Learn how to read music, sheet music and music notes so you can instantly sing or play a tune. It’ll put you ahead at auditions and make rehearsals smooth. It’ll enable you to compose your own unique melodies, follow harmonies and understand song structure.
Don’t get left behind in this competitive industry. Read our guide on becoming proficient with the basic technicalities of music.
How to read music, sheet music and music notes
It’s never been easier to learn skills at home by yourself, and DIY on coaching. YouTube, PDF guides, apps and podcasts have made self-development a cinch in all areas of life. And this includes music. Musicians have always been good at learning by themselves though. So many renowned artists are self-taught on the guitar, piano, drums and for singing. Without lessons, they learned to play ‘by ear’, picking up the notes, chords and harmonies required by listening to others and experimenting.
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters only ever took one drum lesson. He taught himself percussion by playing punk rock and then picked up the guitar using his basic drum knowledge. This unusual approach created some equally unusual riffs that became a signature for his world-famous band.
Is it hard to learn to read music?
So is it hard to learn music and should you even try? Is it better to learn by ear? Well, the answer to this depends on how you’re wired as an individual. For some learning by ear is actually much harder than learning the music formation and notation. And this is down to your brain. You may have heard people speak of ‘left brain’ and ‘right-brain’ people. You’ll fall into one category or another, based on which side you predominantly use (a bit like being left or right-handed). Those with a stronger left brain tend toward being good at reading and learning music. Whereas right-brained people will usually find it easier to pick up songs by ear.
This, of course, has a major impact on whether it’s hard to learn to read music. If you have a talent for maths, you’ll likely be better at it too. But anyone can learn to read music. It’ll just take some time, effort and patience.
How to read music notes for beginners
Let’s take a look at the terminology specific to reading music, as we’ll be referring to these technical terms throughout the article.
The manuscript is the sheet on which the music is printed. It will contain the symbols described in this section.
The Staff is a set of five lines and four spaces on which the notes are written.
The Treble Clef is the top staff in a piece of sheet music.
The Bar line indicates measures of time. Music is broken down into bars. A double line shows a change of time signature or the end of a section. A bold double bar line shows the end of the piece.
The Time Signature is shown as two numbers on the staff, one above the other. This may be something like three/four time or four/four time.
There are also some Italian words you may find on the page. Adagio means slowly, Andante means at ‘walking’ pace, Allegro means fast, Pianissimo means softly, Fortissimo means loudly and Crescendo means building in volume. More words are used in general music theory, but these are the most common ones to be found on sheet music.
Sheet music symbols
There are symbols that appear on the staff. How high or low they appear indicates the pitch. Even if you can’t read music, you can get a rough idea of where a song is going, by looking at the way they go up and down on the staff. The symbols themselves represent the timings of the note (how long or short they might be) and have their own names. The most common of these are:
Breve – a double whole note
Semibreve – a whole note
Minim – a half note
Crotchet – a quarter note
Quaver – an eighth note
Semiquaver – a sixteenth note
Demisemiquaver – a thirty-second note
There may also be a symbol beside the note.
Flat – looks like a lowercase b and lowers the pitch of a note by a semitone.
Sharp – looks like a # and raises the pitch of a note by a semitone. Any note that is not flat or a sharp is ‘natural’.
Rest – indicates a period of silence, with additional information for how many beats that silence should be.
Music notes names
As well as having a name to refer to the length of the note, each note will also be named by its pitch. The musical alphabet is made up of seven notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, and any of these can be made sharp or flat, to add more variation and depth to the sound.
There’s a commonly used and easy way to remember the note names on the staff using one word and a simple sentence. Running from the bottom line to the top line, the bulbous part (or head) of the notes that sit on the line itself are E, G, B, D, and F. This is remembered with the phrase: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Meanwhile, the notes that sit on the spaces between the lines spell out the word FACE – F, A, C, and E.
How to read music notes for singing
Perhaps the most famous example of learning the notes for singing comes from the legendary film The Sound of Music. Maria, the lead character in the movie, teaches the children to sing, by using – a song. While it’s an oldie and somewhat of a cliche now, it’s still a useful way to begin as a singer. In the video, the alphabetical note names C, D, E, F, G, A and B, are substituted for Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti.
Among musicians, musical notes are often referred to as ‘the dots’. Take a copy of the sheet music if you’re asked to bring your dots to an audition. This is common in musical theatre and cabaret. Sheet music is usually required because it’ll be played for you by a pianist.
How do you read sheet music?
The tricky part is putting it all together and at the speed of a song. You’ll need to recognise the note’s pitch and duration, as well as making a mental note of the time signature, bars and any extra symbols such as rests, flats and sharps. If you play the piano, you’ll need to follow both the treble clef (played with the right hand) and the bass clef (played with the left hand) at the same time. Once you’ve spent a lot of time looking at and reading sheet music, you’ll get faster and faster at this. It takes time to soak up what’s effectively a new language. Take it really slowly at fast. If you’re struggling with picking up the basics, take a look at this guide.
How to read sheet music for guitar
Guitar music is a little different in that it’s notated in its own way, contrary to standard sheet music. You’ll hear people refer to the tabs. A guitar tab – or tablature – is a way of writing music specific to this instrument. It shows the chord progressions on a kind of chart. This provides more of the information you need without anything that would be surplus for a stringed instrument. You can still play the guitar from sheet music and if you play as part of a group, it might be better to follow a manuscript so you can see what everyone else is supposed to be doing too. However, if you just plan on playing the guitar alone, learning the tabs might be better for you and faster than learning full sheet music.