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How To Read Sheet Music: Your Absolute Guide

Learning how to read sheet music is a very useful skill as it opens the doors for you to play all kinds of music. We will breakdown this umbrella topic into various sub topics to fully understand all the components starting with stave notations.

What are stave notations?

It is a method to represent and discuss music ideas with people and with yourself.

Why do we need stave notations?

We need it because the languages that we use such as English, Hindi, Spanish and others are not capable enough in delivering musical ideas such as pitch and rhythm in the most transparent manner. Stave notations allow you to notate a tune and be able to pick it up instantly even after say 2 years.

What do stave notations look like?

How To Read Sheet Music

As you can see above, stave notations are made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces and the layout is the same for all kinds of instruments. However, the sound / pitch tied to the notes may differ across instruments which will be a topic for another blog post.

The Treble Clef 🎼

Treble clef

The treble clef (G clef) is generally used to notate mid to high range pitches. The first line from the bottom refers to the middle E of a piano a.k.a E4 and the space between the first two lines from the bottom refers to the letter F (F4). The number 4 refers to the octave in which the note belongs in. As you go up the stave, the pitch increases along with it. Thus if you know the letters on the keyboard, you’ll be able to map the rest of the notes easily. As an exercise, try to jot down the rest of the notes and see if you get it right by scrolling down.

If you would like to represent these letters properly, instead of writing the letter you would use note heads. Note heads are oval and shape and are drawn either between two stave lines or it cuts through a stave line. Be sure to place note heads clearly as to not confuse the reader.

To easily remember the notes that are placed on the line, you can memorise the acronym Every Good Bird Does Fly. For the letters that belong to the spaces you can remember the word FACE. Now all you have to do is replace the letters with a note head as seen below.

Treble Clef
Notating the treble clef

Bass Clef

The bass clef (F clef) is generally used to notate mid to low range pitches. Once again, it is also made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces and the first line from the bottom represents the letter G specifically G2. The space between the first two lines from the bottom refers to the letter A(2). Try filling out the rest of the of the notes that represent the remaining lines and spaces of the stave and see if you get it right by scrolling down.

A good way to remember the set of letters placed on the line is to memorise the acronym – Great Big Dogs Fight Animals whilst the letters inside the spaces can be remembered saying All Cows Eat Grass. Now all you have to do is replace the letters with proper note heads.

Notating the bass clef
Notating the bass clef

What are ledger / leger lines?

A ledger line is a little extra line which is used to expand the stave and can be added either on the top or the bottom. For example if you want to represent the middle C on the treble clef, since the bottom line only reaches till E you’ll have to add an additional line to the bass of the stave and draw a note head through it. If you’d like to go one lower to represent the letter B, instead of drawing the note head through the line you would draw beneath it. You would apply the same principal to represent notes that are placed higher than the stave can accommodate and it can be drawn on both the treble and bass clef. The picture below neatly demonstrates this concept.

Ledger Lines
Ledger Lines

Note and Rest Values

Whenever music is played there’s always a certain underlying beat beneath it. You probably already have the knack for recognising beats as you naturally clap to songs like Happy Birthday or unknowingly tap your foot to the tune of your favourite songs. Beats in more technical terms comprises of notes and rests.

Note Names & Values

  1. Semibreve (Whole Note) = 4 beats – Note value: 1
  2. Minim (Half Note) = 2 beats – Note value: 1/2
  3. Crotchet (Quarter Note) = 1 beat – Note value: 1/4
  4. Quaver (Eighth Note) = 1/2 beat – Note value: 1/8
  5. Semi-quavers (Sixteenth Note) = 1/4 beat – Note value: 1/16

The list above represents the common note names used in sheet music along with their respective beat and note values. Say we have a bar of music which can take 4 beats, then only 1 semibreve will be able to fit in it as a semibreve in itself lasts for 4 beats. If we take crotchets, we will be able to fit 4 of them in a single bar as each one lasts for a beat.

Note values on other hand get their values in relation to the semibreve. The semibreve is also known as a whole note hence it’s given a value 1. If we think of it as fractions, we can deduce what the note values will be for the rest of the note types. For example, since a crochet holds 1 beat, that is just 25% of the total of 4 beats that a semibreve holds hence a crotchet is given a note value of 1/4. If these notes were to be represented on a stave it will look like this:

Note names represented on a stave
Note names represented on a stave

As you can see, a semibreve takes the shape of an empty oval, whilst a minim takes the shape of an empty oval and a stem. A crotchet is similar to a minim except the note head is filled. Last but not least, quavers and semi-quavers have a filled in note head with 1 or 2 flags attached to them respectively.

The direction of the stem depends on the placement of the note head. If it’s placed below the 3rd line then the stem will shoot upwards from the right side of the note and if it’s above the 3rd line, then the stem will shoot downwards from the left side of the note. If the note head is placed on the 3rd line, then the stem can go either up or down.

