How to Read Music Notes for Beginners

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Learning how to read music is a skill that can be acquired at almost any age. While advanced music can be quite complex, it is built upon a foundation of simple principles. Knowing the basics of note reading and rhythmic notation will unlock limitless musical possibilities. With practice, reading music can become as comfortable as reading words.

Things You'll Need

  • Music flashcards
  • Become familiar with the different types of notes. The three most basic are a quarter note, half note and whole note. A quarter note looks like a filled-in oblong circle with a stem going either up or down. A half note is an open circle with a stem going up or down. A whole note is an open circle with no stem. The type of note determines the rhythm of the music. Generally, a quarter note gets one beat, a half note gets two beats and a whole note gets four beats. Each type of note has a corresponding type of rest, which indicates silence for the same amount of time.

  • Use flashcards to practice simple rhythm exercises. Count out loud and tap your leg when each note begins. The time signature, found at the beginning of a piece of music, tells you the number of beats in each measure. A measure is the space between two vertical lines, called bar lines. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number designates the type of note that gets one count. If the time signature is 4/4, the counting would be repeated as 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4.

  • Find some music for the type of instrument you are learning to play. You will notice that music is written on five horizontal lines called a staff. If you are using music for an instrument such as a violin or trumpet, the notes will be written on a single staff. For piano, two staffs connect and are called a grand staff. At the beginning of the staff, there is a clef sign, which determines what the lines and spaces of the staff mean. The two most common clefs are treble, or G clef, and bass, or F clef.

  • Notice how the notes are written on the staff. Notes are either on a line, with the line intersecting the center of the note circle, or in a space, with the note circle between the lines. Notes just below and above the staff are considered space notes. Small horizontal lines, called ledger lines, may be added above or below the staff to create additional lines and spaces for notes that are higher or lower than the staff.

  • Learn how the music alphabet works. It comprises eight letters that are assigned a certain pitch--A, B, C, D, E, F and G. After G, the notes begin repeating an octave higher at A again. Notes are not called by any other letters.

  • Understand how the staff relates to the alphabet. Each line or space is assigned a letter. Going up the scale, the notes follow a line-space-line-space pattern. For example, in treble clef, the lowest line is E, then F in the space, G on the next line, A in the next space and so on.

    There are several memory tricks to help music students remember the lines and spaces. For treble clef, the lines beginning at the bottom are E, G, B, D, F, or Every Good Boy Does Fine. The spaces are F, A, C, E, which spells the word "face." For bass clef, the lines beginning at the bottom are G, B, D, F, A, or Good Boys Do Fine Always. The spaces are A, C, E, G, or All Cows Eat Grass. Use flash cards with single notes on a staff to practice recognizing the notes. Begin with just lines or just spaces and gradually combine them until you can remember all of the notes on the staff. Then add notes that are one and two ledger lines above and below the staff.

  • Check your time signature and count through the rhythm of the song first when approaching a new piece of music. Visually check the notes to make sure they are all in a range you recognize. Once you have familiarized yourself with the music mentally, try reading through it with the instrument.

Tips & Warnings

  • Enroll in music lessons for your instrument of choice. A teacher will be able to instruct you in the details of technique and fingering for each note.
  • Being comfortable with reading music takes time. Use flashcard drills and practice reading simple music often to improve your skills.
  • Writing music can be one of the best ways to solidify concepts. Obtain some staff paper and practice drawing notes in the correct places.

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  • Photo Credit Fountain pen on music sheet image by Paul Hill from Fotolia.com
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