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