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How To Read Music: the Very Beginning Basics

Liz has been an online writer for over nine years. Her articles often focus on music & culture of the 20th century. She also writes poetry.


Musical notation, as the written notes on a page are called, began almost as far back as written language--but not quite as far; maybe not nearly as far. But you get the drift. It dates back at least to the 10th century.

Basic music is actually fairly simple, and easily broken down into easy-to-remember memory tricks. My own background is not as a musician or music teacher; I'm but one of thousands who took piano lessons for a few years. There is a little bit more of that history in my article discussing whether or not children should be made to study music.

My position is that sometimes a person who struggled with a topic, once they finally "get it," can then explain it in simpler terms than a professional, by relating to what their own struggles were.

Keyboard with sheet music

Keyboard with sheet music

Two Staffs, or Clefs

First, we have the top set of 5 lines seen in piano music, which I will use as my starting example. A full piano score has both clefs shown, and they are connected together at the left most side by a fancy bracket ( { ) symbol.

The top set is called variously the Treble Clef or the G Clef, and represents the notes in the upper register. The indicator symbol that tells you this is always to the far left on the staff, and looks like a fancy ampersand (that's the "&" sign), except that the central line is more vertical instead of sharply slanted. It's internal curlicue ends by wrapping itself around the line that represents the note "G," hence, the "G" clef.

Treble, or "G" Clef


Naming the Treble Clef Notes

Maybe you are already familiar with the notes on the staff, through some other means. Maybe you've been shown on an instrument, and know their names, but have not been introduced to their printed counterparts. No worries.

The musical notes all occupy either a line, or a space between the lines.

Each line and each space stands for a different note. Most of the time, you will learn them separately, with memory tricks to help you remember . These are common, fun tricks.

For the spaces only, on the treble clef, we have: F, A, C, E. I'm sure a quick glance at those letters will show you a word that they spell: Face! That's how you remember the treble clef spaces.

Now for the lines. When I was a kid, the usual memory trick (mnemonic) for the lines, E, G, B, D, F, was, "Every Good Boy Does Fine." However, there is also a memory device for the treble clef that mentions girls.

When my youngest daughter was in the San Francisco Girls' Chorus, the girls decided that there needed to be something for them, so they changed that memory trick to, "Every Girl Born Deserves Fudge."

Right away, you have probably noticed that there is a repetition of notes between the lines and spaces, namely the "E" and the "F." This is inevitable, given that there are 4 spaces and 5 lines, making 9 total slots to hold notes.

Since the musical alphabet stops at "G" and starts over again, as noted in the introduction, this will happen many times.

Bass, or "F" Clef


Naming the Bass Clef Notes

Just as with the treble clef, there are mnemonics to help you out.

The spaces, then, are, A, C, E, G, which is easily remembered by the silly saying, "All Cows Eat Grass."

The lines are, G, B, D, F, A, which can stand for "Good Boys Do Fine Always," or, you can go ahead and share your fudge with the boys, and say, "Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always."

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You can even make up your own goofy saying, perhaps something like, "Grizzly Bears Don't Fear Alligators."

Personally, I prefer any version that is very different from the one used for the treble clef; it's less likely to be confusing. So, my advice is, choose whichever memory trick you like, but use an alternate one for the other clef.

Put Them Both Together and You Get the Grand Staff

Both Clefs together are called the Grand Staff, as in traditional piano music we've all seen.

Both Clefs together are called the Grand Staff, as in traditional piano music we've all seen.

Notes Above, Below and In-Between

Begin in the middle! That floating note in the middle is, "Middle C!" You'll notice that it is shown with a piece of a line horizontally through its center.

That "floating 'C' " is sitting on what we call a "leger line." That is, an piece of a line added to indicate notes above or below the normal range of the printed staff. This is the easy leger line. They can also be appended to either or both the tops and bottoms of either or both clefs.

Leger lines were my nemesis. To this day, I struggle to read them on sight, and often must "finger-count" up (or down) to see which note is being indicated. I suppose this is the musical equivalent of bringing along a sack of beans to the store in order to figure out how to count your change!

That said, there is really nothing complicated--you simply read them as more lines and spaces, repeating the musical alphabet in sequence from where the fixed staff leaves off.

(As an aside, I tend to think that my problem with them may be related to the fact that I have astigmatism, and lines want to blend together when I look at them, especially if they are all mixed up with big black dots--the notes! Even old-fashioned floors done in those tiny, octagonal tiles seen in some older public buildings tend to make me feel off-kilter, as they appear to "move.")

The other thing that can make leger lines confusing, is that the notes take turns being spaces or lines. For example, if you look at the "A" within the treble clef staff, it is a note occupying a space. However, when you run out of staff at the top, and start over, the note sitting right on top of the staff is a space, and that is "G," followed by "A," which is now a line.

