Vocal Music

I know that many of you are singers and want to learn how to read music either as soloists or in a group/choir.

It can be quite daunting when you first look at a piece of vocal music, but do not fear as it is actually quite easy to grasp.

There are 2 main types of vocal music you will come across.

Vocal and Accompaniment

If you are a solo singer then you will find lots of pieces of music are written with a vocal line and then an accompaniment instrument line underneath. This helps you and your accompanist see where each of you should be in the piece at any one time. The trick to avoid brain overload is to simply concentrate on your line of music for most of the time. The accompaniment music is useful to look at when there are introductions/interludes where you do not sing.

However, increasingly you will find that many contemporary songs are written down as a lead sheet. A lead sheet gives the melody of the song in staff notation, gives the chords to be played (as symbols or letters) and also includes the lyrics. Have a look at this example….

Lead Sheet Example

You can see that the melody is given, along with a tempo marking and a dynamic marking. The chord letters above the stave show which chords should be improvised to provide an accompaniment. Lead sheets are great if you are working with a guitarist or with a piano player who likes to improvise.

Choral Score

When you first join a singing group and are given a piece of music it can look a bit confusing. However, if you look at a piece of vocal music (such as the one below) you will see that there are 4 distinct voices who sing their own melody lines. These 4 voices (usually Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) will all be singing a different note at any given moment and these 4 notes combine to produce the overall sound.

Choir sheet music example

Again, the trick is to focus on your part – you just need to know which voice you are singing and remember which way up (or down!) the stems are pointing (and, when you’re first starting out, try to stand next to someone who has been doing it for some time, knows what they’re doing and sings loudly!!).


The presence of words to sing is the most obvious difference between vocal and instrumental music! The lyrics for you to sing are written underneath the music and are pretty straightforward. Different verses will be written below each other and should be clearly numbered.
However, it is worth noting that if a word is hyphenated (e.g. Be – come) then you would pronounce the 1st syllable (in this case the “Be”) over all of the notes that are written. The technical term for a syllable which is held over multiple notes is melismatic (thought you might like to impress your friends with that!!).