Many musicians learn solely by ear and are able to go their entire career without being able to read or write music. This is comparable to fluently speaking a language without ever learning it's alphabet. While this can work, especially in popular styles, it greatly restricts the opportunities available to otherwise talented musicians. For the performer, reading music can open the door to session work in recording studios and gigs in pit orchestras for musical theatre productions, among other things. For the composer or songwriter, the ability to read and write notation allows for greater productivity and makes communicating musical ideas to other reading musicians a breeze.

There is a common misconception that reading music is an overly complex skill that is difficult to learn. In reality, musical notation is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Anyone can learn to read music with a little practice. Some musicians also believe that it restricts creativity and musical expression. While this may be true for those new to reading notation, with some practice it quickly becomes second nature and feels just as natural as playing by ear. The following is intended to serve as a quick introduction to musical notation. It covers all of the basics so that you can start reading right away. It may seem like a lot to take in at one time, but with some practice you'll have it down in no time!

Staves and Clefs

Music is written on staves, which are made up of five horizontal parallel lines:

A Musical Staff

Each line and space on the staff represents a different note (A, B, C, D, E, F, or G). They way we tell which lines and spaces represent which notes is with a clef at the beginning of each staff. The two most common clefs are the treble clef and bass clef. The treble clef contains higher notes, while the bass clef contains lower notes. High instruments and voices such as flute, trumpet, violin and guitar primarily read in the treble clef. Likewise, lower instruments such as trombone, bassoon, cello, and bass guitar read the bass clef. Instruments with very wide ranges such as piano, organ, and harp typically read both clefs in an arrangement called the grand staff. The picture below shows a grand staff with the notes that correspond to each line and space.

The Grand Staff

As you can see from the picture, the lines of the treble clef staff form the notes "e, g, b, d, f" and the spaces form "f, a, c, e." A mnemonic device to help you remember these is "elvis's guitar broke down friday" for the lines and the word "face" for the spaces. In the bass clef staff, the lines form "g, b, d, f, a" while the spaces form "a, c, e, g." Mnemonics for these are "granny boogies down fifth avenue" and "all cows eat grass." These mnemonic devices are just examples; feel free to devise your own!

The "c" above the bass clef staff and the "c" below the treble clef staff are the same note; called middle "c." Notice that this note is not on the staves but is on an added line, called a ledger line. Ledger lines are added above or below a staff to represent notes that are higher or lower than than those on the staff.

Middle "c" is the c approximately in the center of a standard 88-note piano keyboard. If you are not familiar with the keyboard layout, here are some reference points to help you find all of the notes on your instrument or within your vocal range:

  • The written middle "c" on a guitar can be found at the third fret on the low "a" string (the fifth string in standard tuning).
  • On a bass guitar, the third fret on the "a" string produces the "c" below middle "c" (the second space on the bass clef staff).
  • Wind instrumentalists should consult a fingering chart for their instrument if they are unsure about the placement of notes on the staff.
  • Vocalists should use a piano or other instrument as a reference to the find the notes within their vocal range.

That's all for Part I of the How to Read Music Info Barrel course. Before progressing to Part II, practice what you've learned in Part I by finding some sheet music and identifying the clefs and writing in the notes. You can also practice finding these notes on your instrument. Here is a review of the vocabularly from this article:

  • staff (plural staves): the groups of five lines (with four spaces) on which music is written.
  • clef: the symbol at the beginning of a staff which indicates which notes belong to which lines and spaces. The two most common are the treble clef and bass clef.
  • grand staff: the grouping of treble clef and bass clef staves into one continuous staff; used by wide-range, polyphonic instruments such as keyboards and harp.
  • middle "c:" the "c" directly inbetween the top of the bass clef and bottom of the treble clef staves; also the "c" in the middle octave of the piano.
  • ledger lines: additional lines added to extend the range of a staff.