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 and Enharmonic – What Do these Mean?

Two new terms for you today – chromatic and enharmonic. What are those, you ask? Well, keep reading and you will find out!

Chromatics

Definition:

Chromatics refer to a series of notes moving up or down by a series of half steps. A chromatic scale goes from any given note through all twelve half-steps up one full octave. If you start with a C and play a chromatic one-octave scale you will play these notes:

C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C

When we go higher with a chromatic scale, we use sharps. As we go lower, we use flat signs, like this:

C-B-B♭-A-A♭-G-G♭-F-E-E♭-D-D♭-C

Here is what this looks like on a keyboard:

Chromatic Scale from C to C
Chromatic Scale from C to C

Need a review of half-steps and major scales? Check these out:  Half-Steps and Whole-Steps  and  Major Scales

Derivation:

Way back in the 1700’s great minds decided that the scale should be divided into 12 equal steps per octave. Frequency of a pitch doubles from one octave to the next. So, they were looking for a way to have the exact same frequency interval between each half step within an octave. Using physics and math, including logarithms, they took the twelfth root of 2 to get an interval frequency of 1.0595. If you look at the standard frequency for any pitch (like A = 440), multiply that by 1.0595 and do that 12 times, you will end up with double the frequency, or the pitch of the note an octave higher than your starting note. Fascinating, I know.

So Why Should You Care?

Well, you probably don’t need to care much about all the math involved, unless that really interests you. But playing chromatics is important! You should practice playing multi-octave chromatic scales starting on every note. Pianists, you should learn to play chromatic scales with both hands in several ways; both hands moving together, both hands moving in opposite directions, and starting each hand on different notes! You might be able to really annoy people if you start with one hand on C and the other hand on D! Or C#!

Besides annoying people, you will frequently find chromatic passages in more advanced music. If you have practiced playing chromatic scales, it will be easy for you to play those passages in your music. Also, if you look at a passage, see that it is totally chromatic, then you only need to read the first note, the last note, and the rhythm. Your fingers (and your brain) will automatically know what to play in between.

Enharmonics

Definition:

Have you ever looked up a word in a dictionary and seen an alternate spelling given for that word? Like “shop” and “shoppe.” Or “theater” and “theatre.” Enharmonics are like alternate spellings for notes. Look at a keyboard at the notes F and G. You see that there is a black key between the two notes. If we go up a half-step from F, we hit that black key and call it F#. Going down a half-step from G we hit that same note and call it G♭. That is what we are talking about when we talk about enharmonics. A different name for the same note. By using sharps and flats, and double sharps and flats, one note can have two or three different names. Here is an example of what I mean:

Enharmonics - Different names for the same note
Enharmonics – Different names for the same note

Reasons for Enharmonics

Why do we need to have different names for the same notes? Why do we have to complicate things? If you remember when we talked about major scales, we said that you can only use the same letter name once in each octave of a scale (exception – first and last note). And we have to use the letters in alphabetical order, not skipping any. So, we can’t write a scale using D-E-G♭-G-A-B-D♭-D. We must write it like this: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. If we played those two examples on a keyboard, they would sound the same, but we can’t write them like that.

Another reason for using enharmonics is that usually, when notes are going higher, we write accidentals with sharps signs, and when they are going lower, we usually use flat signs. This helps our brains better visualize what the sound is doing.

Understanding chromatic and enharmonic notes will help you be a better musician!

Chromatic and Enharmonic - Do You Know What These Mean?
Chromatic and Enharmonic – Do You Know What These Mean?

 

Music Theory Review

It’s time to review some music theory. We have talked about several things over the past few weeks. It is always good to go back and review.

First, we talked about some very basics of notation. Let’s see if you remember anything.

Music Theory Review
Music Theory Review

And we talked about reading notes in both the Bass Clef and the Treble Clef.

Treble Clef Space Notes
Treble Clef Space Notes

Treble Clef Line Notes
Treble Clef Line Notes

 

 

 

Bass Clef Space Notes
Bass Clef Space Notes

Bass Clef Line Notes
Bass Clef Line Notes

 

 

 

Then, we looked at comparisons between note values and rest values.

Note Values Graphic
Note Values Graphic

Rest Values
Rest Values

And we looked at sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs.

Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs
Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs

We also talked about how time signatures and measures limit the amount of music that can fit in each measure. Remember, the two numbers in a time signature tell us two very important things. The top number tells us how many beats of music can fit in one measure. The bottom number of the time signature tells what kind of note gets one beat.

Time Signatures
Time Signatures

So, do you remember all this? Try our free worksheet and see how you do!

Download Worksheet Here