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  • Table of Contents

    Introduction 1

    Clefs, the Grand Staff, and Measures 4

    Notes and Time Values 9

    Silence is… Important! 19

    Time Signatures 22

    Advanced Rhythmic Concepts 34

    Placing Notes on the Staff 39

    Fingering 55

    Sharp, Flat, and Natural Symbols 61

    Keys and Key Signatures 69

    Scales 73

    Chords, Cadences, and Arpeggios 79

    Expression Marks 90

  • 1

    Congratulations on making the effort to read and understand music! The process of learning what all of the dots, lines, and other funny symbols are is really like learning another language in some ways. However, music is a universal language in more ways than one. Music transcends the spoken word and has the potential to connect with any person, regardless of their background or nationality. But, unlike the spoken word, it has the advantage of being standardized—notation, theory, and rhythm are used in the same way by musicians all over the world. Notation as we know it today became more standardized by Europeans during the 14th–16th centuries.1 What this means for us today is that you don’t have to learn the language of “English” or “Spanish” music. A Chinese musician can read music written by a Scandinavian composer from 200 years ago, a student in America can play the music of Russian masters, and a French musician can travel all over the world and build a bond with audiences through the emotional expression of his music. And you have the potential for both playing and writing music that can be appreciated by people—everywhere.

    1 Harvard Dictionary of Music, Willi Apel


  • 2

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Although music may seem to be a daunting puzzle at the outset, what I will show you in the following pages will serve as a key to unlock the basic and foundational elements of what we call music. Starting from the ground up, we’ll work through clefs and the grand staff, our musical alphabet, what the difference is between notes with lines poking out of them and those that are joined in sets of two’s and three’s, and what it means when you see a tic-tac-toe symbol sitting in front of a note.

    Generally, people learn music in one of two ways: aurally (by ear) or visually (reading music). While every person usually learns easier through one or the other of these styles, it is preferable to be able to combine both. Explaining how to train your “ear” for music is beyond the scope of this book, but the essentials of reading music are covered in great detail.

    The principles of rhythm are necessary to grasp, for people of both learning styles. A sense of rhythm seems to be inborn for some people, while others struggle with understanding and hearing rhythmic values. Whether it comes naturally or takes a lot of concentration, cementing your understanding of rhythm is well worth the effort. The chapters on this topic contain many of the methods I’ve used in my years of teaching my students—from beginners to adults. Hopefully, the combination of text along with pictures of what’s being explained will provide you with a clear description of what rhythm means in music.

    The later chapters explain the principles of tonality and “keys” in music. Learning what the black notes on a piano mean are based

  • 3

    Introduction 1

    in this subject. Different keys—with their special sharps and flats—have patterns that are consistent, but each one of them uses slightly different notes which make each key sound a little bit different than any other. For some people, putting colors with each key gives them a better idea of what this concept means.

    Lastly, you’re introduced to the marks that give music “expression.” This is the difference between the sounds a computer makes and the music you make. As a human being, you have more control over the sounds you create—subtle differences between loud and soft sounds are one of the things a machine can’t do, but a musician can.

    Because of the general nature of this book, references will mostly be made to the keyboard when speaking of the placement of notes. This will provide another visual dimension.

    I hope this book serves as an enjoyable start to your journey into the world of music!

  • Treble Clef

    Bass ClefAlto Clef


    Chap t e r 1

    Clefs, the Grand Staff, and Measures

    If you look at a line of music, you will notice that notes are written on clefs. Except for a few instruments, the treble and bass clefs are the most common clefs that you will come across. The symbols below are labeled with the name of each.

    The StaffWhen music was first written on a staff, there was no differentiation

    between the treble and bass clefs. Dividing the staff into two separate clefs was a helpful development as more complex notation was invented.

  • a Staff

    Bass Staff

    Treble Staff

    Alto Staff


    Clefs, the Grand Staff, and Measures

    Music for string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments are written on a single staff (whether it’s treble, bass, or alto depends on the range of each instrument). Music for keyboard instruments—such as the piano and organ—will usually be written on the grand staff.

    The picture below is of the grand staff as we know it today; it is a set of treble and bass clef staffs, joined by a brace. The treble and bass symbols are placed at the beginning of each line of music.

  • Bar Lines



    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    If you’re sitting at a piano or keyboard, your right hand will usually play notes written on the treble staff and your left hand will usually play the notes written on the bass staff.

    Bar Lines and MeasuresBar lines divide the staff into what are called measures. The

    importance of bar lines will become more apparent when we begin talking about rhythm, but for the time being, it’s important to recognize what bar lines and measures are and their basic function.

    Bar lines are thin, vertical lines that sit across both clefs but do not extend beyond each clef. You may find a set of thin bar lines that indicate the end of a section, but this usually occurs only in more advanced music.

  • ..



    Clefs, the Grand Staff, and Measures

    The end of a piece is indicated by what is called a double bar line. This is a thin bar line followed by a thick line.

    A special symbol that may be placed just in front of a double bar line is a repeat sign. These two dots indicate that you should return to the beginning of the piece and play it through once more.

  • ..





    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Another way repeat signs can be used is to repeat a section of a piece. These repeats serve in one sense as book ends—you should repeat only the measures between the repeat signs and then continue on.

    MeasuresA measure is the space between bar lines. Notes are placed on the

    staff in each measure—the quantity and time value of those notes is something we’ll address in chapter four. Another term for measure is the word “bar.” When someone refers to an eight-bar section or piece, that section is eight measures long.

  • Note Heads


    Chap t e r 2

    Notes and Time Values

    Looking at a piece of music, a collection of lines, circles, and other odd shaped symbols sitting on the staff. In the first part of this chapter, we’ll discuss the different components of these symbols, how they can be assembled, and the vital importance of recognizing and being able to play them. The second section of the chapter will give you the names of these notes and their time value.

    Building a NoteNotes are made up of two to three different parts. The most obvious

    is what is called the note head. The note head can be black or white, depending on how much time it’s supposed to get.

  • Stems




    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    A stem is attached to either the right or left side of a note head. Its direction is usually dependant on where it sits on the staff, but there are occasions where it will tell you which hand is supposed to play a given note. This is clarified on page 44.

    Beams are the horizontal lines that connect two or more notes at the opposite end of the note head. There can be anywhere from one to (usually) four beams affixed to a stem. The number of beams is directly related to the rhythmic value a note (or notes) get. The second half of this chapter will explain the effect of beams in relationship to rhythm.

    A flag serves in the place of a beam if only one note gets a designated rhythm. For example, two notes joined by a beam are called eighth notes.

  • 11

    Notes and Time Values

    Typically, two of these notes will equal one beat. If you have only one eighth note, it will receive only half of a beat and a flag will be attached to its stem.

    RhythmAs mentioned earlier, some note heads are black, some are white,

    and some have dots placed beside them. Most music you look at will have beams or flags attached to note stems somewhere in the score. These differences make up what is called rhythm.

    For some people, the word rhythm can be daunting. They may have been told repeatedly that they have no sense of “rhythm.” Most of the time, that remark is made in a critical way without the term even being explained. If someone is considered unrhythmic, the first step toward becoming more aware of rhythm is to figure out what the word means.

    So what is rhythm? Simply put, rhythm is an orderly recurrence of sounds or patterns. Rhythm constantly surrounds us, whether we realize it or not. Your heartbeat provides a steady rhythm in your body. If you find your pulse, you will feel a throbbing sensation at regular intervals. The tick of a second hand on a clock gives you both a visual and auditory rhythmic pattern. Watching a marching band or a marching military unit is a prime example of rhythm in action—their feet hit the ground at the same instant and move them forward at the same rate of speed.

    Another word you may come across that means the same thing as rhythm is the word meter. This word is directly related to the

  • 12

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    mathematical units of measurement—meters, kilometers, etc. You’ll also find it used in reference to language, most often poetry. It carries the idea of something being “measured” in even amounts.

