How to Read Music

So you’re interested in learning how to play a musical instrument but there’s one small problem. You don’t know how to read music! Fear not, this article will put your mind at ease as we go through the fundamentals of note-reading.

Music is printed on a  stave.

Musical Stave

A stave, or staff, as it is also called, is a series of five parallel horizontal lines. For piano and other keyboard instruments, you will find two staves, one on top of the other. Each staff represents one hand (right hand on top, left hand on bottom). For most other instruments, you will only have one staff.

See the video version of this article below, or keep reading for more!

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At the very beginning of the staves, you will find something called a clef.  Here are some examples:

1. G Clef 2. F-Clef3. C-Clef

Each clef is like a key that unlocks the mystery of what the notes mean. In fact, the French word for key is clef. Different clefs are used for different instruments, based on the types of sound they produce. This is purely for ease of reading.

Let’s take each example, one at a time.

1. The treble clef, or G-clef, as it is also known, tells us where the note G is. If you look closely at the staff in number 1, you’ll find that the treble clef curls around the second line from the bottom. This line represents the note G.

You will find G clefs in music that is for high-sounding instruments, such as violins and flutes.

What about the other lines, you ask? The other lines, starting from bottom going up to the top are E, G, B, D, F. A great mnemonic for this is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

Now, have a look at the spaces between each line from the bottom, up. There are four of them. These spaces are the notes F-A-C-E, which conveniently spells face!

Now I’d like you to make your own staff on a piece of paper. After you have written down all five parallel lines, write the names of the notes on each line, leaving space between each note letter. Then fill in the spaces by writing their names down. You’ll find that the letters go in alphabetical order from E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F. Did you notice that there is no H, I, J, K, etc…through Z? That’s because the musical alphabet stops at G and repeats itself. In other words, the musical alphabet is A-B-C-D-E-F-G, A-B-C-D-E-F-G, etc…It just keeps on repeating itself. Contrary to what it might seem, we don’t repeat the same notes over and over again. When we get to G and then go back to A, our sounds, or pitches, get higher and higher.

2. Example two is called the bass clef, or F-clef. Have a look at the image of the bass clef above. It is called the F clef because the two dots surround the line that represents F.

Bass clef signs are found on music for low-sounding instruments, such as the cello and double bass.

What are the lines called when a bass-clef is present? Starting from the bottom going up, G-B-D-F-A. I like the mnemonic Good Boys Do Fine Always (sorry girls…haven’t yet figured out one for you – feel free to e mail me suggestions).

How about the spaces? Again, bottom up, A-C-E-G, or All Cows Eat Grass.

Now, if you thought that adding an extra clef wasn’t confusing enough, here’s one more…The alto clef.

3. The alto clef, or C-clef, tells us where the note C is. It is used for mid-range instruments, such as the viola (a slightly larger violin that plays lower notes). If you look at example 3 above, you’ll see that the clef goes “inward” at the middle line. This tells us that the middle line represents the note C. This C is important because it is called “Middle-C” on the piano. It is found in the middle of the keyboard.

Lines from bottom up are F-A-C-E-G (or, face-G, as a mnemonic). Spaces from the bottom up are G-B-D-F (Good Boys Do Fine).

Remember, just because you’re playing in a different clef than another instrument doesn’t mean that you both can’t play the same notes. For instance, the top space in alto clef, which is the note F, is the exact same pitch as the bottom space in treble clef. Again, it is only for ease-of-reading that we use different clefs to represent pitches played by various instruments. For example, if a violist played music with a bass clef, he or she would run out of lines on the staff and would eventually have to have many of the notes written above the top line.

That brings us to ledger lines. Often, composers will add extra lines above the staff if they run out of space and wish to add higher notes. Middle C in bass clef is the first ledger line written above the staff.  It is also the first ledger line below the staff in treble clef.

I hope that this little tutorial on How to Read Music has been helpful. Thanks for visiting!

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians Academy, Brookline