How to Read Music Notes

What Are Notes Anyways? image

On this page, we’re going to go through the basics for how notes work in written music.

The foundation of all written music is the staff. The staff is a layout of horizontal lines on which we can then write out specific notes and rhythms. Here is the blank staff:

A Clef is a symbol that tells us which range of notes we’re using.

Since the possible range of notes is extremely large and extends from the lowest possible pitch humans are capable of hearing straight on up to the highest ear-splitting pitch detectable by the human ear, we need to know where within that total possible range we’re actually singing or playing. Instruments, including the human voice, all have a limited range.

The Clef allows us to know where in the range of possible notes we’re actually playing.

Two Clefs are most popular–the Treble Clef and the Bass Clef.

Here is the Treble Clef with its range of notes displayed. Pay attention to the note names that appear below each note. We’ll talk about those in a second.

And here is the Bass Clef with its range of notes and the note names. Notice how these notes are different from the Treble Clef’s notes.

Notes on the Bass Clef

Different instruments use different clefs. The piano, for example, uses both clefs–the left hand’s bass notes appear on the Bass Clef while the right hand’s high notes appear on the Treble Clef.

The upright bass and cello also use the Bass Clef.

Instruments that use the Treble Clef include the violin, flute, clarinet and guitar.

Let’s Look at the Different Types of Notes

Different types of notes last for different lengths of time. Let’s take a look at the most common types of notes:

Names of the Notes in Music

These are the most common types of notes you’ll encounter as you read music. Notice the difference in the appearance of each of these notes. The Whole Note is an oval that is clear in the middle. Add a line (which can hang down or stick up) to the whole note, and you get a Half Note. Fill in the middle of the half note and you get a Quarter Note. If you see an Eighth Note by itself, it will have a little flag curling up its stem. When multiple eighth notes appear in a row, as they do in the eighth notes above, they are all connected. And Sixteenth Notes are connected by two lines between their stems (and if you see a sixteenth note alone, it will have a double flag curling next to its stem).

Confused yet? Don’t worry–once we examine the basics of time signatures, this will all make a whole lot more sense to you.

Time Signature Basics

I go into greater detail on Time Signatures in the section How to Read Music Rhythms. But in order to explain more about how notes work in written music, I have to at least mention the basics of how time signatures work.

Time is a fundamental aspect of music. Every single piece of music moves through time, but not all of them use time in the same way. A time signature allows a composer to indicate the type of time a piece of music uses.

Here is what the most common time signature looks like on the staff:
Musical Time Signature

The time signature is that stack of numbers: 4 over 4. Every time signature consists of two numbers stacked one on top of another. Let’s look at what these two numbers mean.

A large piece of music is divided up into tiny units called measures. The top number of the time signature indicates how many beats occur within each measure.

The bottom number in the time signature indicates the type of note that receives a value of “one beat.”

So, in the case of the time signature 4/4, there are 4 beats per measure, and the note that receives a value of one beat is the quarter note. Since we just looked at the different types of notes from whole notes to half notes to quarter notes to eighth notes to sixteenth notes, you’re ready to see how the bottom number of the time signature indicates different types of notes.

Here’s a quick list of the note values that correspond to different numbers at the bottom of the time signature:

1 = Whole Note
2 = Half Note
4 = Quarter Note
8 = Eighth Note
16 = Sixteenth Note

Let’s take another look at the layout of different notes that we examined above:

Names of the Notes in Music

Notice that the time signature for this batch of music is 4/4.

Given that time signature, count how many of the different types of notes you have in each measure.

Notice: how many quarter notes appear in the measure of quarter notes?

In 4/4 time, there are 4 quarter notes in a single measure. And that’s exactly what we’d expect to find given the fact that the 4/4 time signature tells us that each measure has 4 beats (the top 4) and that a quarter note is equal to one beat (the bottom 4).

So Here’s What You Need to Remember to Read Music Notes:

In order to understand music, you need to understand notes. And in order to understand a musical note, you need to know two things:

  1. What is the pitch of the note?
  2. What is the time value of the note?

The pitch of the note is the letter of the alphabet that a note equals.

The time value of the note is whether the note is a quarter note, sixteenth note or half note and how much time that particular note takes up in the given time signature.

There is a whole lot more to reading music than these two aspects of notes, of course, but this is the foundation of everything that follows.

I don’t want to get too confusing here, so this is just a quick introduction. If you’re really serious about mastering the basics of reading music, then you should definitely check out the fantastic program Read Music Now.

If you’re ready to learn more about how to tell the name of a given note, head here.

If you would like to learn more about reading music rhythms, head here.