How To READ Sheet Music & Notes: Easy Step-by-Step Instructions

By James  •  Updated August 11, 2022

How To READ Sheet Music NotesAnyone who would like to pursue music, whether as a hobby or as a profession, needs to know how to read sheet music. However, it can be quite intimidating to learn it. Thankfully, there are certain ways of how you can do so easily. 

In this article, we will be going through the benefits of reading sheet music, some easy steps to get you started, and tips on how you can improve on your journey.

Reading Sheet Music: Why Is It Important?

Reading Sheet MusicThere are plenty of reasons why you should at least try to learn how to read sheet music. Knowledge about sheet music allows you to see every detail you need to play a piece perfectly. It also lets you achieve a deeper understanding of the kind of music you are interested in.

Here are some other benefits of knowing how to read sheet music: 

  • It will allow you to play pieces you like perfectly. If you do not know how to read music, there is a very high possibility that you are not playing the pieces you like correctly. Knowing how to read music eliminates the mistakes and lets you focus on improvements, instead. 
  • It will allow you to play pieces you have not even heard of. As a musician, there will be times when you will have to play pieces that are unfamiliar to you. If you do not know how to read sheet music, this would be impossible to achieve. If you do, then you won’t have trouble playing that piece, no matter the level of knowledge you have on it.  
  • It will improve your ability to play with others. Ever seen an orchestra? Notice how the members still refer to music sheets for guidance even though they are already experts? The reason behind this is that music sheets allow you to play in sync with other musicians. It contains information about the rhythm and tempo and helps you avoid confusion.
  • It allows you to remember music easily. This is especially true if you are a visual learner. If you know how to read sheet music, you would not simply have to rely on your auditory memory. You will also be able to visualize the music as notes playing on a music sheet. 
  • It helps you become a more diverse musician. Being able to read sheet music is not just applicable to piano players. Sheet music is also used by flutists, violinists, guitarists, and many others including vocalists! 

By learning how to read sheet music, you can learn songs in different genres quickly and easily play them on other instruments.

  • It allows you to compose your own music. It can be quite difficult to remember original music if you do not know how to write it down. Auditory memory can only go so far after all. 

However, if you know how to read sheet music, then you can write sheet music. Being able to read and write music makes it easier for you to bring your compositions to life.

  • It will help you reach your full musical potential. Have you ever heard of the saying “you have to learn the rules before you break them”? That is exactly what reading sheet music does. It teaches you the rules so you, as a unique musician, can improve it in ways only you can. 

How to Read Sheet Music

Read Sheet MusicNow that I have convinced you to learn how to read sheet music, it is time to get started. Do not worry, we will not go too deep into reading. I will also give you a couple of basic lessons to help you get started!

Reading Music 1: Music Symbols

Basic music reading includes knowing what the most important music symbols are. To progress through your lessons, you need to understand what clefs, staffs, and notes are for. 

Music Symbols: The Staff

A musical staff has 5 lines and 4 spaces. Each of these lines and spaces represents a letter which, in turn, represents a note. Often, you will see a vertical line that separates the staff into several segments throughout a piece. This line is called a bar. The space between each bar is called a measure

The StaffMusic Symbols: The Clefs

There are two clefs commonly used in writing music and these are the bass and treble clefs

Treble Clef

Every Good Boy FineThe treble clef is used for higher-pitched music. The symbol for this clef looks like an elegantly written letter G. 

Instruments that are played in a high pitch such as flutes, saxophones, and violins are written with the treble clef. As a keyboard player, you will be using both the treble clef and the bass clef. The higher notes of a piece played on the piano are written in the treble clef.

An easy way to remember the notes on a treble clef is by using mnemonics. For the notes placed on the line namely E, G, B, D, F, we use the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. The notes in the spaces are easier. Being the notes F, A, C, and E, we simply read it as “FACE”. 

Bass Clef

Next, we will be learning a bit about the bass clef. The bass clef, also known as the F-Clef is often used to write music with a lower pitch. For people who play the bass, bassoon or cello, their music is written in the bass clef. 

