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Beginners guide on how to read music with examples, Part One

Updated on April 11, 2013


Hi and welcome to this my first hub on a musical theme. Today we will learn the basics of how to read music.

For anyone wishing to learn a musical instrument, learning to read sheet music is a very important first step. In today’s hub we will learn how to read the following piece of music, the traditional Scottish song Auld Lang Syne.

An example of sheet music we will learn to read during this hub.
An example of sheet music we will learn to read during this hub. | Source

In order to make sense of it all, we will break it down into its component parts and look at each piece in a logical order.

In Part One:

  • We will start by learning how to read the notes themselves as well as learning about the octave.
  • Then we will learn the time signature so that we can tell how long to play each note
  • We will learn about bars and measures
  • Finally, we will learn about the slur

In Part Two:

We will look at some more advanced concepts, including:

  • We will look at how to tell which key signature the music is in (whether it has sharps and flats)
  • As well as rests (gaps in the music)
  • And the notation that tells us how to play the music (loudly, softly, slowly quickly etc).

Part Two can be found here:

Learning how to read the names of the notes in a piece of sheet music

The first and most important step is to know the names of the notes themselves.

  • While you are still learning, it is a great idea to print the following picture out so that you can refer to it whenever you get stuck.
  • Also, it can be very helpful to actually write the name of the note below it in pencil on the sheet of music itself while you are still familiarising yourself with the notes.

Very useful reference card while learning the names of notes.
Very useful reference card while learning the names of notes. | Source

Before we start to actually read the notes, it is important to understand a few rules of music:

  • All musical notes are part of an octave which is made up of eight notes, known as A, B, C, D, E, F and G and then another note the same as the first (so the first octave for the Treble Clef is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C).
  • Another A note always comes after a G, then a B, C, D, E, F and G forming a new octave.

The next thing to look at is the clef which is the symbol to the left of the music as shown below:

Treble Clef shown on the left and the Bass Clef on the right.
Treble Clef shown on the left and the Bass Clef on the right. | Source

The above figure shows the Treble Clef on the left and the Bass Clef on the right. What this tells you is the pitch of the notes on the line of music.

This is important when looking at the first note of each clef. The first note in the Treble Clef is C and the first note in the Bass Clef is E.

OK, time to look back at our piece (Auld Lang Syne) and practice what we have learnt!

First, we need to check what clef the music is in so that we can tell what the first note is. The answer is in the quiz below.

Let's see how much we learnt about Clefs

view quiz statistics

Now that we know the clef, we need to figure out the first note. This will get you started on reading your first line of music.

Let's see how much we learnt about the names of notes

view quiz statistics

Take some time to work along the first line and write down the name of each note. Once you have written them down, the quiz below will reveal the correct answer.

Let's see how much we learnt about the names of notes, Part Two

view quiz statistics

Well done, you are well on the way to learning to read music!

Learning to tell the Time Signature of the music and what that means

Looking at the first line, you will notice that all the notes look different, some have a tail, some have a dot after them and others are hollow. This tells us how long we should play the note for. Before we learn about the different note lengths, first we need to learn about time signatures.

The time signature is the two numbers to the right of the treble clef. This song is in 4 / 4 time. The figure below shows the time signature illustrated by the red arrow.

Illustration of the time signature in sheet music.
Illustration of the time signature in sheet music. | Source

Before explaining what this means, we need to introduce an important concept, the bar or measure.

The bar (or measure) is if you like a unit of music. The first line of our song is made up of four completed bars. A bar is notated by vertical lines. The figure below shows one bar of Auld Lang Syne.

Example of a bar or measure in sheet music.
Example of a bar or measure in sheet music. | Source

What the time signature tells us about that bar are two things. First,

  • There are four beats in a bar
  • Each crotchet (more on those below) is equal to a full beat

4/4 time is the most popular time signature. So when playing our song, for each bar you should count 1,2,3,4.

Working out the Note value or note duration for a piece of music

Now that we understand the time signature, next we need to learn about note duration. The figure below shows the note durations in our song (these are the most common).

Illustration of the different types of notes which represent different durations.
Illustration of the different types of notes which represent different durations. | Source

Working from left to right for the above figure, the durations of each note are shown in the table below:

Note Duration
Note Name
Whole note
Half note
Quarter note
Eighth note
Sixteenth note

Note: the note durations are a fraction of the time signature so in 4 / 4 time, a semibreve is four beats, a crotchet is one.

The final thing to note is that some notes have a dot after them. What this does is it makes it one and a half times its original length. To illustrate this we will use an example from Auld Lang Syne.

The second note the G has a dot next to it. We are in 4 /4 time, so the crotchet is a quarter note so equal to one beat in the bar. So when playing that note, we count to 1.5 for that note rather than 1.

So now, lets tie this together again for the first line of Old Lang Syne. We already know what notes they are, we need to add the time for each note.

D |G – F – G – B | A – G – A – B – A | G – G – B – D | E – E

I have added in vertical lines to represent the bars or measures to make it clearer.

So the first bar is:

D |G – F – G – B |

1 |1.5 – .5 – 1 – 1 |

Now, complete the next three bars and compare your answers with the quiz below.

Let's see how much we learnt about the duration of notes

view quiz statistics

Well done! We now have almost everything we need to finish reading the whole piece.

What the Slur means and how to play notes that are joined with a Slur

In the second bar / measure, the notes B and A are joined by a slur (looks like a fallen over bracket) as shown by the red arrow in the figure below.

Example of a slur in a piece of music.
Example of a slur in a piece of music. | Source

This tells you to play the two notes together without a pause or gap.

When playing a wind instrument such as the Saxophone or clarinet, notes are normally separated by using the tongue to break the flow of your breath into the instrument.

When notes are connected using a slur, the notes are played together without a break in air flow.


In today’s hub, we looked at the basics of reading music. We have covered an awful lot, but in summary, we learnt:

  • How to read notes
  • What an octave is
  • What a clef is
  • About Time Signatures
  • Note values and note durations
  • What a bar or measure is
  • What a slur is and how to play notes joined together with a slur

I do hope that you have found this hub useful and you are now well on your way to learning to read music for your chosen instrument.

Please join me in Part Two when we discuss some more advanced aspects of reading music.


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    • profile imageAUTHOR

      Robbie C Wilson 

      5 years ago

      Thanks Mickji, glad that you found my hub so useful. I play the clarinet and sax and thought it would be nice to share my thoughts on how to learn to read music.

    • Mickji profile image


      5 years ago from between Italy and Switzerland, travelling around the world thanks to a little special object

      This tutorial is very nice, I also did one on the same subject because I play the ocarina and try to help other new ocarina players. So now other than sharing my website, I can share your Hub. Thank you :)

    • profile imageAUTHOR

      Robbie C Wilson 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for your kind comment WalterPoon. Glad that you enjoyed this hub, I really enjoyed writing it. If you play, or want to play a musical instrument then reading music is important. With practice, you will be able to read music easily, even I get confused and make mistakes sometimes. D is almost right you were only one out LOL.

      Good luck with reading music and also your hubs!

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 

      6 years ago from Malaysia

      Very interesting hub. I know nothing about music, so this is a good starter for me. I bookmarked it so that I can read it later when I've the time. Problem is all of us are so busy, rushing to write hubs, or else to market them.

      I tried the quiz and what a bummer! I answered E and the answer is D, LOL.


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