Music-reading 1

*****This article contains the amount of information a student would be expected to learn in a term or two, so don't be alarmed if you don't get very far during a first reading.*****

*****Although I am trying to give you enough information to be able to read music, the easiest method of learning it that I know of consists of doing a great many exercises starting from a single note played many times over, with further notes and timing subtleties added bit by bit as you go along. This takes a lot less time than you would think.*****

Knowledge necessary to follow this article.

Before you start this article you will need to know certain things that have been covered in the chord articles, such as what a note is, how notes are named, and you need to have some vague idea of what a bar is. It will be very good if you can play a couple of notes on your instrument, and even better if you can play more and know what they are called. A knowledge of transpostion will be useful if you are playing a 'transposing instrument', and the 12 bar blues chord sequences book on this site has a short section in it on that subject.

To start.

Reading music in the form of dots and sticks scattered along horizontal lines is based on a very simple principle even though it looks complicated.

If we look at a typical piece of written music on a single stave (the stave is the set of five lines on which your basic tune is normally written) and then consider the requirements of the player, we have most of the answer to what they mean:

The player wants to know what notes to play and when, and this is a way of telling him or her.

The higher the dot (or hollow) on the stave, so the higher the note, and the different types of dots, stalks and hollows tell us how long each note is -and of course the lower the note on the stave the lower it will sound.

some notes and signs

Luckily, you don't have to memorise most of this, because when you actually practice reading music you will learn it all automatically - even if you don't remember the names of notes (which doesn't matter as long as you know what they mean).

The hollow notes with vertical lines either side are the longest notes we are likely to come across (although I expect there are some others I have never seen that last longer).They are called breves:

a breve

The hollow notes with no vertical lines are called semibreves (half a breve!):


The hollow ones with a vertical line attached are called minims - a bit strange for what is in fact a demi-semibreve:

a minim

The dots with a single vertical line attached to them are called crotchets - and in most circumstances count as one beat:

a crotchet

If we put a single flag at the end of the vertical line of a crotchet (the vertical line is normally called the stem), thus:

a quaver

it halves the length of the note (and in the drawing above it is half a crotchet, which is called a quaver),

and if we put another:

a semiquaver

It halves that note again. This time it becomes a semiquaver, (meaning half a quaver) - leaving the note half a half (a quarter) of it's original length.

Then with three flags we have a demi-semiquaver - an eighth of it's original length................

a demi-semiquaver

and so on ad infinitum, although in real life things rarely go beyond 4 of these little flags - a hemi-demi-semiquaver:

a hemi-demi-semiquaver

(We shouldn't worry too much about what they are called as long as we know what they mean).

A problem would occur when writing groups of short notes like this but for the fact that we can replace the flag with a straight line joining groups of notes together, as in:

4 quavers beamed together

instead of:

4 unbeamed quavers

Take a break for a moment.


There is another factor to be considered before we go on and analyse an actual piece of music, and that is something we call the time signature. The time signature looks something like this:

4/4 time signature

and tells us two things: How many beats in a bar (read the chordbuilding and playing articles if you don't know what a bar is), and which type of note is considered to represent one beat.

Thus in this:

4/4 time signature

the top number represents 4 beats per bar, whilst the bottom number represents the type of note that will represent a beat - in this case a crotchet (see above) - the number 4 at the bottom always meaning crotchets.

And in this:

3/4 time signature

the top number represents three beats per bar (a waltz or minuet) and the bottom tells us that once again it is a crotchet per beat.

As I said above, the bottom digit always has the same value, so wherever you see a 4 at the bottom it always means crotchets, and whenever you see an 8 at the bottom it always means quavers (It would be very rare, but you might one day come across a 16 at the bottom, representing semiquavers.)

Common timesignatures are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 12/4, 3/8, 6/8, 12/8 (which often appears in rock-n-roll ballads), and of course it is possible to have bars that are, say, 8/4 (with 8 crotchets in one bar), or 4/8, (with 4 quavers in one bar).

6/8 is 6 beats of one quaver each per bar, and I expect you will agree by trial and error that it sounds different to 3/4, which can theoretically be played in the same time.

3/8 is just a convenient type of three-time, and can be interpreted as a waltz, mazurka or minuet if you like.

Here, pause to consider what the 8 will be if the 4 is a crotchet. It will be half a crotchet, which is (see above)........?

That is almost enough about time signatures for modern music, but we may want to play more obscure things.

From time to time you will come across such time signatures as:

2/2, 3/2 and possibly even 2/1 - although I have never seen it.

I have only experienced finding these more obscure time signatures in antique music - typically 16th century stuff.

Stop for a breather.

There is more in music-reading 2.

about actual reading practice

As far as I know it is not possible to learn all this article in one hit. It is more an explanation of how music-reading works. Probably the next thing to do is to try each bit out with an instrument or our voice (or both).

Try playing these:

8 beats of crotchet Cs

This is a drawing of two bars of 4/4 (total 8 beats). The dots (crotchets in this case) are right in the middle of the stave. This position is always B, so the notes in bars one and two are all crotchets and they are all Bs. They are played 8 times - in time with the eight beats - in the two bars.


2 bars of Cs

Here are some Cs. They are all in the space above the B line.

From here on, I expect you will have guessed that the line above the C will be a D, and the space above that will be an E, and so on.

Those notes above the line are expressed by adding small pieces of line to show how far above the top of the stave we have gone as we go up. Of course, the same will apply downwards, like this:

showing ledger lines

This can theoretically go on forever, but it becomes increasingly difficult to read as you go further above or below the stave, so there is a trick for overcoming this problem. The trick is to write on the stave a piece of text telling us that they are actually played an octave above or below the point at which they are written, thus:

showing 'octave' sign

is actually played:

crotchets on stave

There does not appear to be a clear convention for this, which is why I put an arrow to show up or down.

We now come to another trick. There are times when a note should sound one and a half times it's length, and this is represented by putting a dot after the note, thus:

dotted crotchet

This dotted crotchet (as it is usually called) lasts for one and a half crotchets - ie a crotchet and a quaver - and therefore will need to be followed by a quaver in some form to comply with the rules of bars being 'complete'. Not infrequently, this will be a rest (a fixed amount of silence):

notes and rest

so in this case you would play the crotchet and a half, have half a beat's silence, then go on with the rest of the bar, never dropping out of time.

Here are some other rests:

various rests

And here is a crotchet rest:-

crotchet rest

which is so difficult to draw that most people just do something like:-

4/4 time signature

You have now done the basics, and might consider reading the whole thing again or trying it all out on your chosen instrument.

On the subject of timing: I have developed the habit of expressing the time of notes where possible in terms of da-da-da. This is done by working out what the smallest note is in the bar, then writing d followed by the right no. of a's to make it appear to have the rhythm of the written notes made up of smallest notes. For instance:-

Daaadadaadaa works out as 1½ crotchets followed by 1 quaver followed by 2 crotchets.

And in fact, if you read Daaadadaadaa pronouncing each 'a' in it, I think you will agree it actually sounds like the rhythm made by 1½ crotchets followed by a quaver and two crotchets. It is a particular little bit of rhythm that most of us will have used as children when chanting various playground sayings (naanananaanaa or naaanaananaaanaaa is not dissimilar, come to think of it!).

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