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Learn To Read Sheet Music in Five Simple Steps

1) Learn the basic symbols 

In music, sounds are known as ‘high’ or ‘low.’ On a piano, the high-pitched sounds are on the right-hand side, whereas the low-pitched sounds come from the left.

The Stave
Just like the way we hear the high and low sounds, music is written down on the stave (or staff), which consists of five horizontal lines and four spaces. The higher the positioning of the note on the stave, the higher the pitch of the music.

To ‘fix’ the notes, we put a clef on the stave. The most commonly used clefs are the treble and bass clef. The treble clef (a fancy cursive symbol) registers high-pitched music, so if your instrument has a higher pitch, such as a flute, violin or saxophone, your sheet music will be written in treble clef. The bass clef does the opposite. If your instrument has a lower pitch like the bass guitar, tuba or cello then your sheet music will be written in a bass clef.

2) Learn the parts of the note 

There are three parts to each note.

The head – This is an oval shape either filled black (closed) or left white (open). Depending on where the head sits on the stave (either line or space) will determine what note you play.

The stem – This is a thin line extending either up (from the right hand side of the note head) or down (from the left hand side of the note head). It has no effect on the note, but makes the music easier to read as the stave is less cluttered.

The flag – This is the curvy mark to the right hand side of the note stem and tells you how long you should hold a note for. The flag is always drawn to the right of the stem, never to the left, even if the stem is joined to the right or left of the note head.

3) Learn the notes

Different notes are played by either your right or your left hand on the piano.  For the notes you would play with your right hand, take a piece of paper with a stave on and fill in each space with the letters F A C E, starting with the first space at the bottom of the staff and going upwards. Meanwhile, label the lines with the letters E G B D F, starting at the bottom line and going up. There are quick, simple steps to help you remember the letters (for example, Every Good Boy Deserves Football).

For the notes you play with your left hand, label the ovals in the spaces A C E G (All Cows Eat Grass) and then name the lines, starting from the bottom, with G B D F A (Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always).

4) Practice makes perfect 

Once you have learnt your notes and rhymes off by heart, find some sheet music and name all the notes with the letters from your rhymes onto the paper with a pencil. Once you have practiced and written on a few pieces of music, erase the letter names and try testing yourself to see if you can remember the playing pattern and tune of the song. No doubt you’ll do better than you think!

5) Know the Rhythm and Beat 

Beat – Together the note, stem and flag (s) show you how long each note should be played for, which are all measured in beats or fractions of beats. If you find yourself tapping your foot or clapping along when listening to music, you’re recognizing the beat.

Rhythm – This is crucial for your music, as it tells you how the beats are used. Try tapping your finger on your desk counting 1, 2, 3, 4 steadily and repeat. It gets a bit boring after a while, so on beats 2 and 4 try tapping a little louder and you’ll see how different it is. That’s rhythm!

To learn more about reading music, read Learning to Read Music: How to make sense of those mysterious symbols and bring music alive (£9.99, Robinson) by Peter Nickol