How to Read Music – What’s With All Those Lines and Spaces?

How to Read Music – Part 1

Learning to read music is an essential part of becoming a good musician. Whether you are an instrumentalist, a pianist, a guitarist, or even a vocalist, knowing how to read music will improve your musical abilities.

Learning to read music is not tricky. You need to learn a few basics. So, let’s dive in and tackle some of the basics of note reading.

Read Music -We Write Music on a Staff

When you read a book, you expect certain basics, like capital letters at the beginning and periods or question marks at the end of sentences. You also expect correct spelling for words. All that makes it easier for everyone to read and understand.

Music works in similar ways. Standard rules tell us how to write music so everyone can read it. There is order and logic connected to how we write music on paper. The most basic of these rules is that we write music on a staff.

What is a Musical Staff?

In its most basic form, a musical staff is an orderly set of five evenly spaced lines. These five lines have four spaces between them. All notes are written within (or above/below) these sets of lines and spaces. Here is a picture of a musical staff:

Staff Lines
A Musical Staff

The Grand Staff

Because music is more than just a few notes, we often need more than one staff for composers to use when writing music. So, we have the grand staff. A grand staff looks like this:

Grand Staff Example
Example of a Grand Staff

What do you see in the grand staff? Do you see two separate staves? (Staves = more than one staff.) See how there is more space between the two staves than between the lines and spaces in one staff? One reason is to make it easier for you to see the difference between the two. (We’ll talk about the other reason later.)

Also, a bracket connects the two staves at the beginning of each line. The bracket tells us that the two staves belong together and work as a grand staff. If you play piano, you will see a grand staff in almost all your music. If you play a band or orchestra instrument, your music will usually only have one staff – because you can usually only play one note at a time.

Read Music – Check Out Those Lines and Spaces

We said earlier that a staff has five lines and four spaces. All those lines and spaces are important. They tell us what notes to play, whether the sound of those notes is high or low, and what the names of the notes are.

Think of it this way: Imagine that those lines and spaces are a big apartment building where all the notes live. Some notes live on the first floor of the building; others live on the top floor.

How do we know what note lives on which floor? If a line goes right through the middle of a note, the note lives on that line’s floor. If a space goes right through the middle of a note, then the note lives on that space’s floor.

Each Line and Space Has a Name

If you live in an apartment building, your apartment has a number. Usually, the first digit of your apartment number tells you which floor you live on. Example: If your apartment number is 1215, it probably means that you live on the 12th floor. If your apartment number is 415, you likely live on the 4th floor.

Well, all those notes in the staff apartment building have floor assignments, too. Only their floors are named with letter names instead of numbers.

Music uses the letters A – G to name the floors of the staff apartment building. Each line or space is assigned a letter name. Every note that lives on that line or space uses that letter name. And that letter tells you what note to play on your instrument.

If your note lives on the G floor (or line), then when you see that note on your music, you use the fingering to play a G. If the next note on your music lives on the C space, then you use the fingering for C and play the correct note (we hope).

Wait! Who named all these lines and spaces?

Read Music – Enter the Naming Power of Clef Signs.

If we made up our own names for the lines and spaces on a staff, no one could play music together- none of our notes would match up! That would not sound very good at all! Music needed something everyone could recognize to give all those notes names. That is the job of clef signs.

Treble Clef

The treble clef sign (also known as the G clef) gives names to the notes above middle C. If you look at a treble clef sign on a staff, you can see that a part of the clef sign kind of circles around the 2nd line from the bottom of the staff. That little part of the sign names that 2nd line as “G.” Then, all the lines and spaces above and below G are named in alphabetical order – A through G. (See the illustration below.)

Treble clef sign
This is what a treble clef sign (or G clef) looks like.

Bass Clef

The bass clef sign (sometimes known as the F clef) gives names to the notes below middle C. If you look at a bass clef sign, you will see a symbol that looks like a backward C with two dots beside it. When the bass clef sign is placed on a staff correctly, the 2nd line from the top runs right between those two dots. That line is named F. All the lines above and below that F are named in alphabetical order – A through G. (See the illustration below).

Bass Clef Sign
And here is what a bass clef sign (or F clef) looks like.

Alto and Tenor Clefs

When you get into more complicated music, some of you might run into some weird clef signs. (Viola players, I’m warning you! Also, some of you cellists, bassoonists, and maybe trombonists might face one of these strange creatures sometime.) Alto and tenor clefs look the same, but their placement on the staff differs. (See the illustrations below.)

