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How to Read Sheet Music: The Basics

Updated on July 13, 2013
Sheet Music
Sheet Music

In order to play an instrument, most of the time you will need to be able to read sheet music. What do those mystical lines and dots mean, and how do they correspond to musical notes? Here I will go over the basics of sheet music.

If you already know this information, feel free to skip ahead.

How to Read Sheet Music: Notes

How to Read Sheet Music: Note Types



Clefs indicate pitch on sheet music.

The treble clef is on the top of a staff. The notes in this clef are typically played with the right hand on a piano.

The bass clef is on the bottom of a staff. The notes in this clef are typically played with the left hand on a paino.

Some instruments only require one clef. For example, the flute only uses the treble clef, and the trombone only uses the bass clef. This depends on the range of the instrument.

Sharps and Flats
Sharps and Flats

Key Signature

The key signature indicates which notes will be sharp or flat in a piece. If there is no visible key signature, then all notes are meant to be played as written.

Sharp: appears like a '#' sign and means to play a note up a half step from what is written (meaning the next key to the right on a piano)

Flat: appears like a lowercase 'b' and means to play a note down a half step from what is written (meaning the next key to the left on a piano)

Sharps and flats can also appear in the music itself. They are placed directly in front of the note they modify.

Time Signatures
Time Signatures

Time Signature

The time signature indicates how many beats are in each measure (the span between vertical lines) and which note gets the beat.

4/4: This is the most common time signature and is often written as C in place of 4/4. It means that there are four beats per measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.

6/8: This means that there are six beats per measure, and the eighth note gets the beat. A quarter note would therefore count as two beats.

ยข: This means cut time, or half of C. In effect, this is the same as 2/2 so there are two beats per measure and the half note gets the beat.


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    • ccornblatt profile image

      Cassidy Cornblatt 5 years ago

      Thanks for commenting! I'm hoping this will be a good resource for new musicians.

    • MYEnglishWork profile image

      MYEnglishWork 5 years ago

      This is really useful. Putting in a bit of extra work is definitely important for new musicians, and this makes tht work a little easier!