    When we talk about rhythm in music, we aren’t necessarily talking about the speed at which notes are played, but at the steadiness or consistency at which they’re played. The speed that music is played at is defined by the word tempo. A tempo can be either fast or slow, but the rhythm of a piece must stay consistent.

    There is an entire instrument family that is devoted to providing rhythm—the percussion section. Probably the most easily recognized instrument in this group is the snare drum. The drummer rhythmically strikes the top of the drum with drumsticks, creating a steady tapping sound. Other instruments in this family include larger drums (among which is the timpani or kettle drums), cymbals, and the triangle.

    A metronome is a tool used to keep a consistent beat. Old-fashioned metronomes have an arm that swings back and forth while ticking a steady beat. Most metronomes today are battery operated, still using a ticking sound to keep a beat and oftentimes making use of a light to help with visual perception of rhythm.

    Note ValuesSo, now it’s time to put this information to practical use in being

    able to apply it to the notes on a page. The note head and number of beams or flags are your clues as to how much time each note should get and how it fits into the rhythm of each measure.

  • 13

    Notes and Time Values

    The graph below will show you how note values are divided.

  • 14

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    1. The note at the top of the pyramid is a whole note. Most of the time this note gets four beats. You play the note and as you play it you hold it and count “1-2-3-4.”

    2. The second row of notes are half notes. You divide a whole note (4 beats) into two equal notes (2 beats each). You play and hold a half note for two beats, counting “1-2.”

    3. The third row of notes is made up of quarter notes. Dividing each half note (2 beats) into two equal notes, you get two quarter notes (1 beat each). If you put four quarter notes together (4 beats), you have the same number of beats as what is represented by a single whole note (4 beats). You play and hold a quarter note for one beat, counting “1.”

    4. The fourth row of notes are called eighth notes. 8th notes are joined by a single beam. A set of two 8th notes (1/2 beat each) is equal to one quarter note (1 beat). The easiest way to count eighth notes is by numbers and words: “1-and.” In this way, you are dividing each beat into two equal parts.

    5. The last row in this chart shows sixteenth notes. You will recognize 16th notes by the two beams joining the notes at the end of each stem. Two 16th notes (1/4 beat each) equal one 8th note. Again, using numbers, words, and syllables, the best way to count 16th notes is “1-e-and-a” (1-ē-and-uh). Just as described in eighth notes, putting a number or syllable with each note will divide the beat into four equal parts.

    6. You can continue following this out to 32nd, 64th, and 128th notes. 32nd notes will have three beams, 64th notes will have

  • 15

    Notes and Time Values

    four beams, and 128th notes will be connected with five beams.

    Go back through the pyramid and tap each note, using a second hand to help you count the number of beats; i.e. for a whole note you would tap a table and “hold” it (leave your hand on the table) for four ticks of the sweep hand; when tapping a half note, tap and “hold” it for two ticks of the sweep hand, etc.

    8th and 16th notes (as well as 32nd, 64th, and 128th notes) can be placed singly on the staff or they can be joined in sets of two, three, or four. This is where flags are useful. The pictures below show you the way single 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes look. The rule is, if a set of notes uses one beam, a single note of the same type gets one flag. Two beams, two flags; three beams, three flags, etc.

    To give you another idea of how this rhythmic structure works, look at the following circles and how they divide into equal sections. From these circles, you can see the whole circle (all 4 beats) being evenly divided.

    The whole note (4 beats) gets the whole circle.

  • 16

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Dividing the circle into two equal parts (halves: 2+2=4), we get two half notes.

    Taking our circle and dividing it once more, we have four quarter (1+1+1+1=4) sections.

    Making another even division, we have eighth sections (1/2+1/2+1/2+1/2+1/2+1/2+1/2+1/2=4).

  • 17

    Notes and Time Values

    Lastly, dividing it out one step further, our circle is divided into sixteenths (1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4+


    As you can see, the division of longer notes into shorter notes, or shorter notes building up to larger values, is very precise and predictable. This gives you a huge advantage: these principles will never change and with the help of a few more tools, you won’t ever be stumped by rhythmic questions.

    Another limited analogy is the dollar bill. The dollar bill represents a whole note—it is a whole dollar. If you split it in half, you have two half dollars. Both of them together equal the whole dollar. If you divide that dollar into four equal sections, we have four quarters. You can also take each half dollar and divide it into two quarters. We can’t take this analogy any lower, but this provides another example that you can visualize as to how whole, half, and quarter notes relate to each other.

  • = =+ + ++

    = + = + + +


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    One last break down will hopefully piece everything together for you.

    The next chapter will explain rests—the counterparts to the note values explored in this chapter.

  • 19

    “Music is the silence between the notes.”

    Claude Debussy, French composer

    If you listen closely, you will notice that most music has places where the right, left, or both hands do not play any notes. The instructions to not have any sound are called rests and they fit into the rhythmic scheme like notes do. Essentially, rests are beats of silence. It’s easy to skip over rests, but they fill a very important role in music.

    Music has often been correlated to speech (more on that towards the end of the book) and the similarities are close enough that we can draw on that parallel when it comes to rests. Think about how you speak. When you come to the end of a sentence, you pause. When you want to make a particular point, you will either slow down or pause between words or at the end of your statement. If someone is hesitant or unsure of what they want to say, there will be silence between their words. Music has the capability of expressing grandeur, emphasis, excitement, hesitancy, or any other emotion. And rests play a vital part in communicating those things.

    Chap t e r 3

    Silence is… Important!

  • Half Rest Whole Rest

    = = = = =

    Quarter Rest Eighth Rest Sixteenth Rest

    Half Rest Whole Rest


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Our notes and rests go by the same names—quarter, half, whole—and their time values are the same. If you studied the note values explained in the previous chapter, then rests will just be an extension of the same principles. The following pictures show you what each of the rests look like and with which note value they correlate.

    The half and whole rests are easily mixed up. Think about it this way: a whole gentleman will remove his hat to a lady (the whole rest sits upside down on the third line of the staff) whereas a half gentleman will only tip his hat to a lady (a half rest sits on top of the third line of the staff).

  • 21

    Silence is… Important!

    You’ll find a combination of notes and rests in practically all music. There are a few more advanced rhythms that will be covered later, but the notes and rests you have learned constitute the foundational rhythmic structure found in music.

  • 22

    Everything learned up to this point—bar lines, measures, and time values of notes and rests—will culminate in this chapter. The way in which music is written is very precise—you aren’t left guessing about any of the basic rhythmic or interpretational aspects of the piece. The time signature and key signature (explained in Chapter 9) are both specified at the beginning of every piece (following the clef symbol), and these two cues make all the difference in the world as to whether or not your playing will be accurate.

    The time signature is the set of two numbers set on top of each other. The following pictures will show you how these numbers appear on the staff.

    Chap t e r 4

    Time Signatures

  • 23

    Time Signatures

    The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure and the lower number tells you what type of note gets a single beat (quarter note, eighth note, or half note). You can have variations in both the top and bottom number. Following are examples that are not uncommon.

    So, in the time signature 2/4, there are two beats in each measure and the four indicates a quarter note getting a single beat. Four is probably the most common meter and the variations on it are extensive—anywhere from 2/4 to 6/4, etc. In all of these instances, the top number tells you how many beats to count and the bottom number explains that a quarter gets a beat. The following examples will show you how this looks on a printed page of music.

  • 5



    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Now, if we’re in 4/4, we will find four quarter notes (or a combination of quarter notes and quarter rests equaling four beats) between each bar line. But we are not limited to using only quarter notes. If you recall the rhythm chart on page 13, you will remember that a whole note gets the same time as four quarter notes, two half notes get the same time as four quarter notes, and we can also divide quarter notes into equal halves or quarters with 8th and 16th notes. The following bars of music should give you an idea of how this rhythmic concept works itself out on the page.

    Probably the most common time signatures you will find are 3/4 and 4/4. 3/4 is what most dances (most notably, the waltz) are written in. Marches are usually written in 4/4 but this time signature is extremely versatile and is used most frequently.

