Music MasterWorks Newsletter
Tutorial: Reading Sheet Music
A common complaint I hear about Music MasterWorks is that the staff notation is just too difficult to learn. Usually I refer these people to the piano roll option of displaying notes (which can be selected in the drop-down list where ‘Staff’ is displayed). However, reading music isn’t that difficult once you get past some of the ‘tricks’.
Here’s the notation to play ‘middle C’, then ‘D’, then ‘E’, then ‘F’:
Here’s the same notes as shown above represented on piano keys, numbered in the order they’re played:
Here’s another example, this time with the black keys, C sharp, D sharp, and F sharp:
And, again, here are the corresponding keys on the piano:
One of the confusing things about sheet music is that the same note (the same pitch, same key on the piano) can be represented in different ways. Here’s another way to represent the same notes as above, this time as D flat, E flat, and G flat:
Yes, D flat is the exact same note as C sharp, E flat is the exact same note as D sharp, etc. Remember that there is no E sharp/F flat or B sharp/C flat. You can see that the piano is ‘missing’ those black keys (unless you consider F to be E sharp, E to be F flat, etc, as you might encounter in some advanced sheet music). The piano is arranged so that the all the white keys are in the ‘key of C’ which is the most used combination of notes.
The white keys on the piano, after ‘C’, go up to ‘G’ and then loop back around to ‘A’, then ‘B’, then ‘C’ again. For each 7 white piano keys there are also 5 black keys - these 12 keys together make up an octave. On a full-sized piano there are 7 octaves with 12 keys apiece (7 white and 5 black keys per octave) and 4 extra keys left over which makes 88 keys.
What’s the squiggle after the 3 notes in the sheet music? That’s a rest. It’s
just a placeholder for empty space.
A good way to learn the notes on a staff is to play our free game, Note Attack. In this game, a note goes across the staff and you have to hit the key for that note ‘A’-‘G’. To flat the note, hold down the left shift key first, to sharp the note hold down the right shift key first. You can also hook up a MIDI keyboard/piano to your computer (using a special cable) and guess the notes by hitting the piano keys. You can download it here:
The note head and flag signify the duration of each note. Here are the notes from longest to shortest duration:
- Whole note
- ½ half note
- ¼ quarter note.
- 1/8 eighth note
- 1/16 sixteenth note
- 1/32 thirty-second note
- 1/64 sixty-fourth note
The notes may also have a dot after them, indicating that they should be played ½ times longer. If eighth notes or lower lie one after another they are tied together. The notes that have a ‘3’ on top of them in Music MasterWorks are triplet notes, which fall into odd fractions such as 1/12 or 1/24. Often in sheet music when triplets are tied together they look just like the eighth or sixteenth notes tied together, and you have to count how many of them there are in a measure/bar to figure out if they are triplets.
The ‘Time Signature’ is the fraction shown on the staff. The examples above use 4/4 time, which means there are 4 quarter notes per measure. A time signature of 3/8 would mean that 3 eighth notes could fit into 1 measure.
So what’s the curly backwards ‘S’ and the backwards ‘C’ (as I sometimes hear them referred to)? That shows the ‘clef’ type. Music MasterWorks defaults to the ‘Grand Clef’, which shows both the treble clef (the one on the top) and the bass clef (the one on the bottom). They indicate the pitch range of the notes on their lines. As you can see in the example above, the treble clef’s lowest line (actually 1 detached from the regular 5 lines going across) is ‘middle C’ and it goes up from there. The bass clef’s highest note starts right below it at ‘B’(which is placed right above it’s top line) and goes down from there. In Music MasterWorks, when a note is selected there is a pitch indicator displayed next to the option buttons at the bottom.
Another feature of sheet music that can be confusing is the key signature. The key signature shows the ‘default’ sharps and flats. The examples above are in the key of ‘C’, so they do not have any ‘defaults’; none of the notes are automatically sharp or flat. Here’s a better example of a key signature, the G Major key:
Here, the note on the top line, an F, is automatically sharp because of the key signature, making it an F#. The sharp is repeated every octave, though, so the note near the bottom line, an F as well, is also automatically sharp.
One more trick to sheet music is that once a note is sharp or flat, it’s sharp or flat throughout the bar. Here’s an example:
The 3 notes after the first F sharp are also F sharps. Here’s another trick: The sharp gets reset in the next measure. So the 5th note shown is not an F sharp but a normal F note. Here are the same notes, but this time with the G Major key signature:
Here the F’s are sharp by the key signature. To cancel out the key signature for the 5th note, a natural sign is used.
It amazes me some of the big stars that never learned to read music. Paul McCartney admitted on the Larry King show he never learned to read music. He said he always worried that he would forget the tunes he made up. John Lennon (who at the time could not read music either) reassured him, that if he forgot, it probably wasn’t any good to begin with. So learning by ear is probably more important, but being able to read sheet music makes learning a lot easier.