How sheet music works

While sheet music can look complicated at first sight, it's easier than you think. Sheet music is pattern-based, and you can learn enough to begin reading melodies in just a few minutes.

I will only be explaining the basics here as there is a considerable amount of articles, videos, teaching software, mobile apps and other resources about how to read sheet music and a simple search 'reading sheet music' will give you a lot of results.

In the beginning you don't need to be able to sight read fluently to make use of sheet music. Due to the massive volume of music available in the format there is a good chance you can find what you want to play. Consequently there is a lot of value in simply being able to 'decode' the letters of the notes. Even doing this you're still practicing the notes on the staff. After you do so for a while you begin to know a notes letter at sight.

The basic principles

If you had to design a way of notating music graphically, how would you approach it? What you may come up with is something like a graph, where vertical position represents pitch, and horizontal position represents time:

== need a graphic here

But from this alone, you may find that it is unclear which note represents which pitch. So then you may add some lines, and assign each line to a different note:

== need a graphic here

This is essentially how sheet music works. Different vertical positions represent different notes on your instrument. Both the lines and the spaces between them are also used, as it makes the notation more compact.


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F "G" G "A" A "B" B "C" c "D" d|

Now, you may have a mental image of a 'note' from common culture, something like one of the following:


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/8
K: C
G GG G2

These symbols are often used culturally to visually represent the concept of music. The above simple circle may be confusing.

What is going on here is that notes have multiple parts:

  • Head. A note's head circles a line, and its position on the staff tells you which note to play on your instrument.
  • Stem and flags. The stem and flags are features added to the circle to represent notes of different time durations.

Here are a selection of different notes:

Music notes with the stems and flags highlighted. Grey circles with red lines extending upwards, which is called the stem

As you can see all notes have a head, but they don't all have a stem.

  • Regardless of the shape of the stem, or lack thereof, the line or space which the head 'circles' determines the note that we should play.
  • The overall shape of the note determines how long the note should be played.

Despite having different shapes, all of the following represent the same note:

Music notes placed on a treble clef staff on the G line, with the heads highlighted in red

Staff values

Sheet music represents notes using the staff, a set of 5 lines and 4 spaces. The lines are numbered from bottom to top, line 1 at the bottom and 5 at the top.

A sheet music staff, 5 horizontal lines with equal vertical spacing A treble clef, which marks that the note G is on the second line from the bottom of a 5 line music stave

Notes are defined relative to a root note, and this root note is itself defined the clef, a symbol placed at the beginning of every line of music. As a player of a melody instrument you will be using the treble clef (left). You will have seen this symbol before as it is frequently used as an ideogram for music.

The treble clef states that the note G may be found on the second line of the staff. For clarity I have highlighted it in red:

A note on the G second line of a treble clef staff, with the note and line highlighted in red

What's the circle around the line? This is a 'note.' Circling the line G tells you to play a G on your instrument. On an ocarina in C you would use the following fingering:

A diagram showing how the G note on the staff relates to the fingerings of an alto C ocarina

OK, so circling the second line tells you to play a G, but there must be more to it. After all music would be pretty boring if there was only one note. The other notes are defined relative to this point. If a note circles the space below the G line you take one step down the scale. The music now tells you to play an F.

sheet music showing a descending transition from G to F

If a note circles the bottom line, you take one more step down the scale to E. The note D hangs of the bottom of the staff, touching the bottom line.

A demonstration of the notes G, F, E, and D on a standard sheet music staff

To place C you must imagine that the staff has extra invisible lines with the same spacing. C lives on the first of these. To hint the lines existence a short strike is placed behind it, which is called a ledger line.

A demonstration of middle C on a sheet music staff

From G the same pattern may be continued upwards to F, the highest note playable on an alto C ocarina:

A demonstration of the notes G, A, B, C, D, E and F on a standard sheet music staff

To begin with you'll have to look up every one, but over time this too will become automatic. Look at the note on the page and think of it's letter. Next look at the fingering for this note letter in your fingering chart. Place your fingers as shown while looking at the staff.

You can practice reading notes using this tool, which randomly generates note positions:

How sheet music notates rhythm

===

To read rhythms, I recommend:

  • Learn different rhythms by ear, by learning how to clap them.
  • Learn how that pattern is notated by sheet music.

===

Rhythms in sheet music are notated as subdivisions of time. For example, a note with this shape:


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
C

Has a duration which is twice as long as a note with this shape:


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
C/2

And you can put them together like this:


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
C  C/2 C/2

And that sounds like this:

== Need a sound sample here.

Starting from the top of the diagram, a simple circle is called a 'whole note'. A circle with a stick is called a 'half note', and has a duration of half of a whole note. Continuing downwards, you have the quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note, each having a duration half that of the layer above.

Music notes have a recursive structure, where each successive type of note has a duration half that of the previous note type: whole note, half note, quarter note and so on
Side Note

Note that I am using the American names for note durations, as they have a direct connection to common language. Things are easier to learn when they are connected to things that you already know.

Bars and time signatures

Sheet music groups notes into bars, which are just vertical lines in the staff. Bars typically denote fixed durations of time, meaning that each bar typically contains notes adding up to the same duration.


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
C | C/2 C/2 | C/4C/4C/4C/4

The time signature tells you how many of, and which note value each bar will contain. A time signature is two numbers one above the other. The top number tells you which note value to play, and the second tells you how many of them.

For example, 4/4 means '4 quarter notes', and you'd read it 'four, four'.


X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/1
K: C
C/4C/4C/4C/4 | C | C/2 C/2 |

Some other common time signatures are:

3/4, meaning '3 quarter notes', is found in waltzes and mazurkas.


X: 3
M: 3/4
L: 1/1
K: C
C/4C/4C/4 |

6/8, meaning '6 eighth notes', is used by jigs.


X: 3
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: C
CDE CDE |

Dotted notes and ties

Adding a dot after a note extends its duration by half its length.


X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
C3C

You can also notate notes of different lengths using ties, which joins two notes together into one longer note:


X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
C2-CC

Key signatures

Sheet music is designed to notate the 7 note 'diatonic' scale, but in western music we actually have 12 notes. The difference is made up by adding sharps and flats.

Adding a sharp raises the note by one semitone:


X: 3
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: C
C ^C D

While adding a flat lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.


X: 3
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: C
D _D C

When you have a key signature, it means that all notes in that key signature are flat or sharp.


X: 3
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: F
FGAB cdef

Reading notes from relative positions

For example, the following shows two instances of a common pattern; play a note, play the note above, then play the starting note again. First from G, then again from high D. As you progress you will be able to play such patterns without caring about the named value of a higher note. You just ascend to the next note in the scale, then drop back down again.

Sheet music is essentially a 2 dimensional graph, and the positions of the notes in relation to each other form visual patterns. With a bit of experience, you can learn to read sheet music by interpreting these patterns, instead of the individual notes

Moving forward

Once you get some practice reading sheet music is actually easier than reading tabs. Instead of having to process the positions of every finger, you can discern where the melody is going by reading the shapes formed by the notes on the page.