At Baltimore School of Music, learning to read music is one of the first things we discuss with new students. Since reading music is similar to learning a new language, many students find it intimidating and overwhelming. To help you get the basics down, we’ve put together some helpful tips to make the process easier.
LEARN THE MUSIC ALPHABET
Not including sharps and flats, the music alphabet contains a set of 7 repeating notes: A B C D E F G. Once you’ve memorized these letters, move on to learning how to read them on the music staff.
GET TO KNOW THE MUSIC STAFF
Music uses a notation system of circles (notes) placed on a staff (5 lines and 4 spaces). Notes move up these lines in alphabetical order.
Depending on the instrument, notes will be on a Treble Clef (higher notes), Bass Clef (lower notes) or Grand Staff (both Treble and Bass Clef). Each clef is a symbol that indicates in what range (extent of low to high notes) your instrument plays.
Since most instruments and voices that play or sing in the higher ranges read music on the Treble Clef, it’s a great place to start. Each line and space on the staff has its own note name. For the Treble Clef, the five lines(from the bottom up) are notes E G B D F, while the four spaces (from the bottom up) are notes F A C E. A good trick for remembering these notes is to use mnemonics. For example, a popular mnemonic for remembering the lines is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. The spaces on the Treble Clef are easy to remember by that fact that they spell the word F A C E.
LEARN ABOUT MEASURES & BASIC TIME SIGNATURES
Music is written in sections, denoted by barlines (vertical lines) which breaks music into individual measures. To know how many beats (or counts) you have in each measure, you will want to look at the time signature. The time signature tells you how many beats there are in each measure and what kind of note gets the beat. The most common time signature is 4/4, or common time. In 4/4 time there are 4 beats in each measure and each quarter note lasts for one beat. This can be felt and counted as “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…”
LEARN HOW TO COUNT THE BASIC RHYTHMS
In addition to learning the names of notes, it is equally important to begin learning to count the rhythms while playing or singing. The first kind of rhythm you should learn is the quarter note, which gets 1 beat in 4/4. Then the half note, which gets 2 beats. And the whole note, which gets 4 beats. These are the basic rhythms and the most common to see in music.
PRACTICE WITHOUT YOUR INSTRUMENT!
Once you know how to read music, it is important to practice reading and counting on a regular basis. The more you practice, the easier it will be. A great resource is musictheory.net, which has several exercises for Note Reading, Key Signature Identification, and more!