  • 25

    Time Signatures

    Most music will have a 4 as the bottom number, specifying the quarter note as the note that gets one beat. But you will sometimes see a 2 and an 8 filling the lower spot. When you see a 2, this indicates that a half note gets one beat. Our notes will now get half of the time value they had when there was a 4 in the bottom of the time signature. For example, if you are in the time signature 4/2 this means that we will have four beats in each measure but this time, instead of the quarter note getting the beat, a half note will get the beat. This means that we will still have four beats to fill in each measure, but now we would have four half notes (instead of quarter notes, as in 4/4) between each bar line. The rhythmic breakdown naturally follows the chart that we used earlier. If a half note equals one beat in this time signature, a quarter note now gets half a beat (two quarters would equal a whole beat) and eighth notes will get a quarter beat each (four eighths would equal a whole beat). The example below will give you an idea of how this works.

  • 26

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Again, we can combine any order of notes or rests to equal the number of beats that each measure requires.

    When an 8 is the bottom number of the time signature, this tells you that an eighth note will receive one beat. Our notes will now get twice the time they did as when we had a 4 in the bottom of the time signature. An eighth note is now measured as one beat which means a quarter note gets two beats, a half note gets four beats, and a sixteenth note will get half a beat. (We would not typically use whole notes, as a whole note doubled would now equal eight beats.) So, if we’re in the time signature 4/8, the following example gives you an idea of what this would look like.

    And here is a way that notes and rests would be incorporated into this time signature.

  • 27

    Time Signatures

    The most common time signature with an 8 on the bottom is 6/8. 9/8 and 12/8 are also fairly common. Because these time signatures require a note that gets three beats, we will cover these time signatures in the following chapter when dotted rhythms are explained.

    There will be pieces that do not have numbers indicating their time signature, but the letter ‘c.’ This letter stands for common time which is another form of designating 4/4. At other times, you may see the letter ‘c’ with a vertical line going through it. This indicates alla breve or cut time which is 4/4 divided in half—2/2 time. This time signature means there will be two beats in each measure and a half note will get the beat.

    CountingUnderstanding how rhythm works on a page, making sense of time

    signatures, and remembering how many beats each rest or note gets is a complex process. It probably isn’t something that you will grasp over night. This is where counting becomes your best friend. Most students I’ve worked with feel very self-conscious counting out loud,

  • 28

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    but it is the surest way of keeping a steady beat. There have been times when someone has struggled for weeks with a particular rhythm pattern. During the lesson when we’ve worked through it, even with me counting, the student just can’t seem to hear the difference between what they are playing and how to play it correctly. As soon as I have them count it themselves, everything fits together the way it should! It’s a triumphant moment for both of us.

    Counting out loud does not require you to be particularly noisy or obnoxious with your counting, it just means that you need to be loud enough so you can hear yourself and your rhythm doesn’t run away from you. Many of the students I work with try to count in their head, but what ends up happening is that the rhythm in their head ends up following whatever they’re playing rather than the counting leading their hands in playing the correct rhythm. (It is worth the time it takes to learn the rhythm right from the beginning—correcting wrong notes or rhythm basically makes you de-program the incorrect way you’ve learned it and then re-program the correct notes and/or rhythm. On average, it takes ten times of playing a section through perfectly to relearn it correctly—making your fingers, your ear, and your brain accept the correct notes and rhythm.)

    As mentioned in chapter two, a combination of numbers, words, and syllables will help you accurately count the beats in each measure. We’ll use a few different examples to show how this would work.

    The most helpful way to count is to use the number of beats specified by the top number of the time signature. For example, if we’re in 3/4 and have eighth notes scattered throughout the piece,

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

    1-and 2-and 3-and 1-and 2-and 3-and 1-and 2-and 3 - and 1 - and 2 - and 3 - and


    Time Signatures

    instead of counting “1-and, 1-and, 1-and” for each measure, count “1-and, 2-and, 3-and.” Saying the number of each beat on the beat will serve as another safeguard in keeping the number of beats per measure consistent.

    In general, it is best to look through your piece and find the smallest note value used. If the first three measures in a piece only use half and quarter notes, but the fourth measure has eighth notes in it, your best course of action is to count an eighth note rhythm from the beginning of the piece so you don’t come up to the eighth notes and treat them as quarter notes. (This is very, very common when reaching a faster rhythmic value.) Below are some examples of how to count when you reach this sort of rhythmic structure.

  • 1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and 1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and 1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and 1- and 2- and 3-and 4- and


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Rhythm on the Grand StaffOne confusing principle that should be cleared up at this point

    is how rhythm works when you have a treble and bass staff joined together in the Grand staff. Basically, each measure in the treble clef and each measure in the bass clef have to contain the number of beats specified by the time signature. So if we’re in 4/4, each measure in the treble clef must contain four beats (notes and/or rests) and each measure of the bass clef must contain four beats (notes and/or rests).

    When you read music, you read both staves (plural of the word staff) at the same time, from left to right. The example below is explained in steps.

    First measure:

    1. Four quarter notes in the treble clef and a whole note in the bass clef. Play the first quarter note and the whole note together on beat one. The whole note will be held for all four beats but you will play a quarter note on each beat.

    Second measure:

    2. The treble measure is divided into two half notes and the bass measure is divided into four quarter notes. You will play the

  • 31

    Time Signatures

    first half note and first quarter note together. While holding the first half note, you will play the second quarter note on beat two. On beat three, you will play the second half note and the third quarter note together. Once again, hold the half note while you play the last quarter note on beat four.

    Third measure:

    3. Beat one in the treble clef is a quarter note and beat one in the bass clef is a quarter note—they are played at the same time.

    4. Beat two in the treble is another quarter note but the second beat in the bass is a quarter rest. You would play the quarter note in the right hand, but the left hand would not play anything on that beat.

    5. Beat three is again quarter notes in both hands that would be played together.

    6. Beat four is a quarter rest in the treble and a quarter note in the bass; the left hand gets to play this note while the right hand is silent for this beat.

    Fourth measure:

    7. Beat one is two eighth notes in the treble and bass clefs. The first eighth note is played together with both hands followed by the second eighth note being played with both hands on the second half of the beat.

    8. Beat two is an eighth note set in the treble and a quarter rest in the bass. Because two eighth notes equal one beat, you will

  • 32

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    play the two eighth notes with your right hand and the left hand will be silent for this beat.

    9. Beat three is a quarter note in both clefs. They will be played together.

    10. Beat four is a quarter rest in the treble clef and a set of eighth notes in the bass clef.

    The easiest way to conquer this rhythm example is to do one hand at a time, several times over. Tap out the treble clef rhythm. When you come to the half notes, tap on beat one and hold for the second beat, tap on beat three and hold for the fourth beat. At the rest, count the beat but do not tap. The eighth notes will be tapped on both the number and the word ‘and.’

    For the left hand, tap the whole note on beat one and hold it for the remaining three beats. The quarter notes and rests and eighth notes will follow the right hand example.

    This is a fairly straight forward rhythmic sequence. Adding single eighth or sixteenth notes (or rests) can make it a bit more complicated. Go back through and tap the rhythm in these measures—treble clef rhythm with your right hand, bass clef rhythm with your left hand. You can use the second hand on a clock to help you keep a steady beat.

    Pick-up or Incomplete MeasuresGoing back to something that was introduced in the first chapter,

    we will discuss what is called an incomplete, or pick-up measure. If you have a piece of music that has the time signature ¾ but the first

  • 3-and 1-and 2-and 3-and 1-and 2-and 3 - and 1-and 2-and 3- and 1-and 2-and


    Time Signatures

    measure has only one quarter note, it would appear that someone made a pretty big mistake. However, if you look at the very last measure of the piece, you will notice that the last measure has only two beats. Putting those two beats with the single beat in the first measure leaves you with the entire measure’s worth of beats.

  • .


    The foundational structure of rhythm has already been discussed in the past two chapters. We will now go on to a few other rhythms that are common but a little more complex.

