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

Chromatic Scales

Have you been following our discussions about scales? We’ve looked at major scales, minor scales, the different kinds of minor scales, and the relationships between major and minor scales. I have one more kind of scale for you to learn – the chromatic scale.

First, A Quick Review

Major Scales

A basic major scale begins and ends on the same note.

A major scale always follows a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps. Or some may refer to these as tones and semitones.


The pattern of the major scale determines its key signature – the sharps or flats required to make the notes fit the pattern.

Read here for more information about Major Scales.

Minor Scales

There are three forms of minor scales: Natural Minor, Melodic Minor, and Harmonic Minor

Natural minor scales always fit a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps.

                        Ascending:  W-H-W-W-H-W-W

                        Descending:  W-W-H-W-W-H-W (the reverse of the pattern going up)

Melodic minor scales start with that same pattern but raise the 6th and 7th steps of the scale. So the pattern of a melodic minor scale going up would be W-H-W-W-W-W-H.

Descending (or going down) a melodic minor scale lowers the 6th and 7th steps back down and follows the same pattern as the natural minor: W-W-H-W-W-H-W.

Harmonic Minor scales start with the same form as the natural minor but raise the 7th step of the scale. They keep that 7th step raised on the way down the scale as well. This makes for an odd interval, or step between the 7th and 8th steps of the scale. It comes out to be a whole step plus a half step. (officially called an augmented 2nd) I noted it as W+H and underlined it. The pattern for a Harmonic minor scale looks like this:

                        Ascending:  W-H-W-W-H-W+H-H

                        Descending: H-W+H-H-W-W-H-W

Read here for more information about the three forms of Minor Scales.

Major and Minor Scales are Related

Major and Minor scales are related in two possible ways. You can have parallel major and minor scales, and you can have relative major and minor scales.

Parallel major and minor scales have the same starting note. C Major and C Minor are parallel scales. The note names throughout the scale are the same, but the accidentals will be different.

Relative major and minor scales are related by key signature. The two scales will have different starting notes, but they will have the same key signatures. G Major and E Minor are relative scales. They both have an F♯ in their key signatures.

Read here for more information about the relationships between major and minor scales.

Chromatic Scales

What is a Chromatic Scale?

Now we get to chromatic scales. “Chromatic” comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” A chromatic scale uses all the notes, or “colors” possible. Within one octave there are 12 half steps. In major or minor scales, we use 8 of those steps. A chromatic scale uses all 12 of the steps in an octave. Here is an example:

C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F-F♯-G-G♯-A-A♯-B-C C-B-B♭-A-A♭-G-G♭-F-E-E♭-D-D♭-C

Written Chromatic Scale from C to C
Example of a Chromatic Scale written from C to C ascending and descending

If you play this on a keyboard you will see that we used every note possible from C to the next C – all the white and black keys.

Also, notice that no letter name has been used more than twice. If you look at the example given above, instead of writing C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F, we could use C-D♭-D-D♯-E-F. The same pitches would be represented on a keyboard, but it is written incorrectly. We used “D” three times, but the rules say we can only use it twice. So we replace the D♭ with C♯ and we have written the scale correctly.

Writing Chromatic Scales

When we write a chromatic scale on its own, the general rule is to use sharps as we go up the scale and flats as we go down the scale. This is the basic, simple approach. When a chromatic passage is used within a piece of music, composers still tend to follow the basics of this approach, but they also try to work with the key signature of the music.

A chromatic scale can start on any note. It is not “named” like major and minor scales are. We might tell someone to play the scale of C Major, and that person should know exactly what to play. When referring to chromatic scales, however, we would tell someone to play a chromatic scale up and down three octaves, starting on a C, or F, or whatever note we want.

Why Learn and Practice Chromatic Scales?

Make Learning Your Music Easier

We have said in the past that all music is based on scales, in one way or another. So learning scales helps us to learn music. The same is true for chromatic scales. Often music has passages (or sections) that are chromatic. Knowing how to play the chromatic scale, starting on any note, will help you play your music better.

Being able to recognize and play chromatic passages will help you learn new music faster. Let’s say you are playing through a piece of music and you get to a section that is a series of notes with lots of sharps and flats. Instead of panicking about it, analyze the passage. Is it using only half steps? If so, then you don’t need to “read” every note as you go through the passage. Read the first note, the last note, and then mark that the passage is chromatic between those two notes, and your fingers and brain should know automatically what to do.

Practice all those Odd Fingerings

Let’s face it, how often do you have to play a G♭, or an A♯? Probably not very often. But you can’t forget how to play them. So, practice your chromatic scales. They will give you practice with every sharp and flat fingering there is. Then, the next time some odd accidental shows up in your music you don’t have to look up the fingering – you already know it!

Best Ways to Practice Chromatic Scales?