Do you see how the two curved parts meet in the middle? The point where those two curved parts meet names that staff line as middle C. So, in the alto clef, the middle line of the staff is middle C, while in the tenor clef, the 2nd line from the top is middle C. Then, like the other clefs, the notes above and below the middle C marking are named in alphabetical order.

Design of an alto or tenor clef
Alto and Tenor Clef signs look alike; their placement on a staff is what makes them different.

Read Music – More About All Those Lines and Spaces!

If you know the first seven letters of the alphabet, you can read music. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that simple, but almost! The names given to the lines and spaces go alphabetically from A through G. Then, you start over with an A again. A standard piano keyboard has eight A’s: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A, and so on. Since each clef sign indicates the name of one particular note, it’s easy to figure out the names of all the other lines and spaces.

And the notes connected to any clef sign don’t change! They always stay the same, so it’s easy to learn the names of the lines and spaces. (Remember that apartment house where all the notes live? The names of the different floors of the building are always the same!)

Pitches and Staff Placement

No, I am not talking baseball here! The pitch of a note refers to how high or low it sounds. The clef sign at the beginning of each line of music and the note’s placement on the staff determines the note’s name and pitch.

Treble clef notes sound higher than bass clef notes. (Bass clef notes sound lower than treble clef notes.) Remember, the treble clef names the notes that are higher than middle C. And the bass clef names the notes that are lower than middle C.

Notes placed on higher lines or spaces on a staff will sound higher than those written on lower lines or spaces. And, notes written on the lower lines or staff spaces will sound lower than those written on higher lines. That makes sense, right?

So, what should you remember from this? Here is a quick summary for you:

  • We write music on staves (plural of staff).
  • Each staff is a set of five lines and four spaces.
  • A grand staff consists of a group of two staves (treble and bass) connected by a bracket.
  • Clef signs give specific names to the notes on each staff.
  • Lines and spaces on a staff are named in alphabetical order – always.
  • Treble clef notes sound higher than bass clef notes.
  • Notes written on higher lines or spaces of a staff sound higher than notes written on the lower lines or spaces.

Check back later for the next post about learning to read music!

Looking for more information about reading music? Check these out:

Notation Basics

Note Reading

Hey, I know no one is ALWAYS interested in practicing. These posts will give you some ideas about music practice:

5 Tips for Better Practice

Practice Like a Pro

You Need These Things to Become a Good Musician

So, you have started playing an instrument or studying voice, and you have decided that you want to be a good musician. What does it take to become a good musician? Do you have what it takes to get there, and do you have what you need? You need these things to become a good musician. Keep reading, and I will tell you seven essential things you need to become a good musician. (And one thing you don’t need!)

You Need a Decent Instrument

A decent instrument is a requirement for becoming a good musician. Now, I DO NOT advocate spending thousands of dollars on an instrument for a beginner or young player, but still, you need a decent instrument. What qualifies as a good instrument?

  • Your instrument must be in good working order – keys, pads, valves, triggers, slides, etc.
  • You need an instrument that can play in tune with itself, and that can be tuned.
  • Your instrument should be the right size for you (primarily for string instruments).

You Need a Reliable Music Stand

Unless you are a keyboard player, you need a reliable music stand. Why a music stand? You need somewhere to place your music to easily see and read that music while at the same time maintaining good posture. Putting your music on your bed and then turning sideways and bending over to read that music will not help you become a good musician!

A sturdy and adjustable music stand will help you position your music where you can easily read it and maintain a good playing position and posture. Nothing is more frustrating than having your music always falling off your stand! Here are a couple of tips to prevent that from happening:

  • Use clothespins (or long plastic clips) to clip your music to your stand
  • Place your music (or copies of it) in clear plastic sheet protectors and put them in a notebook.

You Need Light to See your Music

Good lighting is essential for many tasks, and practicing your music is no exception! Practice with plenty of good lighting to easily see and read the music on the page. And if you can see your music well, you can maintain a better posture for playing and breathing. Good lighting will also help you avoid mistakes in playing.

You Need a Good Instructor

I know you can find many “How to Play…” videos on YouTube today. And while those might get you started on an instrument or give you some ideas about playing, those videos can never take the place of a personal instructor! A video does not provide feedback about fingering, embouchure, articulation, tone production, posture, musicianship, etc. Even virtual lessons are better than video instruction! While in-person instruction is best, virtual lessons can be effective as well. (See here for information about the virtual lessons I offer.)

