It can be a minefield when learning or teaching reading music for beginners – there are so many elements to music theory, and lots of rules to remember. It is akin to learning a new language. The good news is there are plenty of ways to approach reading notation, and these can compliment each other, whatever way you are learning music.
When starting out reading music, it is best to break down the elements of music into chunks and start with rhythm. This is because you can have music with rhythm but no pitch, and concentrating on this aspect first means you can get used to tapping and reading rhythms before moving on. Strong rhythm is an excellent foundation for reading sheet music, and so the first stage is to understand ‘what is rhythm?’
Musical rhythm refers to how long notes last, and when they are played. We divide sheet music into bars to be able to count and read notes easily. In music notation we would start using the time signature of 4/4, (also known as ‘common time’) because it is used the most often, and is a simple time signature to begin with. The top number tells us there are 4 beats in a bar, and the bottom number tells us what kind of beats they are, in this case the bottom 4 means they are crotchets. So 4/4 time means every bar adds up to the equivalent of 4 crotchet beats.
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So with a time signature of ‘common time’ or 4/4 means the notes in every bar will add up to:
One semibreve – also known as a ‘whole note’. This is played on beat 1 and lasts for 4 beats. (1 2 3 4)
Two minims – also known as ‘half notes’. Two minims in a bar are played on beats 1 and 3 and they last for 2 beats each. (1 2 3 4)
Four crotchets – also known as ‘quarter notes’. These are played on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 and last for one beat each. (1 2 3 4)
Eight quavers – also known as ‘eighth notes’. These are played on beats 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + and last for half a beat each. (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +)
Any combination of minims, crotchets and quavers that add up to the equivalent of these note values, for example two crotchets and four quavers in a bar (played on beats 1 2 3 + 4 +). The next bar starts anew, and any combination can be used again as long as they add up correctly, for example one crotchet, one minim, one crotchet. (1 2 3 4).
There are some excellent resources online to help make sense of how to read sheet music rhythms in more detail such as: Learn How to Read Sheet Music.
The next element to understand when learning to read music notation is pitch. The pitch of music tells us where the note is, so how high or low it is. There are two main clefs it is good to learn when looking at music pitch: the bass clef, and the treble clef. Most instruments use these, with low-pitched instruments using the bass clef, and lots of mid-high pitched instruments using the treble clef.
The piano has so many notes (88) that piano music uses both the treble and bass clefs. Even if you don’t play the piano, looking at where the piano keys are in relation to the notes on the music stave can be really useful when learning to read music: we can always count keys/notes to help us find our way.
You’ll notice that as we go from low to high, the notes on the musical stave have a pattern of moving up from line to space, to line to space and so on. When we run out of room on the stave, this pattern carries on with ‘ledger lines’ that hover above or below the stave and work in exactly the same way.
Reading music is clearer when you are learning an instrument compared to when you are just trying to understand it generally, so why not work on your playing skills as you learn to read music? Many apps now help you to read music as you go, such as Piano Marvel. The great thing about Piano Marvel is its methods help you learn to play piano online with your favourite songs, as well as teaching you to read music notation at the same time.
Wherever you are in your music reading journey, PlayScore 2 can help you decipher your sheet music scores quickly and easily. The app allows you to both see and hear your notated music exactly as it was meant to sound, meaning you can double check the rhythm, pitch, and timing of your pieces with the tap of a finger. The interactive playback features follow the score in real time, so that reading music can be practiced and improved upon independently by beginners.