    Dotted RhythmsThe basic principle is that a dot following a note adds half of the

    time value of the note it follows. The most common dotted note is a half note with a dot placed after it. Typically a half note gets two beats, so the dot following it would get one beat bringing the complete time value to three beats. A dotted half note is shown here.

    Another dotted note that appears frequently is the dotted quarter note. The rhythmic value of this note is a usually a bit more difficult to grasp. Since a quarter note gets one beat, the dot following it will get only half a beat, giving a dotted quarter note the value of one and a half beats. The following example is of how you would count a dotted quarter note.

    Chap t e r 5

    Advanced Rhythmic Concepts


  • .35

    Advanced Rhythmic Concepts

    TiesTied notes are indicated by a curved line that “joins” two (and

    sometimes more) notes. Basically, the first note is played and held for the time value of both of the notes that are tied together. Two half notes tied together would be held for the combined value of four beats. Two quarters tied would be held for two beats. You can have three measures of whole notes that would be tied together for a combined total of twelve beats.

    Tied notes do not have to be of the same time value. Any combination of rhythms can be tied together. A quarter note and a half note tied together for three beats. A dotted half note tied to a whole note would equal seven beats. While they do not have to have the same value, the do have to be the same note.

    A tie symbol is not to be confused with a phrase mark or a slur. Those names can be used interchangeably to name this curved symbol which will be described at length in Chapter 12. The determining factor between a tie and a phrase mark is that notes under a phrase mark do not have to be the same note. The phrase mark indicates that two or more notes should be played smoothly. Its function is very distinct from the use of the tie.

  • + + ++ = = =


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    TripletsTriplets are recognizable by a small number “3” that is placed

    just above or beneath a set of three eighth notes (usually joined by a slur). Most frequently, they require you to play three notes evenly in the time of one beat. Rhythmically, they fall between half notes (two notes played evenly for one beat) and sixteenth notes (four notes played evenly over the time of a single beat). The best way to count triplets is to put the beat number with the word “trip-let.” The following example will give you an idea of how this would work.

    Again, if you have triplets that don’t come in until later in the music, it is smart to count at least the other beats in that measure as triplets to ensure rhythmic accuracy. Using the sweep hand on a clock, count “1-trip-let, 2-trip-let, 3-trip-let, 4 trip-let.” The number of each beat should be said with each tick. If counted correctly, you should avoid a pause before each new beat and without having to rush to the new beat.

    There are many variations of a triplet rhythm, but some of the more common are demonstrated below.

    1. A triplet that is divided into only two notes. The first note is a quarter and the second is an eighth. If you’re counting this, the

  • 37

    Advanced Rhythmic Concepts

    quarter note gets the first two-thirds of the beat (“1-trip”) and the eighth would get the last third of the beat (“let”).

    2. Triplets that have one or more of their notes replaced by an eighth rest will still get the same time as if there were three eighth notes. In the example below, keeping a steady count, the first eighth note gets the number (“1”), the rest would get the space of the second syllable (“trip”), and the second eighth note would get the last syllable (“let”).

    DupletsDuplets are defined as “a group of two notes played in the time

    normally occupied by three notes of the same kind.”1 That definition may not do much to make the concept clear but if the principle of duplets is recognized to be just the opposite of triplets, this should improve the understanding of this principle. Triplets can be visualized as three eighth notes in the same time usually occupied by two eighth notes (one beat); duplets are two eighth notes played in the same amount of time usually filled by three eighth notes. For the example below, it is clearer to re-write the three eighth notes as six sixteenth notes.

    Just as triplets are indicated by a number “3” just above or below the group of notes, a duplet will be indicated by a number “2” between the two notes

    1 Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, Don Michael Randel, p. 149

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    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    TupletsThe principle of triplets is related to the rhythm of quintuplets,

    septuplets, etc. Triplets are three notes played in the space of one beat. Quintuplets are five notes played evenly in the space of a single beat, septuplets are seven notes played evenly in the space of a single beat, etc.

    Following in the pattern established for duplets and triplets, a quintuplet will be indicated by a number ‘5,’ a septuplet will be shown by a number ‘7,’etc. These rhythms can be difficult to make even. By the time you encounter a piece of music requiring you to play tuplets, you will have developed a sense of rhythm and ability to handle them.

    Below are examples of how tuplets will be written on a page of music.

    Whether you encounter triplets, duplets, or a tuplet, one way to emphasize the correct rhythm to yourself is to place more emphasis on the beat note. When playing or counting “1-trip-let, 2-trip-let,” emphasize the note that falls on the number.

  • 39

    Just as the rhythmic structure of music is consistent, the way in which notes are placed on the staff is also predictable. The keyboard will be used to demonstrate the placement of notes on the staff.

    Notes on the KeyboardThere are 88 keys on the keyboard—black and white. It might seem

    daunting to keep the name of each of these notes straight. However, if you look at the keyboard, you will notice a pattern of black and white notes. Looking at the black notes, it becomes apparent that they are grouped in sets of two and three. This is an important observation.

    The musical alphabet is made up of the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Taking a set of two black notes and locating the white note just to the left of that set, the repeating alphabetic pattern is begun. This note is C. Moving to the right on the white notes, we move through the musical alphabet. The following white note is D. The next white note is E, and the pattern continues. The following picture should make this clear.

    Chap t e r 6

    Placing Notes on the Staff

  • C D E F G A B C D E F G A B


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Once you recognize that the pattern of white and black keys repeats itself many times over, and that the musical alphabet also repeats itself in the same way, this should make naming the notes on the keyboard an easier process. Using the black notes as points of reference, identifying all of the A’s or all of the F’s on the keyboard becomes much simpler.

    While string, woodwind, and brass instruments do not have a visual keyboard to follow, the musical alphabet, and the fact that it repeats itself consistently, applies to every instrument.

    Notes on the StaffNow that we’ve covered the principle of the repetition of the

    musical alphabet, we can use this information to begin identifying notes on the staff.

    The first thing to recognize is that the staff is made up of lines with spaces between them. Note heads are placed either on a line or in a space on the staff. The line or space that a note is placed on determines what its name is and where specifically it is played on the keyboard.

    The best point of reference is the note called Middle C. The keyboard below has all 88 keys. The C marked in the center of the

  • CA



    Placing Notes on the Staff

    keyboard is not the exact middle of the keyboard, but it is the C closest to the middle.

    For the moment, we are going to use Middle C as the dividing point between our treble and bass clefs. If you start on Middle C and play the notes to the right, you are going up the keyboard. The pitch of each note goes higher. These notes are typically marked in the treble clef—right hand territory. If you play the keys to the left of Middle C, you are going down the keyboard and the pitch of each note goes lower. These notes are typically written in the bass clef—left hand territory.

    Every note has a particular place on each clef; the following pictures place Middle C on each of the clefs that were described in the first chapter.

    (Because the alto clef is not used in keyboard literature, we will discuss it after addressing the Grand staff.)

    One thing that must be stressed is that each note on the keyboard has an exact location on each staff. The image

  • 42

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    below depicts the location of Middle C, and the C’s above and below Middle C.

    When we move up from C to D, this is called a step. Stepping up the staff is mirrored in stepping up the keyboard. On the treble staff, this is shown by moving from the Middle C line to the space just above Middle C (but below the first line of the staff), the note D. If you start on the lowest line of the bass staff, this is the note G (two G’s below Middle C). If you step up from G to the next note, A, you will also move up from the line to the space just above it. Continuing up the staff, we would go the note B which is the next line in the bass staff. Counting up this way, you will find that the bass staff covers the notes from low G to the A (just below Middle C).

    Looking at the treble staff, the lowest line is the note E just above Middle C. The first space is the note F. The next line is G, and so on. The top line in the treble clef is the note F (two F’s above Middle C).

  • FE




    Placing Notes on the Staff

    You can use a line in both the treble and bass clefs to easily count up or down. The treble clef will sometimes be referred to as the G clef. The curl of the treble symbol circles around the G line. The bass clef is known as the F clef. The two dots that are part of the bass symbol are placed on either side of the F line. As you become more familiar with the staff, you will be able to immediately recognize notes on the staff without having to count up or down from these lines. But when you’re first learning the notes on the staff, these two reference points can be extremely helpful.

