Music notes are the writing language for the music and learning how to read music notes is almost like learning how to read written words. Normal letters represent certain sounds that combining into words, and music notes represent tones that together give us music.
How to read music notes is more or less the same for the whole world, so it’s no more difficult to read American and Russian notes than African. This makes the music more international than the literature, and as we do not have any rewriting changes, it’s as easy to read old music as new. What might be the biggest plus of the music notation language is that it is almost the same for all musical instruments. Once you have learned the basics on how to read music notes, you can use this knowledge to play piano, wind instruments, drums, guitar, singing and much more.
Reading music notes is also important in order to play the music exactly the way it’s made, and I strongly recommend everyone playing an instrument to learn this skill. Many people think that learning how to read music notes is complicated, but it does not need to be. I want to help you improve your skills and make you better playing other people’s music on your instrument.
Before you can start reading notes on the instrument, you must know how the staff works. Here’s a review of the most basic.
The staff consists of 5 lines and 4 spaces numbered from bottom to top.
There may be notes on the lines and in the spaces:
These symbols called clefs are used to read notes on most musical instruments.
The G-clef shows what the notes are called in the treble staff and are usually played by the right hand on the piano and keyboard. Other instruments may use other clefs. Notice how the lower part curls around the G line, the second line from the bottom.
Treble clef, also called G clef. A whole note on G also shown.
Next symbol is called bass clef or F-clef and is used when we read notes played by the left hand on the piano. Notice how the two points are above and below the F line.
Bass clef, also called F-clef. A whole note on F also shown.
At all staffs there will be a symbol called a clef. Piano music is written with G-clef or treble clef for the right hand, and bass clef or F-clef is used for the lower sounds, usually played with the left hand. When the two clefs assembled by a brace, they are called a grand staff.
The notes on top of the 5 lines: Every Good Boy Deserves Football
The notes between the 5 lines making the word FACE
The notes on top of the 5 lines: Greedy Big Dog’s Fall Asleep
The notes between the 5 lines: All Cows Eat Grass
Notes & Duration
Music notes are named differently in American and European English, and in this post, I use American English names.
This table shows both American and European names:
a) The basic note character looks like this:
This is the whole note.
If you’ve seen a conductor in front of an orchestra, you’ve probably noticed that he “hits” the beat. When you play a whole note, you count four beats. (Sometimes there are exceptions to this, but we will not talk about this in this article). At home, we count beats with the foot or with a metronome.
b) If a tone should be half the length of the whole note, we draw it like this:
This is this the half note. How many beats do we count on half the note? Correct answer is of course two beats.
c) A note that is half the length of the half note, we call a quarter note. The quarter note looks like this:
The quarter note only lasts one beat.
As important as knowing how long to play a tone, is to know how long to be quiet and not play. These symbols are called rests.
a) The whole rest lasts four beats and looks like this:
On the staff, the whole rest is as follows:
As you can see, the whole rest is hanging under one of the lines.
b) The half rest lasts two beats and is quite similar to the whole rest:
The location on the staff is like this:
As you can see, the half rest is on top of one of the lines. To remember the two rests apart, we say that the whole rest is big and strong and hangs from its arms, while the half rest is small and weak and must sit down on the line.
c) The quarter rest lasts one beat and it’s pretty hard to draw. It looks like this:
Most common music notes and rests:
a) The tones do not only have different lengths, they can be different in pitch as well. We must be able to see this from the notes, and to show the pitch we use the staff. Remember staff is five lines above each other with a space between them like this:
Simply put, the tones are higher the higher up on the lines we draw them.
is higher than
To accommodate all the notes we need, not only are notes placed between the lines but also in the middle of the lines as follows:
b) The different pitches each have their own name. The names are:
c) For each of the different note names above you can have either whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note etc. Therefore, if we say that these letters are “last names”, we will be able to use whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note etc. as “first name”. It will be like this:
Quarter note A – eighth note B – eighth note C – half note A etc.
Rule: Notes with the similar last names have the same pitch; – notes with similar first names have the same length.
a) Rhythm is one of the factors creating music, and in this section, I will review some of the simplest rhythm forms.
When reading music notes, rhythm is displayed by dividing the notes in bars. These bars differ in length from the rhythm to be played.
b) The notes are divided by straightening lines between them like this:
We call these lines bar lines, and the space between the bar lines is called bars. How many bar lines and bars do you find in the music below?
c) The first time signature I will show is 2/4 time and there should always be room for two beats between each bar line, like this:
d) When three beats in each bar we call it 3/4 time. We also call this time signature Waltz, because the Waltz is always played in 3/4 time, like this:
e) When four beats per measure it’s called 4/4 time, often written as a C instead of 4/4. Here is an example of this time signature.
Rule: The time signature is always at the start of the staff and is played until a new signature appears. (It may happen that a piece of music changes the time signature sometimes).