A good instructor will work with you to correct mistakes, be sure you understand technique and fingering, and perfect your posture. Your teacher should also work with you on musicianship and tone quality. And, perhaps most importantly, a quality instructor will teach you how to practice effectively!

See HERE for info on finding a good music teacher

You Need Music

It seems obvious that you need music to learn to play, right? Of course, you need music! And yes, you can go to the internet and print out all kinds of music. But you need music chosen to lead you through what you need to learn to progress to better musicianship. Your music should start where you are and gradually introduce you to new concepts and techniques as you learn and build your skills and abilities. Your music should be both enjoyable and challenging. If you only play easy music, you will never get better. If you choose “hard” music as a challenge, you may not have the skills necessary to learn that music. So, your instructor should lead you to and through music to help you grow your abilities.

You Need Dedication

Becoming a good musician does not happen overnight. Or even over a month or a year! If you want to be a good musician, you need to dedicate yourself to working on your music for a long time. Like, years! Just like anything else, becoming a good musician takes a long time. Think about your favorite athlete. When did that person start working on their sport? Consider all the after-school practices that athletes endured. How many sports camps or sports lessons did he attend? A musician is no different. It takes a long time to develop all the necessary skills and techniques to be a good musician. Please don’t give up on your music because it takes a long time!

You Need to Practice

Learning music does not just happen; you must practice! Anything worth doing takes practice to develop your skills! And don’t miss this: Practice is more than just playing things over again. Practicing means finding problems and working them out until they are no longer problems. Practicing also means looking for ways to play a piece or a passage better, make it sound better, and make it more beautiful. Never forget this – practice requires listening! If you don’t hear a problem, how will you correct it?

For more ideas about practicing, read this post.

And this post.

You need all these things to become a good musician. But, here is one thing you don’t need!

You DO NOT Need Natural Talent

Get this straight: Natural talent is the least important thing in becoming a good musician! Sure, you may not become the world’s best or most famous musician, but if you work hard, practice diligently, and keep at it, you can be a good musician. Hard work, practice time, effort, diligence, and even more practice time are the essential ingredients for becoming a good musician. Think about those amazing musicians you have heard perform. Most of what you hear is because of hard work and diligent practice! You can do that!

Now that you know you need these things to become a good musician, what will you do about it? Go forth and practice! Put in some diligent practice time and effort on your instrument. Work at the skills that will make you a better musician. Always look for progress, and always strive to get better! You can do this!

Let me know in the comment section what music you are currently working on. I’d love to hear from you.

Looking for more info on music lessons? Check these out:

What to Expect from your first Music Lesson with a new Teacher

Music Lesson Survival Guide

10 Great Gift Ideas for Young Musicians

Are you looking for some great gift ideas? Christmas gifts – the annual dilemma of almost every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, etc. What should I get so-and-so? So many things to consider when choosing a gift for someone! I mean, we all want to choose the perfect gift for someone. We are always looking for something they will love, something they will use, an appropriate gift, and one in a suitable price range.

I know I always try to choose gifts for others that fit their interests, hobbies, skillsets. So, if you are selecting gifts for young musicians, I have 10 great gift ideas for you. Consider your gift-giving lists simplified. You are welcome!

10 Great Gift Ideas for Young (or not so young) Musicians

Great Gift Ideas

Sturdy Music Stand

Except for keyboard players, music stands are the bane of every musician. Either the stand is wobbly, or it collapses entirely. Or the music stand slowly sinks out of view. Sometimes the desk of the music stand flops and sends all the music flying onto the floor. At some time or other, every musician has fought at least one losing battle with a music stand. Do your young musician a favor and gift them a sturdy, reliable music stand.


Almost every musician hates metronomes! At the same time, nearly every musician NEEDS to use a metronome! Metronomes are helpful tools to help young musicians learn to keep a steady beat, a steady tempo, and learn to play at tempo. They can also aid musicians in learning complicated rhythm patterns. Despite the protests, help your young musician by gifting them a reliable metronome.