    MnemonicsYou may find it helpful to put these memory tools to use.

    The notes placed in the treble clef spaces spell the word FACE.

    The lines in the treble clef can be used as an acronym. E, G, B, D, F: Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine.

    The spaces in the bass clef form an acronym. A, C, E, G: All, Cows, Eat, Grass.

  • All





    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    The lines in the bass clef can be assigned yet another acronym. G, B, D, F, A: Good, Boys, Do, Fine, Always.

    Stem DirectionThe direction of the stems affixed to half, quarter, eighth, notes etc.

    is primarily determined by where they sit on the staff. The center line in each clef is the point at which the stem is reversed. In the treble clef, the notes E, F, G, and A on the staff have stems affixed to the right side of each note, going up. The line B is the first place where the stem is placed on the left side of each note and goes down. In the bass clef, the notes on the lowest line through the second space (notes G through C) have stems placed on the right side of the note, going up. From the line note D and all notes above it, the line will be placed on the left side of the note, going down.

    An exception to this rule will be discussed later in this chapter.

  • 45

    Placing Notes on the Staff

    Ledger LinesWhen music was first being written on the staff, there was no

    division of treble and bass clefs. This would, understandably, get to be rather confusing. When the staff was standardized, it was reduced to five lines in the treble clef and five lines in the bass clef. By now, it is probably obvious that there are not enough lines and spaces in the Grand staff to cover all of the notes on the keyboard, thus the need for lines and spaces extending beyond the staff.

    Ledger lines are the short lines above, below, and in between the staff. You continue reading notes between, above and below the staff just as you do the notes on the staff—each line or space is the next note moving up or down the keyboard. Below are examples of what ledger lines look like above, below and in between the Grand staff.

    Ledger lines between the treble and bass staff allow us to “extend” either the treble or bass staff. For example, the note D in the treble clef is just below the E line. D is a space note, followed by Middle C

  • 46

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    which is placed on a ledger line. If you were to write a note just below the Middle C line, this would be the note B below Middle C (a space note). If you put a note on a ledger line just below B, this is the note A (two ledger lines).

    The same is true for the bass clef notes. When Middle C is written in the bass clef, it is written on a ledger line just above the staff. Placing a note just above this ledger line, you would play the note D. Follow this with a note on the next ledger line and you have the note E just above Middle C.

    The use of ledger lines removes the Middle C dividing point that we established earlier in this chapter. While most of the treble clef notes are played above Middle C and, conversely, most bass notes are played below Middle C, ledger lines allow both clefs to play notes beyond Middle C.

    Moving from Clef to ClefAt times, the clef symbol in both staffs will be the same: both hands

    will play in the treble or bass staffs. This can make note reading a little challenging, but you will read the notes according to their staff, not according to what they are in their normal clef.

    For example, if both left and right hands are

  • 47

    Placing Notes on the Staff

    supposed to play in the bass clef, the right hand will play (mostly) below Middle C. If both hands are in the treble clef, they will both be placed (mostly) above Middle C.

    Some pieces are written entirely with both hands in one clef or the other; but in other pieces there may be anywhere from only one note to several measures where one hand crosses over into the opposite clef.

    There are times when the right or left hand not only plays in the opposite clef, but has to play notes either lower (right hand in the bass clef ) or higher (left hand in the treble clef ) than the hand belonging in that clef.

    This will be notated clearly, usually by a l.h. being placed above or below the note (or the first note if there are several) that should be played with the left hand. Similar indication (r.h.) is used if the right hand should play notes crossing over the left hand. Another indicator can be the direction of the stem attached to a note. If you find a note stem going the wrong direction (for where it sits on the staff), this very often indicate that the opposite hand must play that note. Following are a few examples of how cross-overs may look on the staff.

  • .l.h.


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    1. In this example, the left hand must cross over the right hand in the treble clef to play the note C.

    2. In this example, the right hand must

    Because no two hands are shaped alike, there may be rare instances where it is most comfortable for the left or right hand to play notes that are written for the other hand. This may be indicated in the music (the example with the bracket is one way this can be shown) but there is some liberty involved in deciding the best way to play all of the notes at any given time. While you are not always bound by playing with a particular hand, unless you are playing very complex

  • .


    Placing Notes on the Staff

    music, it is best to play the music with the hand it is written for. Instances where this may be acceptable are show below.

    IntervalsThe distance between two notes is called an interval. When

    determining an interval, you count the note you start on as “1” and count up and down accordingly. If you begin on Middle C and then play D just above Middle C, you count C as “1” and D as “2.” This is what was termed a step earlier in the chapter, but its interval number is a 2nd. In like manner, if you start on D (“1”) and step up to E (“2”) you have another 2nd. Going the opposite direction (from E to D) you are going down a 2nd.

    One principle to extrapolate from this is that stepping means moving from one white or black note to the next, and on the staff it means moving from a line to a space (or space to a line.)

    Another term is the “skip.” Just as stepping means moving from one white or black note to the next, skipping indicates just that—skipping a note on the keyboard or from a line to a line or space to a space on the staff. The interval name for a skip is a 3rd. Beginning

  • 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th (octave)


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    on Middle C (“1”), skipping over D, and playing the E (“3”) is one example of a third. Beginning on Middle C (“1”), skipping over B, and playing A (“3”) is an example of going down a 3rd.

    This same principle continues on for the intervals of a 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, etc.

    The term octave is derived from the root word octava from which the English words octopus and octagon are also formed. Just as an octopus has eight arms and an octagon has eight sides (stop signs are familiar octagons), so an octave in music is the interval of an eighth. This is a special interval because it takes you from one note name to the next note with the same name (from an A to an A, B to a B, C to a C, etc.—going up or down).

    A pattern to be noted about these intervals on the staff has to do with the line/space relationship. The even intervals (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, etc.) are written with one note on a line and the other on a space. The odd intervals (3rd, 5th, 7th, etc.) will either be placed as two line notes or two space notes. Identifying this pattern will aid you in being able to quickly recognize a pair of notes and can serve as another way to make sure your notes are accurate if you’re positive of at least one of the note names.

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    Placing Notes on the Staff

    Melodic and Harmonic IntervalsMost music is not made up of a single line of notes in the treble clef

    being played in conjunction with a single line of notes in the bass clef. A quick glance through almost any piece of music will reveal notes stacked on top of each other, attached to the same stem, and many other complicated looking combinations.

    Notes can be written in one of two ways: a single note followed by another single note or notes played at the same time. A single note line is called a melody and notes played together create what is called harmony. This can be heard in the instance of a human voice. A person can only sing one note at a time—a melody. If two or more people sing together, they create harmony. Many instruments can only play one note a time (wind and brass instruments) but others (keyboards, strings, harp, guitar, etc.) have the ability of two or more notes being played simultaneously.

    When melodic intervals are used, the distance between each note is measured. In the example below, the difference between the Middle C and the F is a 4th—a melodic 4th because these notes are not played together. Here are a few melodic intervals on the treble and bass clefs.

  • .

    . .


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Harmonic intervals are measured by the distance between the two notes being played together. The example below demonstrates a few ways in which harmonic intervals are measured.

    Quite often, a melodic line in one clef is supported by a harmonic line in the other clef. Again, both clefs are read at the same time so there may be instances where there are anywhere from three to ten notes being sounded together. This is demonstrated in the following example.

  • 53

    Placing Notes on the Staff

    “Voices”The human voice typically fits within one of four voice ranges (also

    known as four-part harmony):

    1. Soprano: typically the high female voice,

    2. Alto: typically the low female voice,

    3. Tenor: typically the high male voice, and

    4. Bass: typically the low male voice.

    These same “voices” (high and low treble notes or high and low bass notes) can also be used in music written for instruments. When music is supposed to be played as individual voices (not all notes receiving the same level of sound or emphasis) these notes will be written with stems going different directions, even within each hand. This is often considered to be “chorale” style. In the treble clef, the soprano voice will be written with up-stems, the alto voice will be written with down-stems; in the bass clef, the tenor voice will be written with up-stems and the bass voice will be written with down-stems.

