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How To Read Music--the Basics, Part One

Updated on April 1, 2012
Keyboard with sheet music
Keyboard with sheet music | Source


Musical notation, as the written notes on a page are called, began almost as far back as written language. Back then, it was very much more complex than it is now. For one thing, the break we now see, with separate staffs of 5 lines each, used to be one great big unified mess of lines and notes. It was called The Great Staff. Maybe musicians were smarter or had better eyesight in those days. I'm not sure.

Even now, many people are intimidated by these mysterious looking symbols on the paper. I'm just glad I don't have to deal with The Great Staff! There are only 7 notes, repeated over and over, and their names correspond to the first 7 letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

It 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 hub 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.

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. These days, just to confuse the issue of past history, this full connected set for the piano is called the grand or great staff. Are we having fun yet?

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 "and" sign), except that the central line is vertical instead of slanted. It's internal curlicue ends by wrapping itself around the line that represents the note "G," hence, the "G" clef.

Then, we have the bottom set of 5 lines, representing the lower notes. This is called the Bass** Clef, or "F" Clef. It's symbol is more like an overgrown, fancy apostrophe, with its curlicue wrapped around the line representing the note, "F." Just to be sure, there are also 2 dots immediately to the right of the symbol, one above and one below the "F" line. This is part of the symbol, and must not be omitted.

**pronounced "base" as in "baseball" and not like the fish.

The clefs as normally used in piano music
The clefs as normally used in piano music

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 coutnerparts. No worries.

The musical notes all occupy a line or a space between the lines. See--they've been there all this time--who said the "occupy" movement was something new? This is a sit-in of long-standing.

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. Right! Face! That's how you remember the treble clef spaces.

Now for the lines. When I was a kid, the usual mnemonic for the lines, E, G, B, D, F, was, "Every Good Boy Does Fine." However, there is also a memory device for the bass clef that mentions boys. 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 all over the place.

The notes of the treble, or "G" clef
The notes of the treble, or "G" clef

Naming the Bass Clef Notes

Just as with the treble clef, there are memory tricks (mnemonics) to help you out. Also, the lines and spaces are learned separately for this reason, even though in both cases, they actually alternate with each other.

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." Personally, I prefer the version that is very different from the one used for the treble clef. It is less likely to be confusing. So, my advice is, choose whichever memory trick you like, but use the different one for the other clef.

The notes of the bass, or "F" clef
The notes of the bass, or "F" clef

Notes Above, Below and In-Between

The current separation of the treble and bass clefs with white space between is the result of elimination of a line from the old "great staff." Actually, there is a note that sat on that line. Today, we see it floating alone in space, with just a short segment of that old line running horizontally through its middle.

Ah--the middle! That note is, oddly enough, "Middle C." On a piano, it is found almost at the exact geographic center of the keys, and there is usually a cheat of some sort available to locate it--on the old upright grand my mother had, it was just barely to the right of the lock that could be used to close and lock the lid over the keys. It is a very mid-range note as well; neither high nor low. But I digress.

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 cannot read them on sight, but 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.

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. (Even old-fashioned tiled floors done in those tiny octagonal tiles seen in some older public restrooms tend to make me feel off-kilter, as they appear to "move.")

The other thing that can make leger lines confusing, is that they 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.

What were lines become spaces; what were spaces become lines
What were lines become spaces; what were spaces become lines

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 here.

More To Follow

I think that's enough to confuse everyone with for now. Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I will introduce musical counting, a sort of science unto itself.

Then, there are steps and accidentals, measures to be taken and dots and dashes, oh, my!

Sit a spell, and digest all of this while I write part two. Cheers!



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  • mrslagibb profile image

    Mrs L A Gibb 5 years ago

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

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    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!

  • mrslagibb profile image

    Mrs L A Gibb 5 years ago

    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

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    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.

  • peoplepower73 profile image

    Mike Russo 5 years ago from Placentia California

    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.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    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.

  • watergeek profile image

    watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

    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!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    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!

  • albertsj profile image

    jacy albertson 5 years ago from Lake Mary, Fl

    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