So, while it is useful to remember the spaces and lines within the staff using the memory tricks, don't get hung up on the idea that those notes will always use the same type of position. Sometimes they will sit on lines, and at other times be in a space. The main point is, they repeat over and over in the same sequence.

When You Run Out of Room, Just Add More Lines

Leger lines extend the tonal range of the piece of music

Leger lines extend the tonal range of the piece of music

Leger Lines Need Not Be Confusing

As shown in the illustration above, the leger lines do continue to follow the same A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D...pattern.

Also, to avoid having the musician avoid going cross eyed, the leger lines are each very short, barely more than the width of the actual note being indicated. There is no need to draw the line the entire width of the staff; that would defeat the purpose of its basic simplicity.

The function of the leger lines, as you must have figured out by now, is to change the pitch range of the music being played beyond the capacity of the basic grand staff. They can go either up or down, (or both) accordingly. And, just as it appears, up is up (higher tone), and down is down (lower tone).

A Count of Eight

With the 7 notes, starting from any one of them, and playing up through all the named notes between, and ending on the next note of the same name were you started, thus:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A,

you have played 8 notes, or an octave. Octave comes from the Middle English via Old French, and from there back to Latin, "octo" meaning 8. You've heard of "Octo-mom," in the news, right? Then there are the octopus and the octogon--the shape of our "STOP" signs on the roads.

All of this is easiest to visualize and understand on the piano, or an electronic keyboard. Don't have one? No problem. You can download and print out a paper version to practice with.

There, now, you've mastered the beginning basics! That wasn't too painful, was it?

© 2012 Liz Elias


Mrs L A Gibb on March 04, 2012:

No, It is I to thank you, this will be of big help to me.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 03, 2012:

Hello, mrslagibb,

Ah, yes, the things of youth now lost to age. I'm very glad you found the article useful to your musical pursuits. Thank you so very much for the high praise and the vote!

Mrs L A Gibb on March 03, 2012:

At school, when we all could sing, I was the leader of the gang, lol. Now that voice seems to have gone, due to not keeping up with it. As music does run within the family, I took to playing the keyboard myself a few years back, I knew I had to start right from the beginning to get the hang of reading music, so I aquired childrens books to learn and study, I must say, I was doing a pretty good job too; Til a health reason took over.

Your Hub is teeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiifffffffffiiiiiiiicccccccc,this will certainly help me. Thank you. Voted up

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 19, 2012:

Hello, peoplepower73--

Thank you very much indeed for the nice compliment. I'm most pleased that you found the article useful. Best of luck with your re-introduction to the trumpet.

Mike Russo from Placentia California on February 19, 2012:

I played the trumpet when I was in grammar school, many,many years ago. But I'm trying to teach myself all over again. I loved the memory tricks. I could never get that straight, but now I can. Thank you for this hub. I love your writing style. It's like constructing a building brick-by-brick.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 18, 2012:

Hello, watergeek--

Yes, I do appreciate that I can at least read music, and figure out the melody at least, for myself, even if the music is beyond me technically.

Opening up your soprano, eh? Me, I belong in the tenor section. LOL ... My youngest, to whom I refer in the article, was in the San Francisco Girls' Chorus for a few years. One of the other girls in her group had a pin-on button that read, "Never argue with a soprano!" I thought it was hilarious, but was never able to find one for my kiddo.

Anyway..more than you wanted to know, I'm sure...thanks very much for your kind comments and sharing your experiences. Best wishes.

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on February 18, 2012:

My father taught us how to read music when we were young. When I was in high school I taught piano lessons for a short while, and one of my greatest gifts to my students was to teach them to read music. It enabled them to play at home by themselves, even if they never took lessons again.

Recently I started singing in a choir. The director gives us music to learn Thursday night, which we sing the following Sunday. I have become really good at sight reading, and just like albertsj said, it's like reading another language. Suddenly I feel quite accomplished (even though I'm still opening up my soprano voice). And it's fun. Good job on the hub, DzyMsLizzy. It was interesting and funny. Also, I loved the notations!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 18, 2012:

Hello, albertsj--

Thanks for noticing that. You are correct, language is not the angle from which I was writing, but yes, correct again, music is, indeed a language of its own, and it is more universal than any other language because anyone can hear and enjoy it, with no translation required. (That is, the music itself--the same cannot be said for lyrics, of course.)

I'm delighted that you so enjoyed the article, and I thank you for the votes!

jacy albertson from Sanford, fl on February 18, 2012:

This was interesting to me, but not because I'm a musician, or even asn aspiring one. You just made me so much more aware of the fact that it is a language. A very powerful language. I probably love music, as much as the next person, but, what I've gootten from what you've written will now actually bring on a whole new dimension to it for me. I know, that wasn't the intension of this hub, but you've definitely made me think (oh that can be painful at times. Lol) in a good way. Great hub, and some good mnemonic devices! Voted up useful & interesting

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