Just like any other language, music has its own set of rules. In this guide, you’ll learn how to read sheet music and work out the pitch, duration, timing, and style of music simply by observing the relationship between the notes and the staff.
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Understanding the staff
Modern language uses an alphabet, whether it’s the Latin, Kanji, Cyrillic, Chinese, or Greek one. Just like modern spoken and written languages depend on an alphabet to be understandable, sheet music depends on the staff.
The staff is a series of five lines that run horizontally across the page. Between each of the five lines is a gap. Notes are placed on the staff in various positions that show their pitch, making it easy for you to work out which note to play at any time.
The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces. Each line or space between lines is a certain note. The notes that make up the staff vary from the treble clef to the bass clef, so it’s important to memorize the notes that make up each one.
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Learning the treble clef
Most pieces of music are written on two staffs, each with a different clef. The treble chef is the first clef you’ll encounter as a musician. This clef contains the notes that will be played in the higher range, typically the melody of a piece.
Instruments that produce sound in the high ranges, as well as most voices, will use the treble clef. Most of the time (but not always) the treble clef shows the melody of a piece, while the bass clef is used to show the bassline.
The treble clef is easy to identify – it’s typically on the top of a piece of a sheet music, and it’s always marked with a Latin G figure. On the piano, it’s the melody that you’ll play with your right hand.
Remember the staff we discussed earlier? In the treble clef, each line and space has its own note assigned to it. From bottom to top, the five lines of the treble clef each correspond to the following notes: E, G, B, D, and F.
The spaces between the lines also correspond to notes. From bottom to top, the four spaces of the treble clef correspond to the following notes: F, A, C, and E.
Finding it difficult to remember which line corresponds to which note? Use this easy mnemonic to remember the lines: Every good boy deserves fruit. The notes between the lines are easier to remember; just think of your FACE.
Learning the bass clef
The bass clef contains the music played by instruments and voices in the low, bass-heavy register. In rock music, this is the bass guitar. In classical music, it’s the cello, trombone, or the left hand of a piano.
Identifying the bass clef is simple. It uses a Gothic F character, which looks almost the same as a lower case modern G. On sheet music with both a treble and bass clef, the bass clef appears below the treble clef.
Based on the notes of the treble clef, you might assume that the bass clef uses the same patterns: E, G, B, D, and F on the lines, and F, A, C, and E between them. This isn’t the case. The bass clef uses a different arrangement of notes along the staff.
From bottom to top, the lines of the bass clef correspond to the following notes: G, B, D, F, and A. The spaces between the lines are also different from the treble clef. They correspond to the following notes: A, C, E, and G.
Again, the easiest way to remember the different notes of the bass clef is by using a mnemonic. From bottom to top, the lines are Good boys don’t fight anyone. Between the lines, remember that All cows eat grass.
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Learning the time signature
It’s no good being able to identify the notes that make up a piece of music if you’re unable to identify the time signature and rhythm. The numbers listed at the start of a piece correspond to its time signature.
Time signatures are very easy to understand. The number on the top corresponds to the number of beats that are in each bar of the piece. The number on the bottom of the time signature corresponds to the note value of a single beat.
The most common time signature in modern music is 4/4 – four beats per bar, each of which is a quarter note. Almost all modern pop, rock, and metal songs use a 4/4 time signature. A 4/4 time signature is sometimes noted with a C symbol.
Some forms of music use a ¾ time signature. This means that every bar consists of three beats. A waltz, for example, follows a very steady one-two-three rhythm that demonstrates the sound and feel of a ¾ time signature.
Time signatures don’t always stay the same throughout a piece of music. Complex or very long compositions sometimes change time signature several times throughout the piece, often during different sections or movements.
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Learning the rhythm
Every piece of music follows a rhythm. Without knowing the rhythm of a piece, you know the tones that are required to play it, but not the length of the tones or if they should be played individually, sustained, or muted.
Using a simple 4/4 time signature example, we’ll explain the different notes you will find in sheet music, the length of time they correspond to, and how you should play them using your instrument.
Let’s start with the longest: whole notes. Whole notes consist of an open note head (a round, empty oval). Whole notes, as their name suggests, last for the whole bar. A whole note is generally found in slower, less intense pieces of music.
Half notes consist of a whole note with a stem attached. These notes, just like their name suggests, last for half a bar. If you are counting a 1-2-3-4 rhythm, you would play a half note on the one and the three, holding it for the two and the four.
Quarter notes last for a quarter of a bar. They look like whole notes, but with a solid black note head. Eighth notes are quarter notes with a flag attached. They last for an eighth of a bar – half as long as a quarter note, and a quarter as long as a half note.
From here, you can add an extra flag to each eighth note to make it a sixteenth note. You can even add an additional flag to make it a thirty-second note. These notes are rarely used in popular music outside of solo sections and short crescendos.
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Dots, ties, rests, melody, and more
You’ve now learned the basics of how to read music notes. From here, you also need to learn advanced notation like ties, dots, rests, and the scales that make up popular music.
Enroll in our How to Read Music course to learn more about reading sheet music on your own. Being able to read sheet music is one of the most important skills for any musician. Take it seriously, and you’ll excel at any instrument you choose.