Have you ever heard a song on the radio and thought, “Hey, it would be really cool to know how to play that? “Do you have friends who play musical instruments and you want to get in on the fun? Do you just want to expand your general artistic knowledge? Well, if you learn the basics of reading sheet music, you can accomplish all of this in less time than you might have thought!
At its simplest, music is a language, like reading from a book. The symbols you see on pages of sheet music have been used for hundreds of years. They represent the pitch, speed, and rhythm of the song they convey, as well as the expression and techniques a musician uses to play the piece. Think of the notes as letters, the measures as words, the phrases as sentences, and so on. Learning to read music really opens up a whole new world to explore!
Follow our step-by-step introduction to the language of music below.
How to read sheet music
Step 1: Learn the basic symbols of notation.
Music is made up of a variety of symbols, the most basic of which are staff, bosses, and notes. All music contains these basic components, and to learn how to read music, you must first familiarize yourself with these basics.
The staff consists of five lines and four spaces. Each of these lines and spaces represents a different letter, which in turn represents a note. These lines and spaces represent notes named A-G,and the note sequence moves up alphabetically.
There are two treble clefs to familiarize yourself with; the first is a treble clef. The treble clef has the ornamental letter G on the far left. The inner swoop of the G surrounds the” G ” line on the staff. The treble clef notates the higher registers of music, so if your instrument has a higher pitch, like a flute, violin or saxophone, your notes are written in the treble clef. Higher notes on a keyboard are also notated in the treble clef.
We use common mnemonics to remember the note names for the lines and spaces of the treble clef. For example, we remember EGBDF with the word, “Every good boy does well. “Similarly, FACE is just like the word “face” for the spaces.”
The line between the two bass clef points is the” F ” line on the bass clef bar, and it is also called the F clef. The bass clef notates the lower register of the music, so if your instrument has a lower pitch, like a bassoon, tuba or cello, your notes is written in the bass clef. Lower notes on your keyboard are also written in bass clef.
A common mnemonic to remember note names for bass clef lines is: GBDFA ” Good Boys Do Fine Always. “And for the spaces: ACEG”, all cows eat grass.”
Notes on the staff tell us what note letter to play on our instrument and how long to play it. There are three parts to each note, the note head, the stem and the flag.
Each note has a note head either filled (black) or open (white). Where the note head sits on the staff (either on a line or a space) determines which note you will play. Sometimes noteheads sit above or below the five lines and four spaces of a staff. In this case, a line (known as a ledger line) is drawn through the note above or below the notehead to indicate the note letter to be played.
The note stem is a thin line that extends either up or down from the note head. The line extends from the right if it points up, or from the left if it points down. The direction of the line does not affect how you play the note, but serves as a way to make the notes easier to read while they fit neatly on the staff. Generally, all notes at or above the B-line on the staff have downward pointing stems, those notes below the B-line have upward pointing stems.
The note flag is a curved mark to the right of the note stem. Its purpose is to tell you how long to hold a note. We’ll see below how a single flag can shorten the duration of the note, while multiple flags can make it even shorter.
Now that you know the parts to each note, we’ll take a closer look at the filled and open noteheads discussed above. Whether a note head is filled or open tells us the value of the note, or how long that note should be held. Start with a closed note head with a stem. This is our quarter note, and it gets one beat. An open note head with a stem is a half note, and it gets two beats. An open note that looks like an “o” without a stem is a whole note and gets four beats.
There are other ways to extend the length of a note. For example, a dot after the note head adds another half to the duration of that note. So a half note with a dot would equal a half note and a quarter note; a quarter note with a dot would equal a quarter plus an eighth note. A tie can also be used to lengthen a note. Two notes tied together should be held as long as the value of those two notes is together, and ties are commonly used to indicate held notes that cross measures or bars.
The opposite can also happen, we can shorten the time a note should be held, relative to the quarter note. Faster notes are denoted either by flags, like those discussed above, or by bars between notes. Each flag halves the value of a note, so a single flag means 1/2 of a quarter note, a double flag halves that to 1/4 of a quarter note, etc. We do the same thing while we can read the music more clearly and keep the notation less cluttered.
But what happens when there is no notation to record each beat? It’s simple, we rest! A rest, just like a note, tells us how long it should be held based on its shape.
Step 2: Record the beat
To play music, you need to know the meter, the beat you use when dancing, clapping or tapping your foot along with a song. When reading music, the meter is represented similar to a fraction, with an upper and lower number we call this the time signature of the song. The top number tells you how many beats to a measure, the space of the staff between each vertical line (called a bar). The bottom number tells you the note value for a single beat, the pulse your foot taps as you listen.
In the example above, the time signature is 4/4, which means that there are 4 beats per measure and that each quarter note gets one measure.
In the example below, the time signature is 3/4, which means that there are 3 beats per measure and that each quarter note gets one measure.
Let’s look at the above examples again and notice that there are no 4 notes in the second bar, even though the 4/4 time signature in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” requires 4 beats per bar. This is because you have two quarter notes and a half note, which together equal 4 beats.
In addition to your note values and time signature, the final piece to feeling the rhythm is to know your tempo or beats per minute. Tempo indicates how fast or slow a piece should be played, and is often shown at the top of a sheet of music. For example, a tempo of 60 BPM (beats per minute) would mean that you would play 60 of the indicated notes every minute, or a single note every second. Likewise, a tempo of 120 would double the speed at 2 notes per second. You may also see Italian words like “Largo”, “Allegro”, or “Presto” at the top of your notes, meaning common tempos. Musicians use a tool called a metronome to help them keep tempo while practicing a new piece.
Step 3: Play a melody
Congratulations, you’re almost on your way to reading music! First, let’s look at scales. A scale consists of eight consecutive notes, for example, the C major scale consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The interval between the first note of your C major scale and the last is an example of an octave. The C major scale is very important to practice because once you have the C scale down, the other major scales begin to fall into place. Each of the notes in a C major scale corresponds to a white key on your keyboard.
You will notice that the pitch of the notes gets higher as the notes go up the staff and move to the right on your keyboard. But what about the black keys? Musically, whole notes or whole steps between note letters would limit the sounds we can produce on our instruments. Let’s consider the C major scale you just learned to play.
The distance between the C and the D keys in your C scale is a whole step, but the distance between the E and the F keys in your C scale is a half step. Can you see the difference? The E and F keys don’t have a black key between them, so they are only half a step apart. Every major scale you play on a keyboard has the same pattern, whole-whole-half-whole-half. There are many other types of scales, each with unique sounds, such as minor scales, modal scales, and more that you will encounter later.
Halftones, or half steps, on the keyboard allow us to write an infinite variety of sounds in music. A sharp, denoted by the ♯ – symbol, means that note is a semitone (or half-step) higher than the note head right on notes. Conversely, a layer denoted with a ♭ – symbol means that note is a semitone lower than the note head on the right. You will notice on the keyboard picture and the notated staff below that each half step between the C and the E notes shows that whether you use the sharp or flat note depends on whether you move up or down on the keyboard
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