    Alto or C ClefThe alto clef is not widely used, but some instruments do use it so

    it is worth being able to identify and to read the music place on that clef. The alto clef is much the same as the treble and bass clefs. It is also written on a five line/four space staff. Notes are read on this clef as on treble and bass—stepping from a line to a space or space to a line also moves you up or down one note name; intervals are also read the same.

  • C D E


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    The largest difference is that Middle C no longer sits below the staff (as in the treble clef ) or above the staff (as in the bass clef )—Middle C as a reference point is on the central line of the staff. The center point at which both curves join is placed on the line that indicates Middle C (hence the possibility of its being called the C clef ).

  • 55

    Just as it is obvious that there are not enough lines and spaces on the staff to cover all of the notes on the keyboard, it is also apparent that there are not enough fingers between both hands to cover all of the keys. While the solution to this—that of moving your fingers from key to key and completely moving the hand wherever it is necessary—may seem simple, there are basic guidelines to make these movements efficient and effective.

    Fingering is the system whereby each finger is assigned a number so that the music can be played correctly, in the simplest and most efficient way possible. Fingering, although it may seem superfluous, is an integral part of being able to play music accurately and well. Playing music is a highly complex activity which requires the development of fine motor skills with both hands (motor), the ability to read music on a staff (visual), training the ear to recognize rhythms and notes as being correct or incorrect (auditory), as well as the addition of coordinating foot motions, mouth shape, or tongue adjustments that different instruments require. Much of playing an instrument is based on “muscle memory” or “motor memory” (training your muscles to automatically react in particular ways when facing similar

    Chap t e r 7


  • 56

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    patterns; activities like typing are based on the ability of your body to remember how it is supposed to react to a given situation). One of the foundational elements to building an efficient technique is to follow the fingering indicated in music.

    Fingering has not always been standardized. Early fingering technique was much different than what is used today. However, fingering practices do follow a consistent system today which removes a considerable amount of confusion.

    Fingering is so important and such a basic function of being able to play an instrument that some methods of teaching actually begin with teaching students to play by following finger numbers rather than actually reading notes. Fingering is unique to each instrument (sometimes to a family of instruments—strings, keyboards, woodwind, brass, etc.) so understanding the fingering for the particular instrument being studied is a vital aspect of learning to play music well. Again, to give a specific example of this, the fingering for keyboard instruments will be used.

    If the hands are held together with the palms inward, each finger should line up with the same finger on the other hand (thumb to thumb, pointer to pointer, etc.). The fingering for each hand will be the same.

    Thumb Index Middle Ring Little

    1 2 3 4 5

  • 1 3 5

    5 3 1





    Fingering in music is shown by small numbers sitting above (treble) notes or below (bass) notes. As a student becomes more familiar with typical fingering patterns, not every finger number will be written. Fingering, if it is learned well from the beginning of music study, will become an intuitive part of playing an instrument.

    In this example, the left hand finger 5 (little finger) plays C, 3 (middle finger) plays E, and 1 (thumb) plays G. In the right hand, 1 (thumb) plays Middle C, 3 (middle finger) plays E, and 5 (little finger) plays G. In the last measure the left had crosses over the right hand and plays the high C with 2 (index finger).

    CrossoversA crossover in fingering occurs often when a piece of music uses

    notes beyond a five-note position (such as C through G or A through

  • 5 4 3 2 1 2

    1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    E, etc). Typically, fingering will assist a musician in playing notes smoothly without breaking the sound to accommodate a crossover.

    A simple crossover is crossing finger 2 over finger 1. If the notes G, F, E, D, C, and B are written stepping down in that order on the treble staff, the logical fingering would be to play G with finger 5, F with 4, E with 3, D with 2, C with 1, and then cross finger 2 over finger 1 to play the B.

    However, if this pattern was written stepping up from C through A, the solution would not be to cross 4 over 5. This is never an acceptable technique.

    The fingering for the following scale (refer to p. 78) demonstrates how this sort of issue would be handled.

    Looking at the ascending notes, the fingers 1, 2, and 3 play the first three notes; the thumb (1) is then passed under finger 3 and fingers

  • 59


    2, 3, 4, and 5 play the following four notes. Descending, fingers 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 play the first five notes and finger 3 is then crossed over the thumb to play the next note, followed by 2 and 1 playing the last two notes.

    The technique for this sort of motion can be somewhat confusing. Fingering a scale in this way does not mean that the hand will be picked up and moved so the fingers cover the last few notes. Again, when playing a pattern requiring a crossover, there should be no break in sound between the note being played and the note which requires the crossover.

    Finger SubstitutionsThere are places where finger substitution is necessary. Substitution

    is where a note is played with one finger and another finger is placed on that note to continue holding it down without any break in the sound. This is indicated by a hyphen placed between two finger numbers. The first number is the finger that should play the note first and the second number is the finger which should be substituted.

    There are places where repeated notes should be played very rapidly. If the same finger is used to play all of these notes, one of two things—or both—will likely happen.

    1. The hand, wrist, and arm muscles will stiffen, becoming tight and painful if too much of this sort of motion is used.

    2. The repeated notes will become increasingly louder—not only through repetition, but also from the lessening of control because of stiffening muscles.

  • 3 2 1 3 2 1

    3 2 1 3 2 1


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    The best way to approach a repeated pattern is by using another form of substitution. If two measures of triplets (all the same note) are to be played quickly, curling the hand slightly and using fingers 3-2-1, 3-2-1, etc. on each set of triplets will keep this sort of repetition from

    causing discomfort.

    Basic Rules Regarding FingeringJust as was mentioned in the section dealing with moving hands

    from clef to clef, no two hands are shaped the same way which also means that certain fingerings will not be the most efficient for every musician. However, most fingerings have been thoughtfully written by a composer or editor and should be seriously considered before inventing a different fingering.

    That being said, there are some rules that stand regardless of the size of any hand.

    1. Scale fingerings are very standardized and should be closely followed.

    2. Simply because of the physiological shape of the hand, playing a black key with the thumb should nearly always be avoided.

  • C D E

    Half Step

    Whole Step


    The notes discussed in Chapter 6 explained the white notes on the keyboard. Since each white note has a particular location on the staff, this raises the question of what the role of the black keys is and where they fit on the staff.

    When intervals were first explained, the terms step and skip were used as terms to indicate the intervals of a 2nd and 3rd. The term step

    was applied to moving from one note name to the next (C to D, B to C, etc.).

    However, this point does have one technicality linked to it. For the sake of example, the notes C and D will be used. A black key sits between C and D; from C to this black key is a half step and from D down to this same black key is a half step. (Conversely, from this black key to C or from the same black key to D is also measured as a half step.) If the half step from C to the black key and the half step from that same black key to D are

    added together, the interval of a whole step (or 2nd) is achieved.

    Chap t e r 8

    Sharp, Flat, and Natural Symbols

  • C D E F G A B C

    Half Step Half Step

    Whole Step Whole Step


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Using this method of measuring whole steps, it will become apparent that not every white key-to-white key movement is a whole step. There are no black keys between the white keys B and C or between E and F. The interval from B to C and from E to F is a half step. Every other white key-to-white key movement is a whole step.

    It is worth noting that many black key-to-black key movements are also whole steps. Playing the black key between C and D and the black key between D and E is also a whole step. The set of three black keys also has a couple of whole steps contained within its group.

    Flats and SharpsThese preliminary explanations will simplify the matter of flats and

    sharps. The black keys on the keyboard function exclusively as flats or sharps. This means that you will not play a black key unless a special

  • Sharp Flat

    C D E F G A B

    D E G A B


    Sharp, Flat, and Natural Symbols

    symbol is present. The special symbols that indicate a flat or a sharp are pictured below.

