How to Read Music!

What is tempo?

The word "tempo" is Latin for "time." For our purpose it is the speed at which we play a piece of music.

What is rhythm?

Rhythm is that thing in music that makes you want to tap your foot, play drums with your silverware or play air guitar. It also helps keep armies and marching bands in step. Rhythm is a certain controlled, regular (or irregular) "pulse" which flows through music in time. The word "rhythm" is Greek for "flow."

What is the beat?

The "beat" or "meter" of a song is determined by its count. We measure some songs in sections of fourths with the beat count being a repetitious, one , two, three, four. Other songs may be measured in thirds and counted as a repetitious one, two, three. This produces a different beat. The count or beat is determined by the time signature.

What is the time signature?

The time signature is a formula that determines the counting process for each measure in a particular musical piece. For example 4/4 is a time signature formula that tells us to count a piece of music in fours. The top number tells us how many counts and the bottom number tells us what kind of notes are being counted. In the case of 4/4 the time signature is saying to count four/fourth notes to each measure that follows.

This is a basic sample of a musical staff with notes.

This is a basic staff of music. There are four spaces and five lines on every staff. The names of the notes that are on the open spaces are F-A-C-E (as read from the bottom up). The names of the notes that sit on the lines are E-G-B-D-F (also read from the bottom up). An easy way to remember the line notes are to use the letters as an acronym for the saying "Every Good Boy Does Fine."

See if you can name the notes in the order they appear in this arrangement.

If you said C-D-C-D-B-G-E-B-E-E, you were absolutely correct!

This is a basic sample of a musical staff with notes.

The first symbol on the staff is called a clef or treble clef sign. Clef signs appear at the beginning of every piece of music. The treble clef (sometimes called the G Clef because it appears to "circle" the G line) represents high notes.

The next symbols (that look like the letter "b") represent a "flat" note (which lowers a tone 1/2 step).

The next symbol (that looks like the letter "c") is the time signature for this piece of music. Every arrangement requires a time signature to tell you the speed at which the music should be played. This particular time signature stands for 1/2 time. Every note represented after that time signature will be played at 1/2 the length (or twice the speed) that the note would normally play.

The next symbol (which looks like a "#") represents a "sharp" note (which raises a tone 1/2 step). There is another symbol that looks similar to the "#" also and it is called a "natural." It indicates that a note should not be sharpened or flattened and cancels the effect of a sharp or flat in the music.

The vertical line that appears on the staff is called a bar. The spaces between two bars is called a measure. The double bar at the end of the staff marks the end of a section. Every piece of music has a beginning (clef), a time signature, measures/bars and an end (double bar).

What do the notes and the rests look like?

Whole Note Whole Rest
Half Note Half Rest
Quarter Note Quarter Rest
8th Note 8th Rest
16th Note 16th Rest
32nd Note 32nd Rest
64th Note 64th Rest

What do these notes mean? How are they played?

To know "how long" to play each note you need to see the time signature. For example, assuming that it is 4/4 time (4 beats per measure), a whole note is 4 beats long and a half note is 2 beats long. In 2/4 time (2 beats per measure) a whole note is 2 beats and a half note is one beat. In other words, a "whole" note will play for the "whole" measure. A "half" note will play for "half" the measure, and so on.

Note that in the pictures above, the difference in a whole and half rest are the way they are placed on the line. A whole rest lies under the line while a half rest sits on top of the line.

Why are some notes dotted and some have ties?

A dot beside any note or rest will increase the value by half. For example, a dotted half note will have the same value as three quarter notes. A dotted quarter note will have the same value as three eighth notes and a dotted sixteenth note will equal three, thirty-second notes. A tie is a curved line placed over a note and its repetition to show that the two shall be performed as one, unbroken note. For example, a half note and a quarter note would be played for three beats.


Why do some notes have tails?

As shown in the notes in the above table, the "tails" on the note mean that the value of the note was cut in half. A quarter note with a tail is an eighth note. An eighth note with a tail is a 16th note, and so forth.

This concludes your first lesson in the universal language of music! If you find it helpful and/or interesting, you may want to proceed to lesson two. Remember... life is music, the rest is just details!

Questions on a term used here? Go to the Dictionary of Musical Terms

For the next lesson go to my second music page

Maybe you want to download a free demo of music software to help learn the notes

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