The Ultimate Guide to Reading Sheet Music

Put simply, sheet music is an instruction book. Much like a recipe tells a cook how to recreate a certain dish, sheet music is a series of instructions that tells a musician how to recreate a certain song. But learning to read sheet music can be confusing. There is a lot there printed on the page, and knowing what’s what can feel like drinking out of a firehose. Don’t worry, in this article we’re going to cover the ins and outs of sheet music notation and how it helps you play the songs you love.

Starting With the Basics: Title and Composer

Just like the title page of a book, sheet music will have its own section for the title and composer of the song. This will help you especially if you’re looking for a certain song (for example: it would stink to be looking for “All of Me” by Jon Schmidt and get “All of Me” by John Legend, because the composer name wasn’t printed at the top of the music).

The Staff

The staff (also referred to as a “stave” in the UK) is a set of five black lines and four white spaces that acts as the foundation for musical notation. Each line and space corresponds to one of the notes on the piano. These notes vary depending on the “clef” which marks the staff (we’ll talk more about that later).

Bar Lines

Bar lines are lines which are placed at intervals perpendicular to the staff lines. These divide measures, which will help you keep time and play the song at a pleasing pace (specified by the time signatures, which we’ll explain later on). These can be divided into three different types:

  • Single: This is by far the most common, dividing the measures.
  • Double: These are two vertical lines running parallel to each other, and signify the end of one part of a piece and the beginning of another.
  • Bold Double: These are two parallel vertical lines, the second of which is in bold, and marks the end of an entire musical piece or movement.

The Brace

The curving line hugging around the beginning of two staffs (with different clefs) is called a “brace.” This notation tells you when two staffs are meant to be played at the same time. Like reading a book, piano sheet music is meant to be read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. But unlike reading a book, there are cases where sheet music requires you to “read” two lines at a time. Braces help you know when that is necessary. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, with some practice, it will become easier and easier.

Ledger Lines

There are some cases where a note will be higher or lower than the normal staff lines. In that case, you find what are called “ledger lines.” These are short lines that mark the stem of a music note. Put simply, ledger lines are like “additions” above or below a staff which will specify the notes featured.

The Clefs

Without clefs, it would be difficult to know whether or not you were playing the right note in the right key. Each staff features a clef mark which tells you which note each following mark is referencing.

Piano music is unique in that it utilizes what is called a “grand staff.” What this means is that you have the treble clef and the bass clef, both being played in tandem. Middle C (which is one of the first things you’ll always be taught in piano) is located exactly 1 ledger line below treble clef and 1 above the bass clef.

Treble

The treble clef, sometimes called the “G Clef” because of its decorative take on a fancy letter G, is often played by the right hand. It is shaped like a G because the placement of its inner curve surrounds the line where the note G (resting above middle C) is located.

Base

The bass clef is often called the F clef, as its two dots surround the line where F is located, below middle C. This clef is normally played by the left hand.

Time Signatures: The MPH of the Music World

Time signatures tell you how many beats are in each measure of music. It is closely tied to tempo, the speed at which a song is played. Combined, you get rhythm, that heartbeat of music that sometimes you hear and sometimes you feel (and often you experience both).

The time signature is always located at the beginning of the staff and will look like two numbers stacked on top of each other. Together with the tempo, they will tell you how long each measure is and how the measures themselves are divided.

The most common signatures are:

  • 4/4. Often marked with a C, for “common time,” you’ll most likely see this one the most, especially as a beginner. It means simply that there will be 4 beats per measure with each beat measuring the length of a quarter note.
  • ¾: This signature is always used with waltzes (regardless of whether it is intended for dancing or not). That’s why when dancing, you hear people counting, “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.”
  • 6/8. This signature indicates 6 beats per measure and that each beat will have the duration of an 8th note.

Key Signatures Explained

If you felt like learning scales at piano lessons was a headache, fear not! It’s about to all be worth it.

On some pieces of music, before the time signatures, you’ll see a little clump of sharps and flats (which look like pound signs or hashtags and little “b”s respectively). These are called key signatures and will tell you what – you guessed it – key the song is going to be played in.