    These symbols are similar in and of that they both indicate a note needing to be played a half step higher or lower than what is shown on the staff. The sharp symbol raises a note a half step and a flat lowers a note a half step. These symbols will always be placed in front of the note that is to be raised or lowered. They will also be centered—the “hole” of the flat symbol or the box of the sharp symbol—directly on the line or on the space of the note they affect.

    If a flat symbol precedes a note, that note will be played a half step lower. When a D, E, G, A, or B flat is shown, the black key directly below the note indicated on the staff is to be played. Most of the time, a flat will be a black key. However, as noted at the beginning of the chapter, there are two places where a black

  • C D E F G A B

    D C F G A


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    key is not present between two white keys. In these cases, since a flat is always a half step below the note written, a flat will be white key. The two places where this happens are with the notes C and F. If a C-flat is written, the white key B is to be played; if an F-flat is written, the white key E is to be played.

    Sharps serve the opposite function of flats—they will cause a note to be raised a half step. When the notes C, D, F, G, and A sharp are written on the staff, the black key directly above the note indicated on the staff will be played. As with flats, most sharps will be a black key but the two exceptions to this rule are the notes B and E. If a B-sharp is written, the white key C is to be played; if an E-sharp is written, the white key F serves as E-sharp.

    A special rule that applies to sharps and flats is that when a flat or sharp is written in a measure, it applies to any other note(s) that are the same in that measure. At the bar line, that sharp or flat is automatically dropped. Any notes in following measures that are to be flatted or sharped must have a symbol placed before them.

  • 65

    Sharp, Flat, and Natural Symbols

    The Natural SignThe natural sign is used to cancel a flat and/or sharp (and

    a double flat or double sharp). For instance, if an F-sharp is indicated in a measure and two beats later another F is written with a natural sign in front of it, the second F will be played as a natural F and not an F-sharp.

    Applying the special rule regarding flats and sharps within a measure, if a measure has and F-sharp then an F-natural written, any other F’s included in that measure will be F-naturals.

    Enharmonic TonesThe fact that every black key can serve as a flat or a sharp should be

    apparent. The term for this is enharmonic. The enharmonic “spelling” (since letters are used) of a black key can be either a flat or a sharp name. The black key between C and D can be written as either a

  • C D E F G A B

    D E G A B D G AC F


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    C-sharp or a D-flat and the same black key is indicated by both spellings.

    Since music is a highly structured art, there is a logical use of sharps and flats in every piece of music. A composer will not arbitrarily write just any combinations of flats and sharps. This aspect of music will be explained in Chapter 9.

    Double Flats and SharpsA double flat or double sharp is just that: a flat or sharp, times

    two. Since a flat or a sharp will lower or raise a note by half a step, a double flat or double sharp will lower or raise a note by a whole step. The double flat symbol is fairly logical, but the double sharp symbol is very unique.

    If a double flat symbol is placed in front of the note B, the key A is to be played. An F with a double sharp written in front of it will actually be played on the key G. This is demonstrated in the following example.

  • Double SharpDouble Flat

    C D E F G A B


    Sharp, Flat, and Natural Symbols

    Double flats and sharps are not very common but they do serve a very important purpose. Their use will become more apparent in Chapter 10.

  • C Majora minor G Major

    e minor

    D Majorb minor

    A Majorf-sharp minor

    E Majorc-sharp minor

    B Majorg-sharp minor

    orC-flat Majora-flat minor

    F-sharp Majorc-sharp minor

    orG-flat Majore-flat minor

    C-sharp Majorb-sharp minor

    orD-flat Majorb-flat minor

    A-flat Majorf minor

    E-flat Majorc minor

    B-flat Majorg minor

    F Majord minor

    Circle of 5ths


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

  • 69

    A key is determined by tonality—the white and black notes that are used. In earlier centuries, modes were used to determine the tonality of a piece. In the modern era, the terms major and minor are applied to most pieces.

    Major keys typically have a “happy” and “light” sound to them although slow music can be written in major keys and have a very introspective quality to it. Minor keys can be distinguished by a “sad” sound. Major and minor keys relate to each other in a very systematic way which will be explained once the order of keys is established.

    The order in which we arrive at keys is easily understood by what is known as the “Circle of 5ths,” pictured on the previous page.

    Key SignaturesThe key signature is a number of sharps or flats that are placed at

    the beginning of each line of music. (The key signature precedes the time signature on the first line of music.) A key signature serves to list the sharps or flats that automatically occur in that key. For example, the key of G major will always have an F-sharp in its key signature.

    Chap t e r 9

    Keys and Key Signatures

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    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    What this means is that any F in the piece is automatically played as an F-sharp (instead of having to place a sharp symbol before each F). Sharps or flats are added cumulatively through the progression from key to key. The next key, D major, has another sharp added to it so all F’s and all C’s will automatically be played as sharps.

    AccidentalsThis term does not mean that these notes are accidentally placed,

    it merely refers to a sharp, flat, or natural that is not part of the key signature. If a piece of music has the key signature of E-flat (containing the flats B, E, and A), any natural placed in front of one of those notes is called an accidental. Likewise, any flat or sharp placed in front of a note that isn’t part of the key signature is termed an accidental.

    Major KeysThe central key of the Circle of 5ths is C major, the only key

    without any sharps or flats. Playing the note a 5th higher than C, we arrive at the next key, G, has an F-sharp (meaning that any F in this key is automatically played as an F-sharp, not an F). A 5th up from G is the next key, D, which has two sharps—F-sharp and C-sharp. With each new key, a new sharp is added until you reach seven sharps. (The order of sharps is also patterned in 5ths; the first sharp being F-sharp, the next sharp a 5th higher is C-sharp, the next 5th lands on G-sharp, etc.) The last three sharp keys can also be named as flats (enharmonic spelling applies). Once the key of C-sharp arrives, to continue in the

  • 71

    Keys and Key Signatures

    pattern of 5ths, the keys are named as flats and the number of flats begin to decrease.

    Another way to quickly find the order of the flat keys is to start with the key of C major and move up in the interval of a 4th. From C, move up to F (1 flat—B-flat), another 4th to B-flat (2 flats—B-flat and E-flat), and so on.

    The relationship of major keys to the number of sharps or flats is demonstrated in the table below.

    MnemonicsMnemonics for the order of sharps and flats are listed below.

    Sharps: F, C, G, D, A, E, B: Fat, Cats, Go, Down, Alleys, Eating, Bread

    Flats: B, E, A, D, G, C, F: The first four flats spell the word BEAD, Greatest, Common Factor.

    Minor KeysMinor keys are related to major keys by the same number of sharps

    or flats contained in their key signatures. The term used to define the relationship between these major and minor keys is the word relative. The simplest way to find the relative minor of a major key is to step down three half steps from the note that names the major key. For example, the relative minor key to C major is A minor; from C, step down to B, B-flat, and the third half step is A.

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    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    It is important not to make the assumption that F major and F minor have the same key signature—this is not the case. The table below identifies major and minor relative keys.

  • 73

    With the establishment of major and minor categories, the cornerstone use of scales can now be established. A scale is a systematic group of half and whole steps specific to major and minor patterns. A scale will typically begin on one note name and finish on the same note name anywhere else on the keyboard. Beginning on C and following the major pattern, the scale can move one to seven octaves on the keyboard, ascending, descending, or both.

    The Major ScaleThe C major scale was used as an example in Chapter 7 but an

    explanation of what a scale really is could not be undertaken until tonality and the basics of key structures were established.

    The pattern for a major scale is the progression:1

    W, W, H, W, W, W, H.

    The C scale is the only major scale entirely created from white keys that fits this pattern.

    1 W stands for whole step; H stands for half step

    Chap t e r 10


  • C Major

    G Major

    E-flat Major


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Beginning on any other note, black keys must be included to maintain the major scale pattern of whole and half steps.

    A scale can also begin on any black note; most flat scales actually begin on black keys. Scales start on the name of the key: an A scale will begin on any A, a C-sharp scale begins on any C-sharp, a G-flat scale will begin on G-flat, etc.

