Back to blog

How to Read Music

delphichymnSome of the oldest-known written musical notation has been dated back to around 1250 B.C.  The image to the left is some of the oldest discovered musical notation: a stone found at Delphi containing two hymns to the Roman god, Apollo.  The musical notation is the line of occasional symbols found above the uninterrupted line of Greek lettering.

Before a system of written music was developed, songs were passed down from generation to generation by ear - younger generations learned the songs by listening and performing with the older generations.  Athough the appearance and complexity of musical notation has changed and developed dramatically over the last thousand (or more) years, the purpose of musical notation remains the same - to capture musical ideas and communicate them more accurately from generation to generation.

early music notationMusic as we know it in western cultures really developed to maturity in the mid-1600s, leading to an explosion of prolific composers whose names even non-musicians still recognize today - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and more.

Ironically, in today's digital media age, many people are now learning to play and sing by listening and imitating what they see and hear.  In today's post, we'll look at some benefits of putting in the effort to learn to read music while you learn to perform.  We'll also give you a very brief overview of music reading skills and some tips to make it easier!

Why should you learn to read music?

  • Playing by ear is an important skill.  But only playing by ear is a huge weakness.  Learning new music is a MUCH slower process requiring much more repetition.  Worse, some "ear" players begin to form opinions about music based only on their experiences and personal strengths/weaknesses, preventing them from growing and developing musically as they otherwise could.
  • Talent is only 20% of what it takes.  The best musicians are dedicated, disciplined artists.  If you won't take the time to learn to read music, you're not likely to invest the time needed in other areas of performance which don't interest you.  Again, you're limiting yourself.
  • Reading music is the first skill in understanding deeper musical theory concepts.  As your playing develops, you need to have a better understanding of theory.  Jazz players can't learn to improvise over changes if they don't understand chords and if they can't read the notes in the chords.  Classical players can't fully interpret music without understanding key harmonic and formal structures of phrases and pieces.

Music Reading Basics


Unless you're a guitar player reading tab (and sorry, we're not discussing that in this article), virtually all of the music you'll encounter is written on the musical staff - 5 lines and 4 spaces:

lines and spaces

All notes are named using only seven letter names - A through G.  We call this the Musical Alphabet.  Depending on how high or low you want to play/sing, you'll need to read notes in either the Treble clef (also called the "G-clef") or the Bass clef (also called the "F-clef").  

treble clef bass clef

Can you see why they might be called the "G-clef" or the "F-clef"?  When most music was handwritten, the clefs were simply fancy versions of the letters "G" and "F" and showed us on the staff where those notes were.  Each clef circled the note it was naming.  In Treble clef, "G" is on the second line.  See how the clef circles that line?  In Bass clef, "F" is on the fourth line.  See how the clef circles that line?

As we move lower or higher in pitch, we move left or right in the alphabet.  When we run out of letters.  The pattern repeats.  Try singing "The Alphabet Song", but just using the Musical Alphabet notes repeatedly.  Now you can sing "The Musical Alphabet Song."  That's what happens when we go up the scale and reach "G."  The next note is "A" again.

What happens if we go higher or lower than the staff?  We simply add more lines and spaces and treat them as an extension of the staff.  We call these extra lines, "ledger" lines.

treble clef ledger lines bass clef ledger lines


Rhythm is what creates movement in music.  Longer and shorter note values are placed over a (typically) steady beat.  Each note value is named using a fractional name.

rhythm tree

The symbols above indicate sounds.  We also need symbols to indicate silences ("rests"):

rhythm rests

Any or all of these rhythms are placed within small units called measures (or "bars") on the staff.  We "count" the rhythms and when we've filled a measure/bar, we start over with our numbers.  For example:

quarter notes

rhythm counting

But you may be asking, how do we know how many fit in each measure?  We need one more symbol to instruct us - a "time signature."

time signature

Now we're ready to practice counting some rhythms.  Give these a shot:

counting examples

counting examples

And of course, unless you're a drummer, you'll most likely be changing notes while you count rhythms.  Try this one.  Name the notes and count the rhythms.  Then, find an instrument and learn to play it!

counting examples

And that's all there is to reading music!  Even though there are many more complicated rhythms and time signatures, even key signatures which tell you when to play flat or sharp notes, the process is the same.  Keep practicing and reading music and you'll get it!

Tips for Reading Music

  • Practice it every day!  It might not seem much easier from one day to the next, but when you look back over a month's work (or more), you'll be amazed at your progress!
  • Listen to your favorite music and figure out some of the rhythms and melodies.  Find some blank staff paper and write them out for you and your friends to play.
  • Make up your own rhythms, using the counting methods described above.  Use the speed of your feet walking as "the beat" and count the rhythms to yourself as you move!

Need more help?

Visit for more help and practice!

About to start lessons?

Click here for information about band instrument rental.

Click here for more information about orchestra instrument rental.

Click here for more information about piano rental.

Posted by Ben Fonville at 06:00