Music-reading 2

Knowledge necessary to follow this article.

Before you start this article you will need to know those things which have largely been covered by the chord articles on this site and by 'Music-reading 1'.

To start.

Key Signatures

In music-reading 1 we talked about reading music as though there was only one key, but in real life this is not the case. In European music there are twelve nameable notes including the sharps and flats (from A to G# would be a logical way of stating it, but usually people talk about C to B), and each note has it's own scale.

Each major scale has the same intervals as the next, with the result that whilst C has no sharps or flats, all the others have at least one sharp or flat in them. This is because the intervals used to make up a scale are not even (see Chordbuilding 3 for details).

The result of this is that each scale has predictable sharps or flats in it. They are predictable if you have a knowledge of the circle of 4ths

So - we can predict the sharps or flats in a major scale like this:

(starting with C, for reasons of ease).

The C scale has no sharp or flat in it:-

C scale

Up a fourth to F and we have one flat. The flat we will need is Bb, and so on the B line we put a flat sign at the start of the piece, like this:-

F scale

The flat sign refers to all B's in the whole piece unless otherwise stated by putting a 'natural' sign before it (I will try to cover that subject below):-

and that only lasts for the duration of the bar it is written in.

If we now continue up a fourth to Bb, we find that the scale needs to have two flats in it, and that they are Bb and Eb, and the flat signs follow the same rules as before and go on the B and E lines:-

Bb scale

Up to Eb we find we need three flats, and that they are Bb Eb and Ab:-

Eb scale

................ I hope by now it is beginning to become apparent to you that not only do we add a flat each time we go up a fourth, but that the flats themselves go in a circle of fourths!

This means that I will leave you to deduce that eventually we will reach a point where we will have 7 flats.

However, there might in some cases be more convenient ways of expressing these large numbers of flats, so that there comes a point where we might be able to rename the scale to make it one with sharps in instead. I will try to illustrate this:-

Starting once again with C, if we now go down to the G (a fifth below) we find that the G scale has a single sharp in it, F#:-

G scale

Now we can continue down through the fifths, and the next down is D, having two sharps:-

D scale

Of course, the sharps are just as predictable by circle of fifths as the flats were with circle of fourths.

We can go on like this in the same way as with the fourths until we reach seven sharps, but again there may be times when it is easier to use a different key signature to simplify things.

The natural sign

There are lots of times in music when although the key signature states a note to be flat or sharp throughout, there is suddenly a place where the note must not be natural. Consequently we have a sign that tells us that, and it looks like this:-

use of natural sign

The above shows us a line of music where the F, which should be played sharp according to the key signature, will be played 'natural' (that is, not sharp) in a particular bar. The bar is bar 2:-

use of natural sign


There has to be a way of writing chords. They are just written on the stave one note above another. Have a look at a piece of piano music and you will see what I mean.

But you might also look at a score for an orchestra (a rendering of all the parts on a single sheet), and you can see that in some parts of some pieces chords are played by a collection of different instruments, each one playing it's own note to make up a whole sound. It is quite subtle sometimes, and worth spending time analysing what is happening. The general rule is that the various instruments each have their own line, whilst the bar lines go vertically through the lot. This enables you to see what any particular instrument is doing in any particular bar.

Reading the score

With practice, it becomes possible to listen to a concert and read the score as the orchestra play. I would recommend reading a single instrument's part first, then trying more, and finally the whole score.


This article concludes my explanation of how music writing and reading works, but I should tell you that you will almost certainly have to practice reading and writing music to be able to do it, and that the easiest way I know is to start very very simple (say 4 bars of Bs in 4 crotchets per bar with no key signature and a time signature of 4/4), and only move on when you are happy that you can read it easily. There are many books which have these sort of excercises as part of learning an instrument - and if you want to learn to read music you might just as well start learning an instrument (or another instrument if you already play one) at the same time as part of your efforts. It will take very little extra time and achieve two results where only one was desired.

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