What’s All This Extra Stuff on my Music?

Accidentals and Key SignaturesSo, you’ve been working on your note reading skills and your rhythm, and then your teacher hands you a piece of music with all sorts of strange marks on it. What’s up with that? What’s all that extra stuff on your music? Today I’m going to tell you about some of that extra stuff.

Whole Steps and Half Steps

Before we can get to some of that extra stuff you have to know about whole steps and half steps. A half step is the distance from one note to the very next closest note, either up or down. If you look at a piano keyboard, a half step often  goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to the next white key. But sometimes two white keys are right next to each other. Then they are a half step apart. Look at the graphic below. I marked some half steps in purple. See how they go from one note to the very next note? Now, look at the green markings. Those represent whole steps. See how whole steps are two half steps put together? Often a whole step goes from one white key to the next white key, or from one black key to the next black key. But sometimes a whole step goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to a white key. That is where accidentals come in.

Whole Steps and Half Steps


Some of the extra things on your music are accidentals. Sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs are accidentals. In music we write  these signs  before the note they apply to. (You see the sign before you see the note.) A sharp sign raises a note by a half step. A flat sign lowers a note by a half step. And a natural sign will cancel out earlier sharp and flat signs. Important thing to remember: when one of these signs is written in front of your note, the sign applies to every note that of that same name in the measure, but ONLY in that measure. So, if you have the note F with a sharp sign in front of it, instead of playing a regular F you play the note that is one half step higher than F – F sharp.

Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs

Key Signatures

If a composer wrote every sharp and flat sign in front of the notes in the music, your music would be very sloppy and cluttered! Someone came up with a better system. What if a composer wanted every F in his music to be played as an F sharp? He could write a sharp sign at the beginning of the music that would tell all the musicians to play every F as an F sharp. This is called a key signature.You find a key signature at the beginning of your music – right after the treble or bass clef sign. Key signatures always follow specific orders and patterns. This letter sequence you will tell you the order of all the sharps and flats in a key signature:

B – E – A – D – G – C – F

That is the order of flats in key signatures. Now, if you turn that sequence around you get the order of sharps:

F – C – G – D – A – E – B

The next graphic shows you what all the key signatures look like. Don’t worry – it will probably be a while before you play music with 5 or 6 sharps or flats in the key signature!

Key Signatures

Be sure to come back next week when we learn about intervals!



How to Read Music

After you learn some of the basics of music notation at some point you must learn how to read music. When we say read music we mean to look at the notes on the lines and spaces and understand what they mean. They are your instructions for what to play.

Learn to Read Music

Note Placement

Notes are placed on the lines and spaces of a staff – a group of five lines and four spaces. The higher the note is on the staff the higher sound it will make. The lower the note is on the staff, the lower the sound. How to tell if a note is on a line or a space? Look at the note and see what goes right through the middle of it. It a line goes right through the middle of a note, then it is on a line. If a space goes right through the middle of the note, then it is a space note. Every line and space of a staff corresponds with a letter of the alphabet. Treble clef notes are not the same as bass clef notes.

Treble Clef Line Notes
Line Notes for Treble Clef
Treble Clef Space Notes
Space Notes for Treble Clef




Bass Clef Line Notes
Line Notes for Bass Clef
Bass Clef Space Notes
Space Notes for Bass Clef

Note Mnemonics

Sometimes we use little phrases or words to help us remember things. Here are some to help you remember the names of the lines and spaces.

Treble Clef Lines (from bottom to top): Every Good Boy Does Fine

Treble Clef Spaces (from bottom to top): F A C E

Bass Clef Lines (from bottom to top): Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always

Bass Clef Spaces (from bottom to top): All Cows Eat Grass

Ledger Lines

Problem – that is only 18 notes. Surely my instrument will play more than 18 notes! What about the rest of them? If we wrote a line/space for every note that we could play, we would have a mess! Can you imagine looking at a staff of 15 lines and trying to figure out exactly which line your note is on? That would be crazy! So, we have a solution. When we come to a note that is not on the staff, whether it is above the staff or below it, we just write a short line for that note. We call that a ledger line. We read up to or down to the note on the ledger line just like we do the notes on our staff lines and spaces. Alphabetical, A – G, starting over at A, until we get to the note on the ledger line. Look at these examples and see if you can figure them out. Reminder – lines go through the middle of a note.

Treble Clef Ledger Lines
Treble Clef Ledger Lines
Bass Clef Ledger Lines
Bass Clef Ledger Lines


A Couple More Suggestions

  • Read your notes from left to right – just like you read a book.
  • Learn to look ahead to see what note comes next. Does the note go up or down? Is it on a line or a space? At first you will read just one note at a time, but practice looking ahead.
  • Eventually, learn to read groups of notes at a time. Just like reading a book – when you first learn to read you make the sound of the letter, make the next sound, and the next sound, and then put the sounds together into a word. Pretty soon it is easy to read a word at a time, and you start to put sentences together. Music is just like that. Read a note at a time, then start to read groups of notes together. Pretty soon you will be able to see patterns in your music and you won’t even have to think of the note names when you play.

Now, get out there, read some music, and have a great time!



Our music theory focus today is on rhythm. What is rhythm? Rhythm is a very important part of the structure of music, or how music is organized. It gives us patterns of sounds and silences in our music. Rhythm notation provides the tools to put the organization of sounds and silences on paper. We talked about some basics of rhythm notation last week. If you missed it you can check out that post here: http://carolr3.sg-host.com/music-notation-basics/


Remember, measures divide our music into smaller segments. Each measure can only hold a specified amount of music. The time signature determines how much music one measure can hold. Let’s compare that to baking. If you make cookies the recipe doesn’t just tell you to put in flour and sugar. It tells you how much flour and sugar to use. The recipe tells you to measure out a certain amount of the flour or sugar to make your cookies turn out just right. Our time signature does the same thing for our measures of music.

Time Signatures

A time signature has two numbers. The top number determines how many beats of music or silence allowed in one measure. The bottom number tells us what kind of note gets one beat. The most common time signatures have a 4 as their bottom numbers. Think of fractions here – the 4 tells us that a quarter note (1/4) gets one beat. So, if the time signature is 4/4 then we can fit 4 quarter notes’ worth of music in each measure. If the time signature is 3/4 then we can only fit 3 quarter notes’ worth of music in the measure.

Rhythm Notation

We have many ways to write 4 quarter notes’ worth of music. We can use one whole note, or two half notes, a combination of two quarter notes and one half note. If we want to make or rhythm more complex we can add eighth notes and sixteenth notes to our combinations. And if we don’t want sound on every beat we can use rests to substitute for sounds. We can write an entire measure of rests or we can write some notes and some rests. We can use any combination of notes and rests we like, as long as their total values don’t exceed the amount allowed in the measure.

Look at the following graphics. These will help you remember note values and their comparable rest values.

Rhythm Note Values GraphicRhythm Rest Values