Colored Pencils/Erasable Highlighters

Marking one’s music is a helpful learning technique. Of course, after time, a piece of music can begin to look unreadable because of all the markings. So a young musician should learn to color-code the markings on his music. Use one color for problem passages, another color for key signatures and accidentals, the third color for time signatures, etc. You get the idea. So get your young musician some quality colored pencils or some light-colored erasable highlighters. Those unreadable pages of music will transform into logical color-coded works of art!

Spotify/Pandora/iTunes/Amazon Music Subscriptions

Who wants their music listening interrupted by annoying commercials? Not me! And probably not your young musician either. And why is it that the ads always seem to play much louder than the music? Bless that person with an annual, commercial-free subscription to their favorite music-streaming app.

Music-Themed Apparel or Accessories

If your favorite young musician is genuinely devoted to his instrument or music, he will want to share that passion with the world around him. So, give that musician an easy way to share his devotion– music-themed clothing. An instrument-themed hoodie, a music-themed graphic shirt, some instrument earrings, a keyboard scarf, shoelaces – all are ways your musician can demonstrate his musical passion. Your young musician will appreciate a way to show off their music devotion to the world.

New Music

Let’s face it; sometimes lesson music can get boring. Band or orchestra music may be too easy. Maybe your student is just looking for different music to play for fun. Get your young musician some new fun pieces to play, to challenge themselves, or to enjoy.

It might be a book of arrangements by their favorite band or the music from a recent popular movie. Maybe you can find them a book of hymn arrangements they can practice and play in church. Be sure, however, to find music that is close to their ability level, or your young musician will not find the selections so enjoyable. You could even consult with the music teacher for some suggestions.

Music Bag/Holder/Notebook

Many kids are notoriously disorganized! And young musicians are no different. Have you ever watched kids assemble their music or school papers? Books, papers every which way, half out of folders, things falling on the floor. I’ve had kids – believe me, I know what I am talking about! Help them get organized with a cool music bag, a music holder, or a great music-themed notebook. Your young musician will love the design of the bag or notebook, and the music teacher will appreciate the organization!

Music-Themed Artwork/Poster

Art or posters are another way for your young musician to declare their passion for their music. Find art that features their instrument. Look for posters with inspiring quotations over a music-themed background. Hey, hunt for inspirational posters about practicing. Have the art help you win the practicing battle! Framed comics about music could be just the right gift for them. (Schroeder from “Peanuts”?) Gift your young musician some artwork to help inspire their musical passions.

Concert/Event Ticket

Does your young musician have a favorite band/group/choir/orchestra? How about a performance hero? Are they passionate about a particular opera or symphony? Get them a ticket (or two – one for you!) to an upcoming concert/performance. A concert could be just the inspiration they need to hone their talents and move on to the next level with their instrument.

Upgraded Instrument

Why is this included in a list of 10 great gift ideas? I know most Christmas budgets aren’t that big! But, hear me out. Most of us start our children on “beginner-friendly” instruments. Really, who pays thousands of dollars for an instrument that a 5th grader might forget on the school bus? Or accidentally sit on (buried under something on the bed). But as children grow, improve their musical abilities, and become more responsible, many need upgraded instruments. (Yep, time to put out some real $$$.) So maybe an upgraded or better instrument could make its way to your young musician’s gift pile.

OK, perhaps that a new instrument might significantly slim down the gift pile, but hey, that’s how life works sometimes. Maybe you could get all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors to all pitch in together and gift your young musician that new trumpet, or flute, or violin, or piano. If this idea resonates with you, please consult with the music teacher to ensure you get a quality instrument. You may need to give a certificate as a gift, and then let the child help you shop for a new instrument.

If you are considering a new instrument, these buying guides for piano, strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments might help you out.

Paid Registration to a Music Camp

This idea is your bonus for today. I listed ten ideas but then thought of this one. Gift your young musician an upcoming trip to a music camp. Ask your music teacher for appropriate suggestions. When I was a kid, my annual trip to music camp was a highlight of my summers!

A trip to a music camp could ignite your child’s passion for music. Music camps offer campers instruction by musical experts, grant small group experiences, critiques by people other than their regular music teachers. Registration at a well-run music camp would be an excellent gift for any young musician.

Banish that Christmas shopping brain fog! I just helped you finish your gift lists for every musician in your family. Any one of these 10 great gift ideas is sure to please, delight, motivate, or inspire any musician on your list. Happy shopping!

Are you looking for a few additional ideas? This post might help you out.

And don’t forget about gifts for your music teacher! Get some ideas here.