How to Read Sheet Music & Notation
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Last Updated: May 2023 (Audio Version Last Updated February 2023) | Article Details: 1487 words (8 – 9 minute read)
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This is part 6 of our basic music theory course. In it, we’ll show you exactly how to sight read music.
It’s like learning a new language, but not as hard as you may think.
So how do you read sheet music? And how do you organize and write out all these different types of notes?
Well, you’d use a music staff, shown below.
You’d write out the different notes on the above “staff” in a series of measures. And it’s not just instrumental music that gets written this way. If you’re a singer, your vocals/lyrics can be written on a music staff as well. It lets you know what notes to sing for each word.
I’m sure you’re wondering what those weird symbols are at the beginning of the staff. Those are called clefs.
The top symbol is called the treble clef, and will show you the notes you play on the top half of the piano with your right hand. The bottom symbol is called the bass clef and will show you the notes you play on the bottom half of the piano with your left hand.
When you combine a staff with a time signature and some notes/beats in different measures, you have a playable piece of music. Here’s an example:
So how do you read something like that??
Reading the Rhythm of Sheet Music
It’s still important to know the basics of how to read music and have a good sense of timing.
For now all you have to know is that when playing music, you count everything out so that it flows properly. So remember our time signature of 4/4 from this lesson? Where there are 4 beats in a every measure and every quarter note (1/4) gets the count of one, single beat?
Here’s how you would write that out on a music staff.
Here’s how you would count that out – “1, 2, 3, 4.” How fast you count that all depends on the tempo of the song. Simple enough right?
Now if you have a bar of eighth notes, here’s what it would look like:
Now if you count at the same speed/tempo as the last example (4 quarter notes) here’s how you would count out the eighth notes – “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and.”
Eighth Notes can also look like this when there aren’t 8 eighth notes in a row:
Here’s what sixteenth notes look like written out (notated):
You would count these as “1-e-and-uh, 2-e-and-uh, 3-e-and-uh, 4-e-and-uh.”
Even though the number of notes on the staff doubles each time, the speed or tempo at which you play the notes remains the same. That means sixteenth notes are played faster than quarter notes.
Sixteenth notes can also be notated with the following symbol, when there’s not a bunch in a row.
One last thing to keep in mind is that quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes can be notated upside down as well. They simply get flipped, to allow room for other notes/symbols.
Now what about the different sounds (pitches) when you play different keys of the piano? How are they written out?
Here’s a little chart for you:
It will take some time to memorize all those notes and be able to read them fluently. I still can’t read piano sheet music fluently, but like I said, I’m more interested in learning to play by ear for now. Once I’ve gotten a good grasp of that, I’ll start to memorize notation and practice reading piano sheet music.
Reading the Note’s Pitch on a Staff
So what happens when you want to learn a song and all you have is the sheet music? You learn how to read it! Here are the basics for an instrument like the piano.
What you’ll see in sheet music something called a great staff.
It’s got two parts – a top and bottom. The top has a treble clef (representing the higher notes on the keyboard) and the bottom has a bass clef (representing the lower notes on the keyboard.
The lines and spaces on the staff represent notes on the piano. Let’s start with the treble clef (top staff).
Starting from the bottom line up to the top line, the notes are E – G – B – D – F (remember it using the words “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”)
The spaces in between the lines (from bottom to top) represent the notes F – A – C – E (remember it by saying “FACE“).
If you were to draw an invisible line directly in the middle of the treble staff and the bass staff, you’d have a C note (the piano’s middle C to be exact).
Let’s move on to the bass clef (bottom staff).
Starting from the bottom line up to the top line, the notes are G – B – D – F – A (remember it using the words “Good Boys Don’t Fool Around”).
The spaces in better represent the notes A – C – E – G (remember it using the words “All Cows Eat Grass“)
You need to know about note lengths and values and how to count measures/bars so make sure you check out our other music theory sections, if you’re not sure of it.
But now that you know the basics of reading sheet music, you can buy some songs you love and slowly learn how to play.
At first you’re going to be doing a lot of “umm. ok what’s this note? Oh a C. And the next note is… D” and slowly piece together a musical phrase in the song you’re studying.
But soon enough, you’ll be able to read sheet music fluently and play any song you can find the notation for.
The last thing you should know about reading the pitch on notes on a staff is this – if the notes appear one after another like you’ve seen throughout this guide so far, the notes get played one after the other.
However if the notes are notated like you see below, the notes get played at the same time as a chord.
Tips on Reading Sheet Music
It’s going to be tough at first – you’re going to struggle through each piece of music you’re trying to play/read. Don’t worry, it gets easier over time.
One of the best things you can do when starting out is use physical sheet music with a pencil so you can draw in the note’s letter name above it.
Another helpful thing to do is to write out the rhythm of each bar – so underneath the bar/notes, you’d write out “1-e-and-a 2-e-and-a 3-e-and-a 4-e-and-a” matching the 1, 2, 3 and 4 to each beat of the bar.
Now you’ll be able to sound out the rhythm and quickly see the note name, making the entire section easier to play.
Finally, don’t try to play the entire song the first time you read the sheet music. Take a very small section, 1 or 2 bars, and learn the notes, the rhythm and practice playing it.
Once you’ve been able to play it correctly a few times, move on to the next couple of bars and so on and so forth.
Taking the entire piece in smaller chunks will make everything so much easier. Over time, you’ll start to recognize notes and rhythms without having to write them on the sheet.
Or revisit older music theory lessons:
Frequently Asked Questions
Some sheet music is available for free, but no for the most part, you must pay for sheet music. Music copyright was first developed for the protection of composers and sheet music publishers. If you want to get a piece of sheet music for a particular song, it’s best to purchase it. Some sheet music, however, is considered public domain and freely available.
Yes, for the most part. Sheet music is a standardized way of notating music. It uses a staff and note symbols to let a player know what to play, how to play it and when to play. It’s the same staff and note symbols (for the most part) for all instruments. Some instruments (like drums/percussion) have specific symbols only for them, but they still use the standard form of notating music. You also have things like chord diagrams and guitar tablature which is a different form of notating music and not available for all instruments.