In other words, you’ll be told in advance what notes will always be played as either sharp or flat, rather than having every one of those notes require the little symbol. Think of it as like the “caps lock” of piano, but only for certain notes.

So those scales that you had to run through over and over again? They in fact were preparing you for those key signatures! You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty awesome!

Tempo Marks

Ever wonder why so many pieces of sheet music have Italian words on the top? Say hello to tempo marks.

While they might not seem that important (after all, if they were, they’d write them in English, right?), they in fact play a major role in the overall sound of the song. Sometimes, they actually are written in English, other times in French, and sometimes in German.

Some common Italian tempo marks include:

  • Larghissimo. “Very, very slow.” This is used for songs 20 BPM or slower.
  • Lento. “Slowly.” This can range anywhere from 40-60 BPM.
  • Adagio. “At ease.” Anywhere from 66-76 BPM.
  • Adante. “At a walking pace.” 72-76 BPM.
  • Moderato. “Moderately.” 108-120 BPM.
  • Allegro. “Fast or bright.” 120-156 BPM.
  • Presto. “Very, very fast.” 168-200 BPM.
  • Prestissimo. “Faster than presto.” 200 BPM or faster.

Sometimes they take on other forms as well, including showing actual numbers (BPM, beats per minute) which are useful if you have a metronome. Sometimes they will simply give you a reference, “Light and airy,” “Creepy and sinister,” “Strong.” There’s a lot of feeling that goes into the tempo. It’s a way to let the music move through you.

The Notes

Notes are the building blocks of music. Those little marks tell you what to play and in which order to play it. The staff tells you which notes, the clefs tell you which side, the time signatures and tempo marks tell you what speed, and the key signatures tell you what key. But the notes are the steps to making a beautiful piece of music.

Parts of a Music Note

Notes themselves are made up of different parts, which can have an affect on how the note is played.

  • Notehead. This is the full belly of a note, the little round part at the bottom that rests on the lines or in the spaces of the staff.
  • Stem. The stem is that little antenna that sticks up from the notehead. They can either be pointing upwards or downwards, but it doesn’t have an overall effect on how the note will be played.
  • Flag. The flag marks eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes, differentiating them and letting you know that they are meant to be played more quickly. When more than one flagged note is used in tandem, they are generally grouped together, which requires a beam.
  • Beam. The beam is used when flagged notes (eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth), are next to one another, in an effort to save space.

Types of Notes

  • Whole Note: This note has no stem, and the notehead is hollow, which means it will be held for the whole of a four beat measure.
  • Half Note: This note looks like a whole note, but has a stem, which means it will be held for half of a four beat measure.
  • Quarter Note: This note has a full notehead and a stem, but no flag, which means it is held for a fourth of a four beat measure.
  • Eighth Note: This note has a full notehead, stem, and a single flag on top, meaning it will be held for an eighth of a four beat measure.
  • Sixteenth Note: This note has a full notehead, stem, and two flags on top, which means it is held for 1/16th of a four beat measure.

Accidental Notes

Don’t worry, these notes are no accident. Instead, these are the ones where you’ll play a certain accent (one of the black keys). There are three main kinds of accidental notes:

  • Sharps: These notes are marked by a symbol that looks like a pound sign or a hashtag. This means you’ll play the black key above the referenced note.
  • Flats: These notes are marked by a symbol that looks like a lowercase “b”. This means you’ll play the black key below the referenced note.
  • Naturals: These symbols you’ll only see when playing a song with a key signature. What it means is that a note that is normally played as sharp or a flat, won’t be in that specific case.

Ogden Piano Gallery is Your One-Stop-Shop for Sheet Music

Ogden Piano Gallery offers a huge selection of sheet music for you to choose from. Whether it be classical, epic cinematic scores or modern pop – we have something that will suit your taste! If there is something specific in mind then feel free contact us at (801) 779-9700 and we can get it ordered and delivered within a few days’ time.

Our full-time sheet music experts bring years of musical experience to the table in order to help you find the songs you love.

But we don’t stop there – we also have a selection for newcomers to the piano world, so that you can get off to a great start learning the basics and foundations.

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