The bass clef is also present in piano music. It is where the lower notes on the piano, often played by the left hand, are written. 

All Cows Eat GrassFor the bass clef, the mnemonics we use for the notes on the lines, namely G, B, D, F, and A, is “Good Boys Do Fine Always”. On the other hand, for the notes on the spaces, namely A, C, E, and G is “All Cows Eat Grass”.

Music Symbols: The Notes

Notes are the symbols placed on the staff to tell us which keys to play and how long we are supposed to play them. The notes have three parts: the head, the stem, and the flag.

The NotesThe Stem

The stem of the note can extend upward or downwards. Its sole purpose is to make a note easier to read. Whether the note stem points up or down does not affect your playing. It is there to keep the music sheet neat. As a general rule, any note on or above the B-line must have stems pointing downwards. On the other hand, notes that are below the B line must have stems pointing upwards.

The Head

The head of the note can be filled in with black or white. The purpose of the head of a note is to tell you how long the sustained duration of the note is. If you look at the image above, you can see some of the notes are sitting far below the staff. Notes like this are often drawn with their own line across the head. These lines are called ledger lines and are used to indicate when you are playing a note away from the staff.

The Flag

Last but not least we have the note flag. The flag of a note is always attached at the end of the stem. Similar to the head, the flag is there to indicate the duration of a note. However, in this case, the flag is there to indicate how short the duration of the note should be.

The Value of A Note

Note ValuesEarlier, we mentioned that the head of the note can either be filled with black or empty. In this section, we will be discussing exactly what it means when a note head is filled and what it means when it is empty.

Whether or not a note is filled shows us the value of a note. The value of a note tells us how long a note must be sustained. Take a look at the image above. As you can see, a quarter note is equal to 1 beat. This means that a half note is equal to 2 beats and a whole note is equal to 4. 

The Dots and Ties

Dots and TiesThe purpose of a dot beside a note is to extend it by half of its duration. For example, a dotted half note has a duration of a half note and a quarter note. A dotted whole note has the duration of one whole note and a half note. 

Ties are curved lines above or below the staff linking one note head to another. Similar to the dot, the purpose of a tie is to extend the note as well. However, a tie is used to extend a note between measures. It is there to signify that a note should be held even while moving to the next measure.

Flags and Beaming

Note Values1Flags are another way to change the duration of a note. However, in this case, instead of lengthening it, the flag is used to shorten its duration. Each flag signifies half the duration of a quarter note. A quarter note with one flag is called an eight-note and the duration it should be played is half a beat. A quarter note with two flags, on the other hand, is called the sixteenth note with the duration of ¼ of a beat of a quarter note.

BeamingBeaming is a way to make the music sheet less cluttered. If you look at the images above, they are both read the same way. It is only a matter of connecting the flags.

The Notes and The Rests

Rest ValuesHere are all the different types of notes. As you can see, they all look fairly similar. The only difference is noticeable on the head and whether or not the note has a flag. 

So, you might be wondering, what happens when there is no note to be played. In this case, we simply take a rest. 

A rest is a symbol used in sheet music that indicates a lack of sound. Depending on the symbol, the duration of a rest lasts from ¼ of a beat to 4 beats.

Reading Music 2: The Beat

Now that you know about the different symbols that you will encounter while learning how to read music, we can now start studying the beat.

To play music, you need to find its beat and tempo. To do so, you need to look for the time signature. A piece’s time signature is always found at the beginning. It is presented similar to a fraction. 

The top number on a time signature tells you how many beats there are in a measure. On the other hand, the bottom number on a time signature tells you the note value for a single beat. The most commonly used time signatures are the 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures.

4/4 Time Signature

Time SignatureHere is a great example of a 4/4 time signature. As you can see, it displays 4 beats per measure and that every quarter note has one beat. 

