How to read music – Getting Started


In this beginner lesson we’re going to look at some of the basics of sheet music. The only background knowledge you need when learning how to read music is a basic understanding of the fact that some notes sound higher than others – this difference is called pitch.

This may sound very obvious, but one of the main functions of sheet music is simply to tell the reader how high or low a note is.

The Note Letters

You may well already know that pitch is communicated by a series of letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Instead of going onto H-I, etc.. it starts again at A. This run of 8 notes from A-A or B-B, C-C, etc.. is called an octave. These notes can be played on any tuned instrument. So, on a piano, the notes correspond to the following keys….

music theory piano keyboard
Try playing an octave of notes starting at C and ending at the C above – try this on a piano or keyboard. You have just played a scale (it was a C major scale).

Clearly, the 1st basic thing that you want to learn when reading music is what note to play. Instead of writing out letters on a page, the universal way of communicating which notes are to be played is via the staff.

The Staff

Staff notation is built on a series of 5 lines called a staff (or stave) and is the foundation upon which music is written. A note can be placed on different lines or spaces – the higher up the stave, the higher the note sounds….

change of pitch on sheet music

Obviously music uses a lot more than just the 9 notes of a stave (5 lines and 4 spaces), so we need some way of being able to represent these extra notes.

Enter Ledger lines….

ledger lines

Ledger Lines are additional lines which can be put above or below the staves to extend the pitch range of the stave.

This is good news. But, using ledger lines still leaves us with 2 problems….

  1. Our music is going to look very confusing if we just keep adding ledger lines above and below the stave.
  2. We still don’t know what notes are on which lines/spaces.

Happily, help is at hand in the form of Clefs….

The Treble Clef

Clefs are symbols put at the beginning of a stave to assign specific lines/spaces to specific pitches – in effect, they are like the key that breaks the code. The 2 most common clefs you will come across are the Treble Clef and Bass Clef. We’re going to have a look at the Treble Clef.
The easiest way to grasp what the Treble Clef does is to consider the note Middle C. Middle C is assigned to a specific line when we put a clef at the start of the stave.

For example if we put a Treble Clef at the start of a stave then Middle C will be on a ledger line below the stave….

treble clef middle c

This means that if we put a Treble Clef at the start of the stave then we can write lots of noes above Middle without needing to use any ledger lines. As you can see below, it’s not until a top “A” that we have to use a ledger line above Middle C.

piano notes and notation

O.K. So hopefully you now get the concept of the stave, ledger lines and Treble Clef. That’s a lot to take in – it’s crucial to now try and GET PRACTICAL so it sticks in your brain. With this in mind, I’ve got some practical tasks for you to try out in my FREE Starter Pack Video Lesson Series.
You’ll also get a FREE wall chart to help you learn the notes and various tasks that are going to get you reading and PLAYING the notes of the Treble Clef straight away.

Sign up below for your instant FREE Video Lessons Starter Pack and get reading and playing straight away.