    Minor ScalesWhile there is only one major scale for each key, the minor tonality

    has the possibility of three different scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic.

  • d minornatural

    d minorharmonic

    d minor melodic



    The natural minor scale adheres strictly to the same number of flats or sharps in its key signature. The harmonic minor scale adheres to the key signature with the exception of the seventh tone of the scale which is raised a half step. The melodic minor scale follows the key signature but the sixth and seventh tones are both raised a half step when ascending and both tones are lowered when descending

    (the descending melodic minor is also the way in which a natural minor scale would be played). Each of these scales is labeled and demonstrated below.

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

    5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    While any three of these minor scales may be used in a piece—and it is strongly suggested that familiarity with all three is gained—the “normal” minor sound that most Western music is based on is the harmonic minor. The pattern for the harmonic minor scale is: W, H, W, W, H, 1 ½ W (three half steps), H.

    Scale FingeringsA full list of scale fingerings would be redundant for a book of

    this sort. Books consisting of scales (major and minor), the chords associated with each key, arpeggios, etc. are readily available.

    However, a few fingering rules will be established. The same fingering for both left and right hands is used for the scales of C, G, D, A, and E major as well as A, E, D, G, and C minor. This fingering is:

    (right hand) r.h.—12312345

    (left hand) l.h.—54321321

    This is one place where the technique of crossing over or under different fingers of the hand is very obviously represented.

    Another common fingering is that used for keys using many black

  • 1 3 1 3 1 2 3 1 3 2 1 3 1 3 1



    keys, keys such as F-sharp, C-sharp, D-flat major and several relative minor keys. This rule establishes the pattern of fingers 2 and 3 being used on the sets of two black keys and fingers 2, 3, and 4 being used for the set of 3 black keys.

    Another standard rule relating to flat keys is the r.h. finger 4 and l.h. finger 2 will typically land on B-flat in whatever key is being used.

    Chromatic ScalesA chromatic scale does not belong to any particular key. It is

    completely made up of half steps. When a chromatic scale ascends, it will make use of sharps and when it descends, the black notes will be signified by flats.

    The fingering for a chromatic scale is much different that the fingerings used for major and minor scales. The white notes will be played using finger 1 and black notes will be played using finger three. The exception is the place where two white notes sit next to each other; in these places fingers 1 and 2 are used. This fingering keeps the hand “curled” tighter than normal but allows for very rapid

  • 78

    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    movement—almost more of a wiggling of the fingers. The image below will demonstrate how this looks and how the fingering works.

    Parallel and Contrary Motion ScalesScales can be played in many different configurations. The most

    common ways of finding them written is in parallel and contrary motion. Practicing scales in both ways strengthens awareness of fingering and the key signature particular to each key.

    Parallel motion means ascending and descending with both hands at the same time. In this way, the notes being played with each hand are the same but the fingering is not.

    Contrary motion can be easier than parallel motion in some keys and more difficult in others. The reason for this stems from the first fingering rule that was mentioned a few sections earlier. For scales that use the fingering in that example (r.—12312345, l.—54321321) the fingering matches up while the notes do not.

    While scales may seem like boring and highly technical details, mastering scales is a definite advantage. Being able to recognize scale patterns, using efficient fingering, and understanding the relationship between major and minor keys are all basic steps in building a solid technique.

  • 79

    This chapter will deal with a few more in-depth aspects of music theory—the explanations of some of the more common patterns found in much of musical literature.

    ChordsChords are played in one of two ways,

    1. Blocked

    2. Broken

    Blocked chords create what was earlier taught as harmonic intervals; broken chords would be considered melodic intervals but are not always part of a melody.

    TriadsThe simplest blocked chord is called a triad. Based on its root “tri”

    it is easy to see where this type of chord receives its name. A triad is a group of three notes, all 3rds apart. When a chord is in this formation, the bottom (root) note names the chord.

    Chap t e r 11

    Chords, Cadences, and Arpeggios

  • Major 2nd minor 2nd


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Slight variations of a triad (but not a change in the position of each note on the staff), produce the differences between major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads.

    Measuring Intervals and TriadsTo make these chords more understandable, a clarification of

    different intervals will prove useful. When the notes F and G are written as a harmonic interval it is considered a 2nd –they are a whole step apart. However, a F and a G-flat written as a harmonic interval is also considered a 2nd—they are only a half step apart. These two 2nds will be labeled as a major and a minor 2nd, respectively. The way to determine whether an interval is major or minor is determined by the number of whole and/or half steps the interval contains.

    Applying this principle to a triad, the bottom 3rd (from C to E in this example) is a major 3rd—two whole steps. The top 3rd (from E

    to G) is a minor 3rd—only one and a half whole steps.

    The distinction of major and minor intervals can be applied to 2nds, 3rds, 6ths, and 7ths. 4ths, 5ths, and 8ths (an octave) are considered to be

    “perfect” which means they can be neither major nor minor.

  • 81

    Chords, Cadences, and Arpeggios

    It is also important to recognize that the way in which these intervals are labeled can be easily confused. A major interval will be shown as a capital ‘M’ while a minor interval will be signified as a lower case ‘m.’ For example, a major 6th will be written as M6 and a minor 6th will be written as m6. Perfect intervals have a capital ‘P’ placed in front of them: P4, P5, and P8.

    The reason why the difference between major and minor intervals is important is because it directly effects whether or not a triad is major or minor (augmented and diminished chords are derivatives of basic major and minor triads).

    A major triad will consist of the intervals listed above: a major 3rd as the bottom interval and a minor 3rd as the top interval. A minor triad will reverse these two intervals with the minor 3rd being placed on the bottom and the major 3rd on the top of the triad. The tonal difference between major and minor can be clearly heard when comparing triads in this way.

    An augmented triad is based on a major triad; it is created from two major 3rds. Again, the notes on the staff will still be written as 3rds but a sharp or natural will be placed before the top note.

    A diminished triad is based on a minor triad; it is built from two minor 3rds. Just as with every other triad, the interval of a 3rd is still maintained but this time a flat or a natural will be placed before the top note.

    Following are examples of Major, minor, Augmented, and diminished triads.

  • Majo

    r (M



    r (m)





    shed (



    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    Scale Degrees and ChordsEach scale has a number assigned to each note contained in

    the scale—the numbers 1-7. As a triad is built on each scale tone, that chord also adopts that number. Chord numbers are shown with Roman numerals, capitals being major chords and lower case numerals signifying minor chords (just as capital and lowercase m’s differentiate between major and minor intervals). Augmented chords will be distinguished by a small addition sign and diminished chords will be distinguished by a small “degree” symbol.

    Each scale tone has a name assigned to it. The table below will organize this information.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7

    Tonic Super-tonic MediantSubdom-



    Leading Tone

  • Tonic














    ing To

















    ing To




    Chords, Cadences, and Arpeggios

    The most important tone in every scale is the tonic. This tone names the key and the rest of the tonalities are based on the tonic. Other important tones are the Subdominant and Dominant. The particular use for these two chords will be explained in the section dealing with cadences.

    Since the tonic names the key, every scale (and piece) has a different tonic. The following scales and explanations should assist in making this point clearer.

    C Major

    E-flat Major

  • Tonic














    ing To



    I ii iii IV V vi vii° I


    How to Read Music–The Ultimate Guide

    B Major

    If each note of a scale has a triad built upon it, the reason for scale tones being considered major, minor, diminished, or augmented will become more apparent.

    Just as each major scale will follow a prescribed pattern of half and whole steps and each minor scale must follow a pattern of half and whole steps, so also will the pattern of major, minor, augmented, and

  • Root

    1st In



    2nd In




    Chords, Cadences, and Arpeggios

    diminished chords follow a pattern depending on the key of the scale. The pattern is shown below.

    InversionsA brief look at most pieces of music will reveal that the chords used

    are not strictly triads. Many chords are inversions of a triad. What this means is that the same note names are used but they are placed in a different order. For example, a C triad is built with C as the tonic (ro