Tag Archives: how to read music

Note Reading 101 (Day Eighteen of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Yesterday you learned a bit about reading rhythms (and hopefully you’ve been practicing). Today, you’ll learn the basics of how to tell which notes are which on paper.

First, let’s start with the staff.

treble clefThe musical staff is simply five horizontal lines used to mark particular pitches on paper. Just like each letter of our alphabet stands for a certain phonetic sound, each line or space on a staff stands for a certain pitch.

Now, the thing is that you have to know which clef you are in to know which lines and spaces are which notes. The swirly symbol on the staff above is a treble clef, or the G clef. (The swirl circling the second line from the bottom marks the pitch “G.” ) The symbol on the staff below is the bass clef, or the F clef. (The second line from the top – the one between the two dots- is the pitch “F.”)

Bass_ClefWhat do I mean by G and F? Just as each phonetic sound in our language has a letter to represent it, each pitch in the musical language has a letter to represent it. The musical alphabet goes from A-G and then repeats again.

Next, let’s figure out how to put these notes on the staff. Various mnemonics have been imagined to help folks remember the names of the lines and spaces.

Here’s the note names on the treble clef:

treble clef linesspacesThe most common memory phrases for these lines and spaces are “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and, simply, the word, “FACE.”

Here’s the note names on the bass clef:

bass clef linesspacesSome favorite mnemonics for the bass clef are “All Cows Eat Grass” and “Grizzly Bears Don’t Fly Airplanes.” Clever, right?

To me, however, it seems almost simpler to think of lines and spaces in alphabetic succession. For example, we know that in the bass clef, the line between the two dots is F. So the space above the F is G. (Now remember that the musical alphabet starts over after G!) The line above G is A. The space above A is B. And so on and so forth, in alphabetical order.

This chart makes that idea a little clearer:

grandstaff2Make sense? (If it doesn’t, please let me know!)

You’re ready to start quizzing yourself now. Try the Note Identification Game and other great exercises from MusicTheory.net. If you’re doing this with kids (or you like colorful displays that play the notes), try the Note Name Game on Classics for Kids.

Next, you must learn where these notes lie on any given instrument. It can feel tedious at first, but don’t worry- with time, note reading becomes second nature.



Rhythm Reading 101 (Day Seventeen of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Perhaps you enjoyed goofing off with percussion a bit and decided that you would actually like to learn to read rhythms. If you plan to pursue music to any extent, you will eventually need to learn it, so let’s start by identifying the notes:

note-values(Thank you to Emily Clark Music for making this chart and many other music theory worksheets available for free download. I tend to only use the note value names on the left, but Emily also uses the British names, listed on the right.)

Just FYI, Emily has her eighth and sixteenth notes shown in groups of two and four, respectively, for the sake of clearly seeing how a beat is divided. It should be noted that they can come in various other groupings, or they can come alone. The stems on a note can also go up or down, depending on where it sits on the staff. The important thing to pay attention to are the “flags” or lines at the end of the stem. Eighth notes always have one flag or line, sixteenth notes have 2 flags or lines, thirty-second notes always have three, and so on.

If you have no idea what “flag” or “stem” means, here’s an eighth note all by its lonesome just waiting to demonstrate for you:


So, as we can see in Emily’s chart, when we are in 4/4 time (you will find out what that means if you continue studying!), the quarter note gets the beat. That means that the whole note gets 4 beats, the half note gets 2 beats, the quarter note gets one, the eight note gets 1/2 beat, and the sixteenth note gets 1/4 of a beat. Think math with me here and it will all make sense.

Let’s practice. Pretend you’re about to march. Count off at a steady tempo: “1, 2, 3, 4! 1, 2, 3, 4!” etc. Each of those counts is now a beat. If the quarter note gets the beat, then each of these counts is one quarter note. Try clapping quarter notes while you count (one clap with each number.)

Now try clapping half notes. Since half notes will get two beats, You will only clap when you say “1” and “3.” Here’s what this would look like:

Clap ————- Clap————-

1          2             3            4

A whole note gets 4 beats, so you will only clap on “1” and hold it for four beats, like this:


1           2              3             4

Try eight notes. Remember that an eighth note only gets half a beat, so that means that you can fit two eighth notes into every beat. (Now the “clap” is represented by “C” for space’s sake.)

C    C    C    C     C    C     C     C

1           2           3            4

And for fun, sixteenths- fitting four sixteenth notes into the space of one beat:


1            2            3           4

Want to try some more? Vic Firth has a free progressive online course in reading and playing rhythms. Once you get the basic concepts, you can try the rhythm tool at Practice Sight Reading, or you can give the free Flash player-based Rhythm Trainer a try.

Rhythms are not just for percussion- they’re for every instrument! So tomorrow, I will give you a note reading 101 course in case you want to pursue playing something else. Enjoy counting in your head all day long… 😉