(Before you check out this page, you should have at least a basic understanding of the building blocks of music–notes, time signatures, key signatures and accidentals. Head to How to Read Music if you need to get oriented with those fundamentals.)
Reading sheet music is straightforward once you understand how the building blocks of written music interact. Written music combines all the elements of music into real-live musical context. There are a few pointers and additional things you need to know for you to be able to read sheet music fluently.
The most important things you need to know in order to read sheet music successfully are:
- Repeat Signs and 1st and 2nd Endings
- Tempo Markers
- Volume Markers
Let’s take a look at each of these elements in turn.
Repeat Signs and 1st and 2nd Endings
Written music involves certain conventions that composers have developed to make reading and writing music easier. Of all of these conventions, the repeat sign is one of the most common.
Here is a brief passage of music with a matched pair of repeat signs:
The first repeat sign lets you know that a repeat is coming, and it also tells you where to begin the repeat. When you reach the second repeat sign, it’s time to head back to the first repeat sign and play through the two measures again. When you reach the repeat the second time, you can pass on through it to the next musical passage that lies after it.
The Repeat Sign is often coupled with a combination of 1st and 2nd endings. Here is how this looks:
When you play through to the first repeat, which comes at the end of the 1st ending, you head back to the beginning of the line and play through until you reach the first ending. This time, however, you skip over the first ending and play the second ending instead. And if there is more music to come in the piece, you simply continue forward from the second ending.
Written music involves a large number of different methods of indicating tempo. Italian has served as the lingua franca of music since the 17th century, and many Italian words for different tempos still reign today, particularly in classical music.
Here is a quick list of some of the most common Italian words for tempo that you will encounter as you read sheet music:
Largo – Very Slow
Adagio – Slow
Andante – Moderately Slow
Moderato – Medium
Allegro – Fast
Presto – Very Fast
And here are English words that are often used to indicate different tempos:
You will often encounter many different tempos within a single piece of music. It is quite common for a piece of music to have slow passages, medium passages and fast passages. The different tempos of the piece help maintain and increase audience interest in the music.
A more precise measurement that you will often encounter at the beginning of a piece is a measurement of the number of beats per minute a piece should be played at. This reading looks like a note with number next to it, like so:
In addition to commands that indicate the speed of the piece or of an individual passage, there are also many commands that allow a composer to indicate changes in tempo across a piece.
Here are some of the most common words you’ll encounter that tell you to change tempo:
Ritardando (often abbreviated Rit. or Ritard): Slowing Down
Rubato: Temporarily disregarding the strict tempo of a passage and allowing the tempo to speed up and slow down expressively
Accelerando: Gradually speeding up
A Tempo: To return to the original tempo after a ritard
As you read sheet music, you will also often encounter instructions for the volume level of specific parts of a piece. Again, Italian is commonly used to communicate musical volumes, particularly in classical pieces.
Here are some of the most common Italian terms for musical volume that you will encounter with their common abbreviations listed next to them in parentheses:
Pianissimo (ppp) – Very quiet
Piano (p) – Quiet
Mezzo Piano (mp) – Medium quiet
Mezzo Forte (mf) – Medium Loud
Forte (f) – Loud
Fortissimo (ff) – Very Loud
Fortepiano (fp) – Sudden change from loud to soft
Dimuendo – Gradually getting quieter
Crescendo – Gradually getting louder
Subito – Suddenly (used to indicate a sudden shift from one volume level to another)
Reading Sheet Music Gets Easy As You Do It More and More
As with most things, experience and repetition will absolutely make you a master of reading sheet music. All the pieces of musical vocabulary work together beautifully. The more exposure you have to the conventions of sheet music, the more fluent you will become in reading music.
The key is to read as much sheet music as you can get your hands on. The best scenario for rapidly becoming familiar with how sheet music works is to sit down with the sheet music for some of your favorite pieces in one hand and some recordings of that music in the other.
Follow along with the sheet music as the recording plays. Notice the structure of the music and how the sheet music tells you where to go, when to take repeats and how to change tempo and volume.
You can do it!
And if you’re still feeling like you’re not able to read music as well as you’d like, then consider the course Read Music Now. This course covers the basics of reading music, and it does so using audio, video and print to help you master reading music faster than by simply staring at a page (or this website!).
I highly recommend this program for anyone interested in learning to read music in a hurry–seven days from now, you could be reading music extremely comfortably if you put in a little work each day with Read Music Now. Go for it!