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A beginner's guide to reading music - Downingtown Music Academy Skip to content

A beginner's guide to reading music

 Learning to read sheet music is important for opening opportunities to you as a musician and developing fluency on your instrument. It can be a fairly intimidating task when you’ve never done it before. Here’s some key points to help you along the way.

Understanding the Staff

The first thing that we need to know is how to read the staff. The staff consists of five lines and four spaces and it’s a musical map of sorts. Each line and space receives a letter name. The notes that are higher on the staff are higher to our ears, and the notes that are lower on the staff are lower to our ears. Clefs tell us what the letter name of each line and Space will be.

- **Treble Clef (G Clef)**: we use the treble clef for higher sounding instruments like the flute and violin.

- **Bass Clef (F Clef)**: we use the bass clef for lower sounding instruments like the cello

Why are the notes in different places on the staff?

In the treble clef, the note names are as follows:

- Lines: E, G, B, D, F (Remember with “Every Good Boy Does Fine)

- Spaces: F, A, C, E (Remember with “FACE”)

In the bass clef notes are organized this way:

- Lines: G, B, D, F, A (Remember with “Great Big Dragons Fly Away”)

- Spaces: A, C, E, G (Remember with “All Cows Eat Grass”)

No matter the clef, the notes are organized from the bottom line or space to the top. Each letter corresponds with a different finger placement on the instrument.

Why are the notes different shapes?

Now that we’ve learned how the staff tells us where to put our hands, we need to answer the question: “how do we know how long to hold a note?”

- **Whole Note**: A circle with no line. We hold this note for four beats

- **Half Note**: an unshaded circle with a line lasting two beats.

- **Quarter Note**: A shaded oval with a line, lasts one beat.


Sometimes we need to pause in music. We do this with a rest.

- Whole Rest: A rectangle hanging from a line, lasts four beats.

- Half Rest: A rectangle sitting on a line, lasts two beats.

- Quarter Rest: Shaped like a lightening bolt, lasting one beat.


We will revisit this topic next time. Remember, learning to read music takes time and patience.  Don't worry if its not natural at first.  With practice, it will come!