Do you think it’s about time for you to learn to read music? Maybe you learned guitar from tablature, but you want a more solid foundation to push your playing further. Or perhaps you love to write music and want to develop this tool so you can more easily build out parts for different instruments and players. You might even be embracing music for the first time and wanting to start off on the right foot.
Whatever the case, you’re making a good decision. No matter what your instrument or musical goal is, learning this basic building block is a move that will open a lot of doors for you down the road. You can get a start on learning music notation as a part of an online introductory music course. Also, you can read on for a quick rundown of the essential terms and strategies for mastering this skill. Think of this as a primer to get you a headstart on your lessons.
Here are the very basics of musical notation:
When you refer to them by name, there are only 12 notes in western music, including sharp and flat notes. But that does not mean there are only 12 different sounds. If that were the case, a piano wouldn’t need 88 keys! In addition to their names, notes vary by their pitch. If you are playing a bass instrument, like a Tuba, you are working with low pitched notes. If you are playing treble instrument like a clarinet, though, you are playing high pitched notes.
In musical notation, a range of pitches is represented by a clef sign. The higher, treble clef uses a commonly known symbol that looks a lot like an ampersand (&). The lower bass clef uses a simpler symbol that looks a lot like a comma. In between these two, there is also an alto clef which basically makes an ornate “B” shape. For now, we will talk only about the bass and treble clefs, as they are the most commonly used.
On any sheet music, you will see the clef written over five horizontal lines. These lines comprise the staff. A musical note is determined by where it falls on this staff and which clef is assigned to the staff.
There are easy memorization techniques for memorizing the notes on the staff for both the bass and treble clefs. In the treble clef, for instance, the note names for the lines going from top to bottom are E, G, B, D, and F, which is easily memorized using the acronym Every Good Boy Does Fine. The notes falling on the spaces spell out the word “face.”
Now, switching to the bass clef, and reading from the bottom line to the top, the five notes are different. They are G, B, D, F, and A. So if you are playing a bass instrument, your acronym is Good Boys Do Fine Always. The spaces are A, C, E, and G. So you can remember that they spell out the word ace and add a G at the end.
Every instrument will have a different range where its notes fall on the staff, and often notes will fall above and below it (you will learn how this is properly noted in your courses). For your own instrument, there are likely tricks and tips to help you memorize how the notes you use map to the musical staff. For example, if you play piano, you can learn to memorize where the notes fall in this course in modern piano playing.
You may have noticed that in naming the notes above, there were no sharps or flats. That is because the sharp and flat notes are determined by the “key” of the music. If you are playing music in the key of C major, you will use no sharps or flats. However, the key of A major always gets three sharp notes.
In musical notation, a sharp note is indicated with a “#” and a flat note is indicated with a symbol similar to the letter “b.” Rather than write this symbol out every time it comes up in music, a composer puts these symbols at the beginning of the music, next to the clef symbol. So, for example, if a piece of music is in the key of A major, there will be three # symbols on the staff, falling on the notes F, C, and G. A musician will know what key to play in based on those symbols, and you will learn to do this as well. In fact many instructors have learning methods to help you pick the different keys up quickly and easily. If you play guitar, for instance, this online course in understanding music quickly will cover these concepts on guitar and get you going in no time.
The rhythm of a piece of music is indicated by its time signature. The time signature is usually represented by two numbers, one written above the other, following the key signature.
The mechanics of a time signature get slightly complex, and you will want to make sure you get a good introduction to rhythm to understand this important concept. A partial explanation here should get you started.
If you think of the classic rock and roll song, the drummer counts off a 1-2-3-4 at the start. This is the 4-4 time signature. The first four means that there are four beats per measure, and the second means that a quarter note gets the count.
If you are unclear on what a quarter note is, don’t worry. This just means you need an introduction to how notes are assigned their rhythms. You will get this with any introductory music course. And if you really want to get the hang of rhythm in music, you might try an online ear training course, which will help you get a grasp on counting rhythms and hearing them in the music you play.
If you followed along with those explanations, you are already through much of the work involved in understanding musical notation. And after you understand how these basics work, all you need to do is practice. You will, no doubt, find lots of suggestions on how to practice. Find the one that works best for you and stick to it. With a little determination you will soon be proud to say that you are fluent in music!