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

Why Clarinets Squeak and Other Instrument Oddities

Why do clarinets squeak? Why do trumpets have spit valves? What’s with all these instrument oddities? Musical instruments are strange things. Hollow tubes with holes in them. Long metal pipes bent into strange shapes. Boxes with hammers and strings. Holes where you don’t expect holes to be. What’s with all this? Here are the answers to some of those strange questions you always wanted to ask but never did.

Why Do Clarinets Squeak?

Have you ever been in beginning band? Have you had to attend a beginning band concert? It seems like the clarinets are always squeaking! Why does that happen? What can they do to stop the squeaking?

Many factors affect whether a clarinet squeaks. And all these are things that the clarinet player must learn and practice. Beginners are still learning – give them a break when they squeak.

Here is a list of some of the more common reasons for clarinet squeaks:

  •         Biting down, or clamping down too hard on the mouthpiece
  •         Having too much or too little of the mouthpiece in the mouth
  •         Inconsistent airflow
  •         Incorrect tonguing technique
  •         Bad reed – old, chipped or dried out

Good news – the more a clarinet player practices, the less he will squeak. So practice away, my clarinet friends.

If you want more information about this, see here and here.

Why Does a Piano Have Three Pedals?

Almost all pianos have two pedals. Some pianos have three pedals. What’s the difference? Does it matter if your instrument has two or three pedals?

Right Pedal

The pedal on the right is the damper pedal. When pressed, this pedal raises all the dampers (or long felt-covered bars) from the strings inside the piano. The strings will then continue to vibrate and sound until the pedal is released and the dampers are reapplied to the strings. If you have a grand piano or open the top of your upright piano, you can see this happen.

Left Pedal

The left pedal on a piano is the soft pedal. Depending on the piano, this pedal works in one of two ways. Either the use of the pedal causes the hammers to strike fewer strings, or the hammers are moved closer to the strings so they cannot strike the strings as hard as usual.

Every key you see on your piano attaches to two or three strings inside the piano. When you strike a key, you activate a hammer inside the piano that strikes the strings related to that key. When you press the soft pedal the hammer slightly moves so it only strikes a portion of the related strings (two strings instead of three, or one string instead of two).

Other pianos use a slightly different system to get a similar result. In this system, the soft pedal causes the entire set of hammers to move slightly closer to the strings. This means that the hammer cannot strike the strings with as much force, resulting in a softer sound.

Center Pedal

And then there is the third pedal. Not every piano has a third pedal. This third pedal will do one of two things, but not both. On some pianos, the third pedal, called the sostenuto (sustaining) pedal, allows certain notes to sustain (or hold) without holding all the other notes at the same time. It is an interesting effect. However, unless you are playing advanced piano literature, you probably will not need to use this third pedal.

Some piano makers have taken that third pedal and given it a completely different purpose. Sometimes that third pedal performs as a “practice” pedal or a “silent” pedal. If you live in an apartment, perhaps the neighbors aren’t too excited to hear your late-night practicing. Or your early-morning arpeggios. What should you do? Put your piano in “silent” mode, by pressing that third pedal, and practice away.

What’s So French About a French Horn?

What’s so French about a French horn? Actually…not much. And it appears that the term “French horn” is only used in the US, Canada, and Britain. Everyone else just calls it a horn. So where did the term “French horn” come from? Guess what – no definite answers exist. But there are three theories about the use of that term.

Theory #1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a German Count went to France, picked up some hunting horns, and brought them back to Germany. These horns were a bit different than the ones they already had in Germany. Because of that, the people may have referred to these as the French horns to differentiate them from the German horns that were already in the country.

Theory #2

Horn originally developed from hunting horns. The hunting horns in Britain were different than the French hunting horns. The French hunting horns were larger. When musicians began to use these new horns in Britain they reminded people of the larger French hunting horns, so they called them French horns.

Theory #3

In the late 1600s instrument makers crafted horns in Britain, Germany, and France. Each country made the horns slightly differently, and each country contributed different features in the development of the modern horn. Evidently, the best horns of the time came from French makers, so musicians called them French horns. (Not to be confused with the British horns, the German horns, etc.)

