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

Make Friends with your Metronome

Most music students seem to have a love-hate relationship with their metronomes. What about you? Do you have a metronome? Do you use your metronome? It’s time for you to make friends with your metronome!

What is a Metronome?

A metronome is a small device that produces a steady beat. Originally metronomes were similar to small pendulums with a way to adjust the speed of the pendulum. Today you can still purchase mechanical metronomes, but more likely, musicians will use digital metronomes or even metronome apps on their phones.

Metronomes have been around for centuries! I guess that means that musicians have had issues with tempo and rhythm for centuries as well! (You aren’t the only one!) Historical records exist for a device similar to a metronome as far back as the 800s. The first successful musical metronome appeared in 1696. By the early 1800s, metronomes similar to what we use today were developed and patented. Beethoven was probably the first famous composer to write metronome markings in his music.

Why Should I Use a Metronome?

Use a metronome to practice keeping a steady tempo throughout a piece.

Too often, it seems, students tend to play the easy parts of a piece of music at one speed but then slow down during the hard parts of the music. Are you one of those students? Do you even know if you tend to do that? A metronome will provide unbiased proof of whether you slow down the hard parts or speed up during the easy parts. It is important to keep a steady tempo throughout both the easy and more difficult passages of your music.

Use a metronome to play at the correct tempo.

What does it mean when your music’s tempo marking is adagio? Or allegretto? Or largo? What if your music says mm = 120? What does that mean? MM=120 written in your music means you are supposed to play 120 beats of music in one minute. Your quarter note (usually designated by a written quarter note with the mm marking) should beat 120 times a minute. That is equal to two beats per second. If your metronome marking is 60, that means one beat per second, so a marking of 120 equals two beats per second. A marking of 90 means to play 1-1/2 beats per second. Confusing? It’s all about the math! Set your metronome to the marking listed in your music, and you will know exactly how fast or slow you should play.

And if the markings use words instead of numbers, your metronome has you covered there as well. Most metronomes provide ranges of beats for each tempo word. Largo means about 45-50 beats per minute (BPM). Moderato is 86-97 BPM, and Presto is considered 168-177 BPM. I remember seeing a piece marked “As fast as you can play.” Metronome markings can go up to 208 BPM.

Use a metronome to practice hard passages with lots of notes.

One effective way to use a metronome is when practicing a passage of music with lots of notes – 16th notes, 32nd notes, etc. The tendency for students is to slow down to play all the notes. Another tendency is to “cheat” your way through the passage – play all the notes but unevenly, or play the notes that come out and skip the rest. However, a good musician will work until he can play every note evenly and up to tempo.

Use your metronome to help you accomplish this. Start slowly, setting your metronome to beat for every 16th note. Then, when you can play the passage well slowly, little by little, increase the tempo. Then set your metronome to beat 8th notes. Again, little by little, increase the tempo. Set your metronome to beat quarter notes, and again, gradually increase your tempo with your metronome settings. You will “soon” (or eventually) master the passage and be able to play it well and up to tempo – without any “cheating!”

Use a metronome to challenge yourself to practice some things faster.

Some things = scales and arpeggios, for starters. I hope you have figured out that much of your music comes from different scales and arpeggios. So, if you routinely practice those, when you come across them in your music, your fingers will know what to do! Playing scales and arpeggios should become almost automatic for you. Your director says to play a D Major scale – your brain and fingers should know exactly what to do without much thinking at all.

Use your metronome to help you get better and faster at playing scales and arpeggios. First, be sure you can play a scale correctly and evenly at a slow tempo, like a quarter note = mm 90. Then increase the tempo to 120. After mastering that, go back to a setting of 90 and practice your scale in 8th notes, then triplets, then 16th notes. Then increase the tempo settings again and go through the process once more. You get the idea. Gradually increase your tempo until you can play the scale well at increasing speed. Sound boring? Maybe so, but it will pay off in the long run. The better you can play all your scales and arpeggios, the better you will play your music.

But what if I want to play rubato, or take some liberties with the rhythm?

Remember this – Your metronome is a tool, not a master. Use this tool to practice steady rhythm, conquer tricky rhythm, to master even playing. And then, set your metronome aside and play with musicality and feeling, with musicianship. Your metronome is a training tool to master the rhythm technique. Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? You probably started with training wheels on your bike. After you mastered riding with training wheels, someone took them off, and you learned to ride your bike on your own. Think of your metronome as like training wheels. You can remove the training tool and rely on the skills you already learned at a certain point.  

Where Do I Find a Metronome?

You can find metronomes at most music stores, or you can easily order them online. Pendulum-type metronomes can be cool to have sitting on your piano or in the room where you practice. Small digital metronomes are much easier to carry with you, however. Or you can skip the physical metronomes and get a digital one as an app on your phone. Which kind of metronome you have doesn’t matter much. What matters is that you use one!

So, make friends with your metronome. Your band or orchestra directors will thank you; your fellow musicians will be eternally grateful, and your accompanist will eternally bless you. Even your music teacher will be thrilled with your new rhythm capabilities. And your overall musicianship will improve, which should make even you happy!

Looking for more suggestions about practicing? Check out the following articles:

Practice Like a Pro

I Don’t Know What to Practice

I Don’t Know What to Practice!

I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.


First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!

Past Pieces

Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.

Something New

Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.


Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!

Compose Some Music

Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!

Did I Mention Scales?

Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.

OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.

Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.

How to Help Your Child Practice

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Practice

Practice Like a Pro