Now you might be wondering why on the second measure, there are only three notes instead of four. This is because your last note is a half note which means it is sustained for 2 beats instead of 1.

3/4 Time Signature

Over the RiverHere is an example of a 3/4 time signature. As you can see, there are only 3 beats per measure. Despite that, however, the value of a whole note is still 4 as indicated on the bottom number on the time signature. Therefore, each quarter note’s duration is still 1 beat.


Aside from time signatures and note values, you will also need to learn about tempo, so you can read sheet music effectively. A piece’s tempo tells you how fast or slow a piece is intended to be played. Tempos are often measured using BPM or Beat Per Minute.

If the tempo of the piece you would like to play is at 60bpm, this means that you will need to play 60 quarter notes in a minute or one note per second. On the other hand, if your tempo is 120bpm then you will need to play twice the amount of notes in under a minute or 2 notes per second. 

TempoFrom time to time you may also see some Italian words at the top of your sheets. These often signify the most common tempos used in musical pieces. The most common tempos (1) used in sheet music are the following:

Italian Name Speed Tempo
Larghissimo Very, very slow 24bpm and under
Grave Very slow 25bpm to 45bpm
Largo Broadly 40bpm to 60bpm
Lento Slowly 45bpm to 60bpm
Larghetto Rather broadly 60bpm to 66bpm
Adagio Slowly with great expression or at ease 66bpm to 76bpm
Adagietto Slower than andante 72bpm to 76bmp
Andante At walking pace 76bpm to 108bpm
Andantino Slightly faster than Andante 80bpm to 108bpm
Marcia Moderato Moderately in the manner of a march 83bpm to 85bpm
Andante Moderato Between andante and moderato 92bpm to 98bpm
Moderato Moderate speed 98bpm to 112bpm
Allegretto Moderately fast 102bpm to 110bpm
Allegro Moderato Close to but not quite allegro 116bpm to 120bpm
Allegro Fast, quick and bright 120bpm to 156bpm
Vivace Lively and fast 156bpm to 176bpm
Vivacissimo Very fast and lively 172bpm to 176bpm
Allegrissimo Also known as Allegro Vivace, very fast 172bpm to 176bpm
Presto Very, very fast 168bpm to 200bpm
Prestissimo Even faster than presto 200bpm and over

To stay on the beat, many musicians use metronomes. You can either purchase one from your local music store, get one from an online store or you can make use of metronome apps on your phone or tablet!

Reading Music 3: Tones and Melodies

You are nearly on your way to being able to read music! 

For our final lesson, let us take a look at your piano keys! 

Black KeysIf you look closely, the same pattern of two black keys surrounded by 3 white keys and then 3 black keys surrounded by 4 white keys are constantly repeated throughout the entire keyboard. The reason behind this is because you only need to learn this 12-key pattern. The same notes simply repeat over and over, just in different octaves. The white keys on your piano are for natural notes and the black keys on your piano are meant for flats and sharps.

The easiest way to learn this is to take a look at a complete diagram of a standard keyboard. Once you have memorized all of these keys and their corresponding notes, it is much easier to move into learning some basic piano chords.

Tips on How to Read Sheet Music Easier

Learning how to read sheet music quicker is possible. Here are some tips to help you out.

  • Practice. Let us get the obvious one out of the way. There is one sure way to make you better at reading music sheets and that is through practice. The more you read music, the easier for you to remember every detail.
  • Write it down. If you are a visual learner like me, then you might find it easier to remember all these pointers after writing them down. If there is a need to come back to them, you will have notes on hand at any time.
  • Try to play music using music sheets. You can either purchase a songbook or you can purchase music sheets online, either way, you can squeeze even more practice in your playtime by playing songs from music sheets.
  • Take lessons. Whether it be traditional lessons or online lessons having a music teacher will make learning much easier and quicker. Music teachers are professionals who have been studying this subject for years, so they definitely know what they are talking about. Plus, they can customize the lessons to best fit your learning style. You may also check the best online piano learning app to learn more.