More About Tone Length
You have learned about the whole note, the half note and the quarter note. Now you will learn about notes that are shorter than one beat.
a) A note that is half the length of the quarter note, we call eighth note. The eighth note looks like this:
Since the eighth note only lasts half a beat (1/2 beat), you’re obviously wondering how it’s possible to count half a beat. Of course, we have to deal with it differently, and we say that when playing eight-note notes we play two tones on each beat. Then every tone becomes half a beat, right? Look at the example:
b) The sixteenth note lasts one quarter of a beat (1/4 beat), and we say we play four sixteenth notes on one beat.
On one beat, you can of course also play one eighth note and two sixteen notes which together become one beat:
= one beat
Counting sixteenth notes:
Examples of different note values together on the staff:
More About Eighth Notes And Sixteenth Notes.
a) When several eighth notes come after each other, they hold hands like this:
We do this because it’s much easier to “read” the notes when we play them. We would like to bind the eighth notes together two and two or four and four.
b) We can similarly tie together the sixteenth notes. Then we have to keep in mind that these have two arms like this:
Note that we prefer to tie together notes that together last one beat.
c) There are many times in music that we have to be quite a half or a quarter beat. To show this, we use eighth rests and sixteenth rests. These look like this:
Whole Steps And Half Steps
a) If you play all the tones you’ve learned from C1 to C2, you’ll notice that the tones are getting higher and higher eventually. Going up from one tone to the next is called a whole step.
It’s a little strange if we accurately measure the height of the steps from tone to tone upwards. The distance C – D, D – E, F – G, G – A and A – H is equal, while the distance E – F and B – C is only half the size. We therefore say that between E and F, and between H and C is only a half step. If we imagine the tones placed on a keyboard, it would look like this:
b) If we were to have the same distance between each pitch up, we had to make some new tones. They had to be between C and D between D and E, between F and G, between G and A and between A and B. These new tones are called halftones and when putting them on the keyboard, it will look like this:
As you can see, we have five new tones, and you see that the distance between each tone is now always half a tone step.
c) What should we call these tones and how should we draw them on the staff? We do not have room for them there. To fix this, we need to learn a new sign:
♯ = sharp (looks like a hashtag #)
When we put a ♯ in front of a note, we no longer mean the usual tone of this note; we mean a tone that is half a tone step higher.
If we put a ♯ in front of C, we do not mean the tone C, but the new tone between C and D. Similarly, a ♯ in front of D means the halftone between D and E, and ♯ in front of F mean the halftone between F and G, etc.
On the staff, we thus draw these half notes as follows:
d) Saying ♯ in front of C is very cumbersome, so we only say C sharp and then we mean the halftone above C. It will be like this:
♯ in front of C = C sharp
♯ in front of D = D sharp
♯ in front of F = F sharp
♯ in front of G = G sharp
♯ in front of A = A sharp
Putting the new tones on the keyboard, it will be like this:
More About Half Tone Steps
a) You learned earlier that F sharp was half a tone step higher than F. Since this tone was between F and G, it will of course be half a tone step lower than G. You should now learn a new sign:
♭ (looks like lower case B)
If we put such a ♭ in front of a note, we no longer mean the usual tone for this note, but we mean a tone that is half a tone lower.
F sharp could then be written in another way, like ♭ in front of G.
On the staff, they will be the same tone:
b) Looking at the keyboard again, all halftones get new names:
c) As when we say sharp after the tone name when there is a ♯ in front of the note, we say flat after the tone name when there is a ♭ in front of the note:
♭ in front of D = D flat
♭ in front of E = E flat
♭ in front of G = G flat
♭ in front of A = A flat
♭ in front of B = B flat
All halftones have two names, either sharp or flat.
C♯ = D♭
D♯ = E♭
F♯ = G♭
G♯ = A♭
A♯ = B♭
If you always remember this, it will be much easier to play with ♯ and ♭.
a) Previously, you learned about the tones from C1 to C2. When we play these tones after each other upwards, we call it playing a C major scale. (The tones from C2 to C3 are also a C major scale!)
You have also learned that the distance between these tones measured in halftone steps is
2 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 1
We say that a C major scale building on C with halftone steps as mentioned above. Similarly, we can build a D major scale by starting on D and counting upwards with the same number of halftone steps. We therefore say that a major scale building on a basic tone according to the rule:
2 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 1 halftone steps.
Below you will see how a D major scale, an F major scale and a G major scale building:
b) It appears that most music pieces only need the tones on a certain scale. Furthermore, the same melody can be played in several major scales by starting different pitches. We say that we play the melody in this or this key. This will be easier to understand by playing it on the piano.
Because we mostly only use the tones on a certain scale in a melody, this means that when we play in D major we always play F sharp and C sharp, never F, G, and that in F major we always play B flat and never B. This means that we do not have to write ♯ or ♭ in front of all the notes in the melody, but can draw it in at the very beginning of the piece of music, and remember that in the whole piece of music you will play ♭ or ♯ in front of this particular tone. When we play a melody in F major, we can put a ♭ like this:
This means that in this melody we will always play B flat instead of B. Also, note that the ♭ is on B line.