Pick a Note, Any Note

Play up and down one octave, using every half step within the octave. Then see if you can do two octaves. Be sure you use the correct fingerings for every note. When that becomes easy for you, start on a different note. And then a different note. Practice until you can start on any note and play one or two octaves of chromatics. Be sure you listen and pay attention while you play – always keep your brain engaged in what you are doing!

Keyboard Players

Check with your teacher about how to properly finger chromatic scales. The fingering can be a bit tricky, so learn it correctly. The basic rule is to always use the third finger on black keys. Only use the second finger when two white keys are right next to each other and use the first finger on all the other white keys. Here are a couple links to fingering chromatic scales on a keyboard.

See Here

And Also Here

String Players

You will definitely have to consult with your teacher for fingering advice. There are several methods and thoughts about fingering the chromatic scales on string instruments. Please learn to do it correctly so you don’t have to unlearn and relearn!

Now, Let’s Summarize:

Chromatic Scales –

  • Use all 12 half steps in any octave
  • Cannot use any letter name more than twice in one octave. (Except for first and last note)
  • Generally written with sharps ascending (going up) and flats descending (going down)
  • May use unique fingering patterns (especially keyboard and string players)
  • Can start and end on any note

Questions? Let me know in the comments.

Chromatic Scales - What are they and why do they matter?

More on the Minors

Last week’s theory post introduced the concept of minor scales. I promised you more on the minors, so here we go.

Always, Review First

First, though, a quick review:

  • Major scales all follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps.


  • Natural minor scales all follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps.


  • There are two types of relationships between major and minor scales.
    • Relative major and minor –
      • Both the major and its relative minor have the same key signature and use the same notes.
      • The relative minor scale begins on the sixth step of the major scale.
      • The relative major scale begins on the third step of the minor scale.
    • Parallel major and minor –
      • Both the major and its parallel minor scale begin on the same note.
      • They will use the same note names, but with different accidentals (sharps or flats).
      • The major scale and its parallel minor scale have different key signatures.

Now, More on the Minors

There are three forms of minor scales:

  • Natural Minor – follows the key signature exactly, and is the same both ascending and descending (going up and coming down).
  • Harmonic Minor – raises the 7th step of the natural minor scale, both ascending and descending.
  • Melodic Minor – raises the 6th and 7th steps of the natural minor scale going up, but lowers them again when coming down.

Here are some examples of the three forms of minor scales.

Here is an example of the A minor scale, in natural form. There are no sharps or flats in the key signature, and none are added.

Now, the harmonic form of the same A minor scale. Notice how the 7th step of the scale is raised (sharped). And the 7th step keeps the sharp on the way down the scale as well.

And here is the melodic form of the same scale. This time, both the 6th and 7th steps of the scale are raised as we go up the scale. But on the way down, the sharps are eliminated.

Now, let’s look at a couple more examples of the same thing, but in different keys.

D minor scale, Natural form

D minor scale, Harmonic form

D minor scale, Melodic form

E minor scale, Natural form

E minor scale, Harmonic form

E minor scale, Melodic form

And, of course, the Big Question – Why?

Why Minor?

So, why do we use minor scales? Why use different forms of the minor scales? First, using minor scales/minor keys adds a different “flavor” to the music. Some say music in minor keys gives a darker, more complex sound to the music. Others feel that minor music is more somber, or serious, or sad-sounding. Being able to use minor scales in music gives composers and arrangers more options and more variety. And variety and options are good!

Why Harmonic Minor?

Now for the why of the different forms. It’s all about how things sound! The harmonic form developed because people didn’t like the way a final chord cadence sounded. In major keys, most music ends with a V chord leading to a I chord. That chord progression gives a very final-sounding ending to a piece. In the natural minor, though, you don’t get the same sort of finality. By raising the 7th step of the minor scale, the V chord became major, so going from V to I chords produced more of a final-sounding conclusion. Also, because our ears are used to hearing a half step progression from the 7th step of a scale to the last step, the raised 7th fit better.

Why Melodic Minor?

But wait! That caused a different problem! Now, in a minor scale with a raised 7th step, there is a huge jump between the 6th step and the 7th step. Really awkward to sing, or play, or listen to! Solution – raise the 6th step also. In a melodic minor scale, the first half of the scale sounds minor, but the second half sounds major – more of what we “like” to hear or are used to hearing. But descending? Doesn’t matter so much. So, in the melodic form the 6th and 7th steps are lowered back to the natural form of the minor.

Scales Forever!

When you are learning your scales, and you think you have mastered all 12 major scales, don’t think you are done with scales! You still have 36 more scales to learn! All the minor scales, in 3 forms! You are never done with scales! Just keep practicing! And thinking! Your fingers and your brain will thank me later.

More on the Minors