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

Updated on April 11, 2013

Introduction

Hello and welcome to Part Two of my hub on learning the basics of reading music. In Part One, we learnt a lot including:

  • 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

Part One can be found here:

http://robbiecwilson.hubpages.com/hub/Beginners-guide-on-how-to-read-music-with-examples-Part-One

In Part Two, we are going to build on what we learnt in Part One and learn some more advanced aspects of reading music. Today, we are going to cover:

  • Key signatures (whether the music contains sharps # and flats b)
  • Rests (periods of silence in music)
  • Notation that tells us how to play the music (loudly, softly, slowly quickly etc)
  • Repeats (parts of a musical piece that is repeated)

Understanding Key Signatures when reading sheet music

The notes in an octave that we learnt about in Part One (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) are all said to be one tone apart.

A sharp raises a note by a semi-tone (half a tone) and a flat lowers a note by a semi-tone. The key signature tells us which note(s) to play with a sharp or a flat.

Let’s return to Auld Lang Syne to look at how to use key signatures in that piece.

The first line of the piece is shown below. You can see, next to the treble clef there is a sharp symbol (I have pointed to it with a red arrow)

How to find the key signature on a piece of sheet music.
How to find the key signature on a piece of sheet music. | Source

This tells us two things:

  • Firstly, the key signature is G Major (more on this later)
  • Secondly, we have to play all F notes as F#

How we use the key signature is fairly straightforward. One again, take a pencil and draw a sharp next to every F note.

Let's see how much we learnt about key signatures

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I have highlighted with a red arrow the F notes that we need to play as F# in the first line of Auld Lang Syne.

Showing the notes that should be played as a sharp.
Showing the notes that should be played as a sharp. | Source

Note: It is important to remember that there are two Fs in the treble clef and that both need to be played as a #.

Before we look at the the key signatures you are likely to come across, we need to talk about accidentals.

An accidental is a sharp, flat or a natural added to a bar of music in the middle of the piece. What this tells you is that for just that bar, you play the note either as a sharp, flat or as the natural note (so F# becomes F, Bb becomes B etc).

You can see from the figure below that we would play the first note as F# and the second as F natural.

Illustration of the sharp and natural notation before a note.
Illustration of the sharp and natural notation before a note. | Source

I have illustrated all the key signatures that you are likely to see illustrated in the figure below (there are more keys, but it is highly unlikely that you will see them).

Common key signatures found in music and the sharps and flats associated with them.
Common key signatures found in music and the sharps and flats associated with them. | Source

Rests in music

A rest in music is simply a period of silence. As with a note, rests are shown as fractions of a bar or measure. The figure below shows the symbols for rests that you are likely to see when reading music.

The various types of rests found in sheet music.
The various types of rests found in sheet music. | Source

From left to right, the symbols show:

Duration of Rest (silence)
A rest for a whole bar
A half bar rest
A quarter bar rest
Finally an eighth of a bar rest

So in 4/4 time, if you see a half bar rest you count 1, 2 for the rest and in ¾ time it would be 1, 1.5

You will sometimes see a long rest with a number above it as shown below. This tells you that there is a rest for 15 bars. These can be common if you are playing a piece that was written for an orchestra but is much less common for solo pieces.

Example of how a multiple bar rest would appear in sheet music.
Example of how a multiple bar rest would appear in sheet music. | Source

Common musical notations and what they mean when reading music

In order to add expression to the music, the composer will add notes to music to tell the player how to play the music. Without notation, music would be played at the same volume, pace and style throughout.

To illustrate this, we will look at a different piece of music, Amazing Grace.

I have taken the first line and marked some of the musical notation with red numbers so that we can go through them step, by step:

First line of Amazing Grace with the musical notation highlighted.
First line of Amazing Grace with the musical notation highlighted. | Source
  1. (1 beat = 92) shows how long a beat is if you are using a metronome. A metronome is a device that marks the beat so that you can play the rhythm accurately and can be adjusted according to the speed that is written on the sheet of music itself.
  2. (mp) tells you how loudly to play the music at the beginning of the piece. These notations are all in Italian, and means mezzo-piano which means moderately softly (the full table of volume notations for music can be found below).
  3. The line above a note has a number of meanings and is known as Tenuto. It can mean that a note will be played for slightly longer than normal or be emphasized.
  4. is known as a crescendo and tells you to play gradually more loudly from mp (moderately softly) up to mf (moderately loudly) so you would play the G louder than the E and the F louder than the E. In the next bar, (mf) is followed by a crescendo which tells you to play mezzo-forte or mediumly loud and play the long B more loudly as you count through it.

Notation
How to play the music
Piano (p)
Softly
Forte (f)
Loudly
Mezzo
Moderately
Mezzo- piano (mp)
Moderately softly
Pianissimo (pp)
Very softly
Fortissimo (ff)
Very loudly
Pianissimo possibile(ppp)
As softly as possible
Fortissimo possibile (fff)
As loudly as possible

So we start of moderately softly, with emphasis on the first note and then in bar six, we play more loudly up to mf and then more loudly still to the end of the line

Now we will look at line 2 of Amazing Grace to illustrate more notations.

Line two of Amazing Grace with musical notations marked.
Line two of Amazing Grace with musical notations marked. | Source
  1. This symbol is known as a diminuendo. It is the opposite of a crescendo and means that the volume should decrease over the course of the notation (the longer the diminuendo, the more gradual the decrease in volume).
  2. The dot above a note means that this note should be played stoccato. This means that the note is shorter than normal with a break between the notes. When combined with a slur, there is a gap but it is shorter than stoccato.

In line two, we increase the volume in bar one up to f (forte or loud) then in bar two we play more softly down to mf (mezzo-forte or moderately loud). In addition, we play a number of notes in bars two, four and five stoccato with a small gap between the notes.

How to use repeats in music when reading and playing sheet music

The final thing we will look at today is the use of repeats. A repeat, as the name suggests simply means that a passage of the musical piece you are playing is repeated. The repeat notation is made up of a number of elements:

  1. is the beginning of the repeat
  2. is the end of the repeat
  3. is played only the first time (before you go back to 1)
  4. is played only the second time

Parts of a repeat notated in a sheet of music.
Parts of a repeat notated in a sheet of music. | Source

Let's see how much we learnt about repeats

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There are a couple of variations on the repeat.

  • Sometimes there will only be 1 and 2 and no 3 and 4
  • On occasions the repeat will be played multiple time, this will be notated clearly on the sheet of music itself and will typically state “to be played four times” for example.

Conclusion

In today’s hub, we built on what we learnt in Part One which covered the basic concepts of learning to read music. In Part Two we learnt about:

  • Key signatures
  • Rests
  • Notation that tells us how to play the music as well as the Crescendo and Diminuendo
  • Repeats (parts of a musical piece that is repeated)

Learning music and playing a musical instrument is a wonderful and enriching experience and is one that I cannot imagine my life being without. Music is such a key part of my life and I hope that through this two part hub I have played a small role in bringing it into yours. Many thanks for reading and good luck! Please feel free to leave any comments you may have in the section below.

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      emmanuel sila 

      21 months ago

      This is great especially for learners like me

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