top number followed by a line and then a bottom number. This fraction is called a time signature. 

Time Signature

The time signature appears at the beginning of a piece of music. A piece of music includes notes on the grand staff that appear in between vertical lines. The space between vertical lines is known as a bar. In the time signature, the top number is the amount of beats in each bar; the bottom number tells you how long each beat is. 

If, for example, the time signature of a piece of music is 4/4, this means that every bar in that piece of music has four beats, and each quarter note is equal to one beat. 

Tempo

Along with time signature, the speed of a piece of music is also something that can be measured and communicated; this is known as tempo

The tempo of a piece of music tells the player how fast or slow it should be. It’s normally written at the very top of a piece of music and is written as a number followed by three letters, ‘BPM.’ BPM stands for ‘Beats Per Minute’ and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. If a piece of music has 60BPM, that means that there are 60 beats in a minute of the song; therefore, there’s a beat every second. 

Many musicians believe that there are ‘BPM’ sweet spots, ranges of tempo that are considered more pleasing to the ears. It can also come in handy when saving lives. Any person who has done a CPR course knows that it can be helpful to hum ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees when performing the procedure. This is because that song’s BPM is 103, which is within the sweet spot of 100-120BPM for live-saving chest compressions.  

Step 3 Play a Melody

After learning the basic symbols and understanding how beats and tempos can affect a piece of music, it’s time to start exploring what it’s like to actually play a melody. To do this, it’s important to look at how notes are generally gathered together. 

The C Scale

One of the best ways to get a grasp on how notes relate to each other is to look at the way notes are grouped together. Musical notes are generally collected together in groups of eight; a collection of eight notes is called an octave. A great way to understand octaves is to learn the C major scale. 

The C major scale begins with a C note and is then followed by D, E, F, G, A, B and finishes again with the next C. 

The C Scale on Piano

To find the C on a piano, first, take note of the black keys. On a piano, the black keys are arranged in groups of twos and threes. Where there are just two black keys together, the white key immediately to the left of the first black key is a ‘C’ note. All of the white keys after that ‘C’ follow the scale of C major. 

Semitones from C to E Using Sharps

As stated above, there aren’t just white keys on a piano, but what are the black keys for?

Going up the scale from C on piano, it can be seen that along the way, some of the keys have a black key in between them, and others don’t. For example, in between the C and D keys, there is a black one. These black keys can be looked at as half steps between notes. 

These half steps are called semitones, and they have two different names Sharps and Flats. When a semitone is written with the # symbol, it is known as a sharp. Sharps are a semitone (or half step) higher than the note head to the right of that in sheet music.  

Semitones from C to E Using Flats

Just as the sharps (#) are a semitone above, flats denoted by the ‘♭’ symbol are a semitone lower than the note head to the right of them in sheet music. 

When looking at a piano keyboard, the black keys are sharps or flats depending on if the direction is moving up or down the keyboard. To put it simply, technically, C# and D♭ are the same notes; it just depends on which direction the music is heading. 

Naturals

There’s one final symbol that is used in music in relation to semitones, and that is the natural symbol ♮. 

When a note is sharp or flat, it must stay that way for the entire time it is played unless there’s a natural symbol attached to it. Whenever there’s a natural symbol, it cancels out the sharp or flat for that particular count of the song

Key Signatures With Sharps and Flats

The final piece to unlocking the meaning of the musical symbols is to understand what key signatures are and what it means if they have a sharp or a flat in them. Basically, putting sharps or flats in a key signature is a way of telling the musician that every note the sharp or flat symbol is on must be played either sharp or flat. 

To take the above image as an example, it is the key signature of B flat major (B♭major). In this signature, the ♭symbol is on the spots of the treble clef that equate to the notes B and E. This means that within a piece of music with this key signature, every B and E note must be played flat unless the natural ♮ symbol is used. 

In total, there are 15 major key signatures

Step 4 Check Out the Mussila App & Resources

Most people would agree that using a tried and tested method for learning to read music is a sure way to guarantee results, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be fun. 

The Mussila Music School takes the knowledge needed to effectively deliver a formal musical education and makes it fun by infusing the experience with play. The dedicated team behind Mussila have designed an effective method for delivering an entire music curriculum that is both fun and engaging. 

Mussila is available for both schools and individuals, and this award-winning app helps cultivate a complete musical education for kids without the need for supervision. The entire experience is designed to be used autonomously. 

The team at Mussila are all about using tech innovations to help students get the most out of their education, so check out the Mussila Music School today

Why is it Important to Read Sheet Music?

As mentioned earlier, it’s not absolutely essential to be able to read sheet music, but it does make things a lot easier for the music student. In the most simple terms, sheet music is a bit like a mathematical set of instructions. Anyone who understands sheet music will be able to translate those symbols on paper into music that can be enjoyed. Sheet music helps people to enjoy music without language barriers. 

Sheet music is also part of a very important step in the journey for music students. If a student is able to read sheet music, then there’s no doubt that they also understand all the elements of musical theory that go into understanding it. Although learning to play by ear is impressive, it is possible to get to that level and have many gaps in music theory. 

Conclusion

Music brings so many people a lot of joy on a daily basis, and the underlying mechanisms and theories that go into learning how to read and play music are incredibly useful and also transposable. 

Learning to read music can be both exciting and empowering for people of any age, so it’s never too late to spend some time getting acquainted with music theory. 

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