Should a melody be played in D major, we draw two ♯ on the lines for C and F, because in D major, we always play C sharp and F sharp, never natural C and F.
It is very important that you notice these signs.
The same rule applies to accidentals like ♯ ♭ and ♮, symbols that appear during a song like this:
The White Keys
The C major scale
Now that you are going to learn how to read music notes, I recommend that you begin to learn the names of the notes. Study carefully (and learn!) the first two figures, where you first can see the tones of a keyboard and then as music notes on the staff.
Notes without accidental
The basic scale is seven tones called notes without accidental: C D E F G A B, the tone line based on the C major scale played on the white keys of the piano from C to C. The piano tone C is located to the left of each group of two black keys. In Scandinavia, we call the seventh tone H, but otherwise in the world called B.
If we start at C, we get the scale that most people know, and that is, notes without accidental:
The Black Keys
We can raise all the notes half a tone by putting a sharp (♯) in front of the note. The name of the new tone becomes the name of the old, plus the sharp. C sharp becomes C♯, D sharp becomes D♯, F sharp becomes F♯ etc. like this:
We can also lower all the tones by setting flat (♭) in front of the note. The name of the new note becomes the name of the old plus flat: D flat becomes D ♭, E flat becomes E ♭, G flat becomes G ♭ etc. like this:
The natural sign ♮, removes ♯ and ♭ on the tone it is standing in front. It eliminates both sharp and flat signs within the bar like this:
The distance from C to the next C, we call an octave (eight tones). The distance between D and next D is also an octave, both when we go up or downwards like this:
More About Pitch
You have now learned about the tones between the low C1 and the higher C2, but many times, we need tones that are lower than C1 and higher than C2.
From C2 and upwards, we get exactly the same tones as from C1 and above. To separate them from the others, we call them of course C2, D2, E2, F2 etc. When we get higher than G2, we need to create ledger lines in the same way as to C1 like this:
Similarly, we will get the same names under C1, but here we have to create ledger lines right away like this:
In this course, we go no further than to low G, but there are no limits to how many ledger lines made over or under the staff.
We get the same halves above high C and below low C as we had between low C and high C, like this:
You have learned so far that the tones can be long or short, high or low, but equally important is to keep in mind that the tones can be loud or soft. The player must always know what strength he or she is going to play with, and to show this, dynamic signs are written below the note lines.
The main dynamic signs are:
There are other dynamics, but you should not learn them in this article.
Rule: The dynamic signs are below note lines, and one sign is valid until a new one comes. In addition, if you play in an orchestra, the conductor will usually show how strong and weak you are going to play, but do not forget to read the notes anyway.
More About Tone Length
Now, you will learn about the musical triplet. In musical notes, a triplet is written as follows:
This figure above the notes means that you will play three tones at the same time as you would otherwise play two such tones. Thus, a triplet over eighth notes means that the three tones played for as long as you would otherwise spend on two eighth notes, that is to say one beat like this:
A triplet over quarter notes means likewise that the three notes written as quarters played on two beats. Do you understand? Similarly, the triplets can be made on half notes, sixteenth notes etc., but it is very rare.
Sometimes, we need tones that will last a little longer than the ones we have learned so far, such as three or six beats. You will now learn about a new sign that will immediately give us more new tone lengths.
The sign looks like this (.) and called a dot. Putting this sign after a note, the note becomes one half longer than it normally is, or say otherwise, it becomes 50% longer.
The most common dotted notes look like this:
To write music notes for tones longer than the ones you have learned so far, you must bind two or more notes together as follows:
Occasionally there is a need for tone lengths that the conductor or musician will determine the length of. In such cases, there is always a special sign on the note:
This sign is called fermata and means that the conductor or you can decide how long the note be held when played.
Sometimes, we need to play part of a piece of music twice, and to avoid rewriting the notes we use a repeat sign.
If only repeating one bar, we use this sign:
Thus, meaning the same as:
If there are several bars repeated, we use such signs:
We put them in front and after the part of the piece of music played twice, as follows:
There are other signs for repeating, but you should not learn about those in this course.
In music notes, the word “fine” means the end of the music and now this article has approached its end. During this rather short course, I have tried to convey relatively theoretical content in understandable ways, and to understand how music notes work, it is quite important to practice what you have learned on a musical instrument. There is of course much more to learn about reading music notes, I have just walked you through the most important parts. Just remember that reading music notes is a skill you’ve never finished learning, it’s more like a lifelong process and you’ll get better and better the more you practice. How to read music notes is a great skill that you will benefit from for the rest of your life. I wish you good luck reading and playing music notes, whether you play alone or together with others.
If you have any questions about how to read music notes, please leave a comment below and I would be more than happy to help.