Is there a final answer to the question about the term “French” horn? Of course not. And if you are in a rehearsal and the conductor asks the horn section to play a section of music, does he mean just the French horns or the entire brass section? Play it safe, and assume he is just referring to the French horn section.

Looking for more info? Check here or here.

Why Do Trumpets Have Spit Valves?

Spit valves are just gross, right? Trumpet players get to some rests, and the first thing they do is blow spit all over the floor. What’s with that? Ewwww! Think about how trumpet players produce sound. They blow – directly into their instrument. And with all the air that blows, you also get saliva. The air blows out through the horn, but not the saliva. It stays in the horn and collects.

Pretty soon, our poor trumpet player begins to sound like he is playing underwater. Because he is – sort of. And since he is not playing “Under the Sea,” we don’t want it to sound like that. The spit valve on a trumpet (and all other brass instruments) is located where the saliva collects in the horn. The brass player can open the spit valve, blow through his horn without making a sound, and empty all the water from his horn. Then he can continue to play with a good sound. Just be glad you don’t have to clean the floor after the band concert!

Why Are There Holes in the Tops of Violins?

The reason for the holes in the top of a violin (or viola, or cello, or bass) is simple – to let the sound out! Imagine if you are in your bedroom with the door shut and you want to tell your brother or sister to bring you a snack. You yell, but they never bring your snack. They will say they never heard you. But if you open your door and yell, they will hear you and bring you your snack (you hope). That’s the idea behind the holes on the violin. They are called f-holes – because they look like fancy letter f’s. Or some might call them sound holes. Vibration inside the body of the violin causes the sound, but that sound needs a way to get out. The f-holes let the sound out.

If the idea of f-holes fascinates you, you can read more about it here.

So, now you know the answers to some of life’s perplexing questions. You can impress your friends with your vast musical knowledge!

What are some other questions you have about instruments? You know, those questions you have always wanted to ask, but thought everyone else already knew the answers to. Ask away, and I will try to find the answers.

Leave your questions in the comments!

And check out some of our posts about specific instruments!







Musical New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions. Are you a fan of them? Do you make resolutions every January? Or maybe you just set yourself some new goals for the year. Do you make any resolutions relating to music? Or any goals? Whatever you want to call them, let me give you a few ideas for Musical New Year’s Resolutions.

Go to more concerts

        Do you get to live concerts very often? Plan to go to more this year. Indoor, outdoor, free, paid, local, a new group, high school, community, professional – doesn’t matter! Go enjoy some live music. Chicago has a great line-up of free outdoor concerts during the summer. They just announced the schedule for the summer; I am already thinking about which ones I want to go to!

Learn a new instrument

        Do you play an instrument? Have you ever wanted to play something? Start learning! Choose an instrument and start learning to play! Maybe you played something in school – choose a related instrument and learn that one!

Practice an instrument you used to play

        Did you play an instrument in high school or college? Get it out and start practicing again! Practice up on those pieces you used to play. Start practicing a piece you always wanted to learn to play.

Join a performance group

        Get involved with a local performance group. Join a choir. Join the community band or orchestra. You will meet some fascinating people and enjoy making music in a group setting. Accept the challenge and have some fun with music!

Learn to read music

        Did you always enjoy singing but never learned to read music? Did you play a treble clef instrument but never learned to read bass clef? Or vice-versa? Did tenor clef or alto clef always mess with your mind? Take some time and master the art of reading music.

Explore a new genre of music

        Do you know all the latest pop music but can’t tell a symphony from a concerto? Maybe you are great with Bach and Vivaldi but know nothing about 20th century music. Whatever the case, take the challenge to learn a new form of music. Maybe you will choose to explore string quartets. Perhaps you will decide to learn about bluegrass. The options are endless! Explore something new.

Take a music appreciation course

        Learn about the many varieties of music available! Check out the different eras of music and the composers of each era. Find an online course, check out a course from your library, take a continuing education course through your community college. Learn something new!

Add your own ideas in the comments! Let me know how you are going to challenge your musical self this year.

Ideas for Musical New Year Resolutions