When I was in the fourth grade, I took my first clarinet lesson. And like many of the kids in my class, I couldn’t comprehend the idea that to play music, I needed to learn how to read it. 

There are plenty of folks who might argue the contrary—that you can write a hit song without any knowledge of how to read music notes. But that population of musicians is shrinking—and most artists expect the musicians they play with to know how to read music

But there’s good news: It’s never too late to learn the basics. In this guide, we’ll dive into some of the nuances of how to read music notes for beginners. 

How to Read Basic Music

People tend to ask two questions when they want to learn how to read basic music. First, is it hard to learn to read music? And more importantly, what resources exist on how to read music notes for beginners?

The answer to both of these questions is: It depends. In many ways, reading music is like playing a board game. Some basic rules aren’t too difficult to learn, but the game is typically won by folks who understand the lesser-known nuances of the game. And when it comes to learning how to read music notes, sheet music can feel completely overwhelming to beginners, especially when you get into some of the trickier time and key signatures. 

But does that mean you can’t teach yourself to read music? Of course not. We’ve put together five elements of reading music that anyone can understand and apply to their instrument of choice.

Step 1: Understanding the Music Staff

There are a handful of elements that you’ll see on any piece of sheet music. The most obvious component for beginners is the staff, or the lines on the page. Here’s an example of what a staff might look like if you’re learning how to read piano sheet music

sheet music
This is an example of a staff on a piece of piano sheet music.

The top of our staff is what’s known as the treble clef. There are long essays that you can explore on the history of the treble clef, but we won’t overwhelm you with them just yet. For now, you just need to know that the treble clef includes the notes you would play with the right hand on a keyboard. It’s also used for...a lot of instruments. Looking to learn how to read guitar sheet music? You’ll be looking at a lot of treble clefs.

We’ll dive into this further in the following section, but the images below illustrate where the notes land on the treble clef.

Line Notes

music notes

Space Notes

music notes
These images illustrate where each of the notes on a treble clef can be found

But you also probably noticed another set of lines on our blank staff. That’s a good segue into how to read music sheets that contain the bass clef, which is where composers write the left-hand parts on a piano. The bass clef is also used for instruments such as the bass guitar, trombone, and timpani, just to name a few. 

The illustration below showcases where the notes on a bass clef land, plus where they exist on a piano.

piano with scale on it
Here’s an example of bass clef notation, including the corresponding notes on a piano.

Speaking of notes, we’d be lying if we said that they all looked like white dots on a staff like you’ve seen in the images above. Let’s go a little deeper into how to read music notes.

Step 2: How to Read Music Notes

There are three basic types of notes that you’ll see on a piece of music, including:

  • Whole notes
  • Half notes
  • Quarter notes

Below you’ll see what each of those notes looks like on a staff, whether you’re reading a treble clef or a bass clef.

quarter note, half note, whole note
These are the three basic types of notes that you’ll find on a piece of sheet music.

To help you understand how to read (and play) each of these notes, let’s imagine that we want to learn how to read guitar sheet music written in 4/4 time. We’ll explore time signatures in further depth later in this guide, but 4/4 is one of the most common time signatures in music. 4/4 time indicates that there are four beats per measure. Or, in layman's terms, imagine that you’re counting 1-2-3-4 over and over again.

Here’s how that rule applies to the notes we’ve reviewed above.

  • Whole note: Hold this note for all four counts of a measure
  • Half note: Hold this note for two counts of the measure
  • Quarter note: Hold this note for one count of the measure

This rule also applies to the quicker notes you’ll find on a staff. See an eighth note on the page? Hold that note for a half of a count of the measure. What about a 16th note? That one gets a quarter of a count. 

But how do we know if a piece is in 4/4 time? Or in ¾ time? Or in...an endless number of time signatures? Let’s discuss the basics of time signatures.

Step 3: The Basics of Time Signatures

At the beginning of any piece of sheet music, you’ll find two numbers in bold print. This indicates the time signature, or the number of beats per measure in the piece. 

4/4 time symbol
This is an example of what a 4/4 time signature would look like on a piece of sheet music

That covers the dictionary definition of a time signature. But how do they work in practice? Let’s break a few of the most common time signatures down together:

  • 4/4 time: This time signature indicates that there are four beats per bar. The bottom number tells us that each beat is a quarter note.
  • 3/4 time: In this time signature, we have three beats per bar. However, each beat is still a quarter note.
  • 6/8 time: This one is a bit unusual, but is similar to 3/4 time to many untrained ears. There are six beats per bar, with each beat being an eighth note.

We should warn you that there are a lot of strange time signatures out there. Some musicians play tunes in 13/8 or 12/4 time. And while these are important, they’re much less common in the types of music you’ll probably want to play as you’re getting started—so try not to stress about odd time signatures just yet.

Step 4: The Basics of Key Signatures in Music

At this point, you’re probably looking at a piece of music you want to play and want to know about all the # and ♭symbols you see on the page. This is a good time to discuss key signatures.

flat notes
Source: WikipediaThis is an example of a key signature that includes three flat notes.

The key signature shows musicians which sharp or flat notes they’ll need to play. A sharp note is a semitone higher than the note on the line, while a flat note is a semitone lower. If you’re learning how to read piano sheet music, let’s say you’ve mistakenly played a C when the sheet music says to play a C#. To play C#, simply play the black key directly to the right of C. To play Cb (or B), play the key to the left of C.

Like most of the sections of this guide, we’ve only scratched the surface of how to read music sheets. To dive even further into the wonderful world of how to read music, check out this Skillshare course led by Rob Price.

Dive in Deeper

Learn to Read Music

Written By

Richard Moy

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