How to Read Music
Learning to read music is an important aspect of learning to play the piano. Below is written by Anthony and Hala Awtrey to help you read music.
Learning to read the notated language of music is not really any harder than learning any other technical jargon and skills. It has unique challenges, but there have been times in history when most educated people could understand and perform the popular music of the day. As long as we continue to teach the basics of reading music, we will never loose our musical heritage again.
Notation describes the various definable aspects that make up modern music. The following list summarizes those general aspects.
Pitch - the primary frequency of a note
Duration - the length of time a note is held
Dynamics - the degree of loudness of a note
Rhythm - the relative time between adjacent notes
Tempo - the speed at which notes are performed
Timbre - the quality of a note determined by its overtones
All sounds are vibrations of air. A pitch is the base frequency the vibration of a note occurs. The human ear and brain have the ability to hear the frequency of pitches and classify them based upon their relationships. For example, in the United States, the tuning for the note 'A4' or 'concert pitch' is 440 Hertz (Hz) or pulses per second. When we hear an 'A5' at 880 Hertz we percieve that note as the same as the 'A4' only higher. This relationship of doubled frequencies is called an octave, meaning 8 notes. In music we refer to these 8 notes using the first 8 letters of the English alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and then A again for the octave note.
Music notation uses symbols to represent the various audible components that make up a song. Since music takes place over a period of time, music is intended to be read like a book.
The staff is the basic structure of music. It is composed of five parallel lines. The pitch is notated from top to bottom where higher notes are on top and is read over time from left to right. It is divided by bar lines that define measures in the music. The end of a piece of music is marked by a double bar line.
A single staff does not provide enough space to express the full range of human hearing, so a clef symbol is usually present at the beginning of a staff to indicate what part of the scale the staff is intended to cover.
Treble Clef - This is a form of the G-clef where the note G4 is encircled by the curl of the clef.
Alto Clef - This is a form of the C-clef where middle C passes through the center of the clef.
Tenor Clef - This is also a form of the C-clef where middle C passes through the center of the clef. Note that the clef is aligned on a different line than the alto clef.
Tenor Clef - This is the same G-clef as the soprano, but the little "8" on the bottom means the notes in this staff are one octave lower than normal.
Bass Clef - The bass clef is a form of F-clef where the two dots mark the F on the staff.
The treble and bass clef staves can be combined to form what is called a grand staff, pictured above. Note the bar lines are joined together and there is a brace on the left side.
Time signatures define how many beats there are in each measure marked by bar lines and the value of the note to get one beat.
In a four-four staff, each measure has four beats and the quarter note gets one beat.
In a six-eight staff, each measure has six beats and the eighth note gets one beat.
Six-eight time is often counted in two pulses of three beats each. Three-four time is usually felt in one pulse of three beats each.
Notes and rests
Whole notes and rests
Half notes and rests
Quarter notes and rests
Eighth notes and rests
Sixteenth notes and rests
Thirtysecond notes and rests
Dotted whole note
Dotted half note
Dotted quarter note
Dotted eighth note
Marking Italian English
Fortississimo Extremely loud
Fortissimo Very loud
Mezzo-forte Moderately loud
Mezzo-piano Moderately soft
Pianissimo Very soft
Pianississimo Extremely soft
Italian Term Abbrev. Definition
crescendo cresc. gradually become louder
diminuendo / diminish dim. gradually become softer
Italian Term Abbrev. Definition
Accelerando accel. accelerate
ritard rit. slowing down
stringendo string. accelerate and become louder
rallentando rall. “winding down”
A Tempo return to tempo or at the tempo
Mosso / moto motion
Basic Italian indications
Italian Term Definition
poco a poco little by little (eg. cresc. poco a poco)
molto much, very (eg., molto rit = slow down a lot)
con with (con motto =with motion)
più more (più mosso = more motion)
meno less (meno piano = less soft)
morendo fading away / dying away
primo prime/original (primo tempo = at the original tempo)
Key Signature Major Key Minor Key
No sharps or flats
C major a minor
Key Signature Major Key Minor Key Key Signature Major Key Minor Key
1 sharp G major E minor
1 flat F major D minor
2 sharps D major B minor
2 flats B♭ major G minor
3 sharps A major F♯ minor
3 flats E♭ major C minor
4 sharps E major C♯ minor
4 flats A♭ major F minor
5 sharps B major G♯ minor
5 flats D♭ major B♭ minor
6 sharps F♯ major D♯ minor
6 flats G♭ major E♭ minor
7 sharps C♯ major A♯ minor
7 flats C♭ major A♭ minor