Sheet music is one of the hardest things for aspiring musicians to master.

It’s also one of the least enjoyable aspects of learning to play an instrument for many, which can make the learning process tedious.

However, if you want to become proficient with your instrument then you have to set aside some time from riffing to learn to read music.

Whether it’s piano sheet music, sheet music for guitar, or drum sheet music, there are a series of rules in place that can help you overcome the early challenges and speed up the learning process.

And it all begins with deciphering the various notes and symbols found in music.

violin sheet music
For most instruments, sheet music is essential for learning new songs. Unsplash
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How Should you Learn Music Notes?

There are various methods for learning music notes, but before you get carried away, you need to understand the three most important notes and what purpose they serve.

So what are they?

The Staff

The staff is the first symbol you should commit to memory in your quest to learn sheet music.

It’s the canvas upon which all the other music notes sit, and it has its own characteristics depending on where the notes reside.

The structure of the staff is simple, as it’s just a series of five horizontal lines with the four spaces in between them.

Each one of the lines and spaces in between corresponds with a letter of the musical alphabet, which will indicate what note you need to play. The musical alphabet if you didn’t already know is made up of all the letter between A and G.

It’s important to remember that whenever you have to write out letters, they go in alphabetical order up the staff. So A would start at the bottom left hand corner, for example.

Clefs

The clefs refer to the register you’ll play the music on, and often indicate which instrument needs to play the notes.

There are two clefs: the bass clef and the treble clef.

While the treble clef deals with higher registers, the bass clef indicates lower registers.

So for example, instruments such as the violin and saxophone would usually be played in the treble clef, whereas instruments like the tuba and keyboard would usually be played in the bass clef.

However, some instruments can vary between both clefs, so don’t get too attached to what instruments belong to which clef.

There are a few useful mnemonics you should commit to memory to pick up the bass clef and treble clef patterns quickly:

Bass Clef: 

  • GBDFA (Good Boys Do Fine Always)
  • ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass)

The GBDFA mnemonic shows that each bass clef starts with a G note in the bottom left hand, followed by a B, and all the way up to an A on the top line of the staff. The ACEG mnemonic indicates what comes in the spaces between the GBDFA.

Treble Clef:

  •  EGBDF (Every Good Boy Does Fine)
  •  FACE

A little easier to remember this time, as you have a variation of the bass clef mnemonic in EGBDF, and then the word FACE.

Notes

music notation
Musical notes may be indecipherable at first, but soon you'll recognise them well enough. Unsplash

Ok, now that you’ve got a good idea of what the staff and clefs are, it’s time to move on to the notes.

Notes are easy to learn but hard to master, given that there can be a lot of details to pick up on regarding timing, duration, and more.

On the most basic level, the notes are what tell you which note letter you need to play and for what duration.

The note is made up of three parts: the note head, stem, and in some cases, the flag.

Note head - The note head is the most recognisable round part of the note, which can be filled in black or what is known as open,  which is when it isn’t filled.

Stem - The stem of the note, just like the stem of a flower, supports the head. You don’t need to pay too much attention to the stem, as it’s more of a visual aid to make sure the notes line up well on the sheet.

Flag - The flag, which not all notes have, is a curve coming off the end of the stem which tells you how long you need to hold the note for.

Are you still with us?

Great, now let’s briefly address note values.

In music, there are quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes.

Quarter note - The quarter note is one with a stem and a filled-in note head, which indicates that it should be played for a single beat.

Half note - The half note is one with a stem and an open or unfilled note head, which indicates two beats.

Whole note - The whole note is an open note without a stem, that’s worth four beats.

You’ll also come across beaming in musical notation, which is when several notes are connected at the top. This lets you know that each note should be played quickly.

What’s Next?

After you’ve taken the time to learn to read sheet music and understand musical notation, the next step is to listen to music and follow along.

Whenever you hear a song as a musician, you should pay attention to its meter. The meter refers to the beat or rhythm.

In musical notation, the beat is indicated with time signatures.

A time signature takes the form of a fraction, with a number above and below a line on the staff. For example, say you have 2/2, this lets you know that there are two beats for every bar and that each half note has a beat.

There’s also tempo to consider, with terms such as ‘largo’, ‘adiago’, and ‘allegro’ referring to how many beats are played per minute. This can range from as few as 50 beats per minute (BPM) or as many as 170+.

Once these concepts make sense to you, and you can hear the beat and tempo of songs perhaps while reading the sheet music as you listen, then it’s time to start playing yourself!

Should you Learn Sheet Music Alone or with a Tutor?

piano tutor
Working with a tutor is a great way to accelerate the learning process. Unsplash

Learning to read sheet music can be compared to picking up a new language.

There may be a huge learning curve in the beginning and many stumbling blocks along the way, but if you persist, you’ll be speaking music fluently in no time.

But the key question is, should you go it alone and embark on the musical journey alone or work with a tutor?

Well, if you’re new to music and have just picked up an instrument, then we strongly recommend that you hire a tutor.

Why?

Because it will drastically cut down on the number of errors you make, and help you move in the right direction consistently so that you can make progress quickly.

Music tutors can guide you from a place of experience, answering any questions you have along the way and clearing up any doubts you may have.

One way to go about it is to look for a music tutor near you on the Superprof website.

With Superprof, you can find qualified music teachers in your area, or even take online classes if you prefer. This is one of the best ways to get ahead and accelerate your progress towards music sheet reading mastery.

If you do decide to go it alone, though, then we want to provide you with some of the best resources on the web to assist you in your journey.

What are the Best Resources?

While self-teaching is a perfectly valid way to learn to read sheet music, doing so without any of the great resources out there can be very challenging.

Why not tap into all the great resources available on the internet that have been created for people such as yourself?

For example, if you want to learn piano music with letters or study piano sheet music with letters to pop songs then there are plenty of websites dedicated to just that to make piano sheet music easy.

You can also learn how to read sheet music for guitar or piano online if either one is your instrument of choice.

As we mentioned earlier, learning to read sheet music isn’t the most exciting process in the world, but there are various websites, games, and other interactive resources that can inject some entertainment into proceedings.

With more than 500,000 subscribers, the YouCanPlayIt YouTube channel has amassed a large following of music enthusiasts.

The channel has all kinds of fun piano and recorder tutorials for various levels.

  • Musicnotes.com

The Music Notes website is an educational website with thousands of different sheets of music intended to help you on your journey to master reading sheet music.

  • MusicTheoryAcademy.com

The Music Theory Academy website is an excellent resource if you want lessons on reading sheet music. The lessons range from beginner-focussed to advanced level, so there’s something for everyone.

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