So how do musicians read music?
Most people think that reading music is hard and difficult. In order to understand
in a better way as to how to read music, it would be best to first ask us, What
is music exactly?
To start with defining what music exactly is, music is
1)The art of producing significant arrangements of sounds, usually.
2)With reference to rhythm, pitch and tone color and
3) Usually succession or combination of notes, especially if pleasing to the
Now before you decide that learning how to read music is not your cup of tea
because your head is already reeling with the many high-sounding music terms that
have already been used, wait and relax. There are simple enough explanations to
each of these terms. Read on to find out.
Pitch is basically the frequency at which a note vibrates. Tone color is the
type of sound that is produced. A simple example is the sound produced by an overdriven
electric guitar, which is a very rough aggressive tone. In contrast to this is the
sound produced by the flute, which is usually a soft mellow tone. Rhythm is simply
the duration of the time in which you play the notes.
In the most contemporary sheet of music you will find that music is written on
either the treble or the clef staff. There are basically two kinds of clefs. And
of course the clef that will appear on your music depends completely on the instrument
you are playing.
There are also some notes that are called Accidentals. Accidentals are actually
those notes which are not in the general key that most of the song is written in.
If you've ever seen any sheet music (like what's pictured in the corner), you
may have been scared away by the seemingly complicated array of notes and lines.
Reading music is actually quite simple, though, and we'll teach you the basics of
it. One thing that you should remember is that music is read like a page in a book:
you start at the upper left and read across the lines until you get to the lower
What are Clefs?
The first thing that you will see at the beginning of every line of music is a clef.
There are three main clefs that are used by musicians: treble, alto, and bass. In
the little example in the upper left corner, you can see a treble clef and a bass
clef. These two clefs are often used to write piano music.
So what is a clef? A clef basically tells the musician what note each line in
the staff corresponds to. Sound complicated? It's actually pretty simple. Let's
look again at that example in the upper left corner. The top line of music is in
treble clef while the bottom line is in bass clef. So, the notes in each line are
different because there are two different clefs. The middle line in the treble clef
of music refers to the note of 'B', and not 'G.' It is commonly referred to the
"G-clef" since the 'curl' encircles the line of 'G'.
OK, so why did composers invent all these crazy clefs anyway? Good question.
Clefs were introduced many centuries ago mainly for singers to use. This is because
treble clef corresponds generally to the range of a soprano singer, alto clef corresponds
generally to the range of an alto singer, and bass clef corresponds generally to
the range of a bass singer. As composers grew skilled at writing music for singing
groups, they translated their skills to writing for instruments. Of course, they
did not want to learn a whole new system of writing music, so they just used the
same clefs that they had always used before.
Clefs also translate well to string instruments. This is because the violin is
higher pitched like a soprano and can use the treble clef. The viola is a little
bit lower pitched than the violin and can use the alto clef. Also, the cello is
well suited to playing in bass clef due to its lower range. Of course, the lower
instruments (viola and cello) can use the higher clefs to play when they are playing
high passages. The piano uses a variety of treble and bass clefs often rapidly switching
and using combinations of the two.
What are key signatures?
Let's look at that example in the upper left corner again. See those three flats
(they look like the letter 'b')? That's an example of a key signature. We talked
a little bit about keys in The Scale. To refresh your
memory, the key of a piece is just the scale from which the notes of the piece are
OK, so how do these flats translate to the key of the piece? The flats are strategically
placed on certain lines. When musicians see notes on these lines, they know to automatically
play them flat. Using this technique of having a key signature saves the composer
time because he or she does not need to continually draw the same flats over and
over again. Of course, music could be written without a key signature, but that
would just be confusing for the musicians and the composers.
What are Notes?
are notes? Most of us can probably recognize these famous musical components, but
what do they really mean? Each musical note conveys quite a bit of information.
Let's start with the placement of the note. The placement of the
note on the staff is important because it tells the musician which pitch to play
(for more information on pitches, see What is Pitch?).
As we mentioned before, the note values in each staff depend on the clef. Let's
not get too involved with this now, though. We will talk more about these note values
in What are Intervals?.
OK, so let's take a look at some real notes. See that picture to the right of
this text? That's an example of a few notes. The main differences in these notes
are just in their stems, which is everything but the circular part of the note.
Every time one of those "tails" is added, the note's duration gets halved. It's
not really important for you to remember each note value at this point because it
is much easier to understand note durations when you are actually playing an instrument.
Also, remember that we already discussed a little bit about note durations in
What is Rhythm?.
What are Rests?
our discussion of rests from What is Rhythm? Here are
some examples of what rests might actually look like in music. These rests work
in a very similar way to the notes. As little "tails" are added to the rests, the
rest durations are halved.
By now, you may be wondering why the whole, half, and quarter notes/rests are
different from the eighth, sixteenth, and 32nd notes/rests. Not really sure why
this happened as music evolved over the centuries. One theory to why these notes
and rests are different is that composers wanted to let musicians easily see and
recognize notes that were commonly used. So, musicians can quickly see whether a
note is a half note or a quarter note without counting the stems. This is just one
of the countless tiny timesavers that composers have built into music.
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