Quavers beamed together
Quavers beamed together

Quavers and semi-quavers are often grouped together in sheet music due to their short time durations. In the picture above, you can see 4 quavers beamed together. If you wanted to beam 4 semi-quavers together you would just have to add another horizontal line running across all the stems.


When you see a rest in a sheet that means you play nothing for the duration of that rest. The different kinds of rests in sheet music also share the same names as the note names mentioned above.


All the different kinds of rests are shown in the image above. As you may have noticed, all rests types are drawn revolving around the 3rd line as they don’t have a pitch.

You maybe wondering how are notes or rests notated if they have a duration of 3 beats or 3/4 of a beat. The answer is simple. Just add a dot next to the note and it will automatically equate to the value of the note plus half the value of the respective note. For example, if you place a dot next to a minim it will hold a total value of 3 beats as 2 (minimum) + 1 (half of a minim) = 3. Similarly if you place a dot next to a crotchet, that will equate to 1.5 beats as 1 + 0.5 = 1.5. Take a look at the illustration below to grasp this concept better.

Representing odd beats
Representing odd beats

If you would like to represent even more odd values like 5 or 7 beats, you can make use of ties. In the example below, you can see how you would tie 5 beats together. As shown, if the notes belong to a lower pitch, you would add the tie symbol below the stave and if the notes belong to a higher pitch, you would add the tie symbol above the stave.

Time Signatures

Previously we learned how each song has underlying beats. In this topic we will uncover how to identify the time signature of a song with their help. Beats can be classified as either being strong or weak and once they are identified they can be grouped together to figure out the time signature. The most popular grouping is the group of 4 and it’s the one used across the majority of pop songs. However, beats can also be grouped in 3s, 6s, 7s etc. These certain groups of beats is what we call a bar in music.

To help you stay in sync with these underlying beats you can make use of a device called the metronome. It’s a device that replicates the sound of a beat and you can set it to a particular number when practicing. For example, if you set it at 96 bpm the metronome will play 96 equidistant beats in a minute. Also, if you set the metronome to a particular grouping you’ll notice that the strongest beat has a slightly different sound from its fellow weaker beats. Metronome’s exist both physically and digitally. Nowadays you can also find apps that you can download for free like the Soundbrenner Metronome App.

Some popular Hindi / Tamil songs that group 4 beats together include Pehla Nasha, Vaseegara and Dil Chahta Hai. Whilst a classic song like Lag Jaa Gale makes use of 6 beats.

Now that we’ve understood more about beats we can take a look at how to figure out the time signature of a piece of music. In sheet music, you’ll find two numbers stacked on top of each other before the music begins. The top number represents how many beats are in each bar of a piece of music and the bottom represents which note value is counted as a beat. Thus, if you see a 4/4 time signature, another way to think of it is 4 x (1/4) i.e. 1 bar is equivalent to 4 crotchet (quarter note) beats.

It’s important to note that it’s not 4 crotchet notes per bar because in beats you can insert various combinations of notes or rests. Here are some examples:

Different combinations of notes with 4/4 time signature
Different combinations of notes with 4/4 time signature

In the image above, if you add up all the notes and rests in each of the bars it will equate to 4 beats. Let’s break it down to see how:

In the first bar we see the following:

2 quavers – 2 * (1/2) = 1 beat
4 semi-quavers – 4 * (1/4) = 1 beat
1 minim = 2 beats

Thus, 1 + 1 + 2 = 4 beats

In the second bar we have:

1 crotchet = 1 beat
1 crotchet rest = 1 beat
4 quavers – 4 * (1/2) = 2 beats

Again, 1 + 1 + 2 = 4 beats

Other time signatures
Other time signatures

Here are some other examples as an exercise. Two other common time signatures used in pop music are 3/4 and 6/8. At first glance you might think it’s the same thing as we know 6/8 can be further simplified to 3/4 mathematically. But in music that’s not the case. 3/4 can be seen as 3 * (1/4), as we already know 1/4 corresponds to the note value of a crotchet. Therefore, every bar will have a duration of 3 crotchet beats. Similarly 6/8 can be seen as 6 * (1/8). From the note value table above, 1/8 maps to the note value of a quaver. Thus, each bar will have a duration of 6 quaver beats.

Understanding Rhythm

We have hand picked 5 different set of rhythms which if you’re able to grasp accurately will help you immensely in playing music sheets with different time signatures.

Lets look at the first example below:

Rhythm in 3/4
Rhythm in 3/4

A common mistake students make when counting in 3/4 is they imagine a silent 4th beat exists before going back to beat 1. But remember a bar only lasts the length of 3 crotchets so once you’re done counting the 3rd beat go back and start the count again without any rest.

Going back to the example, we have 1 crotchet and 1 minim which equates the 3 beats. If you were to clap this, first count out loud 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 at regular intervals and then clap the beats shown.

quarter notehalf notequarter notehalf note

In the table above, the finger pointing downwards indicates which beats should be clapped. You have probably figured out that the 3rd beat is not clapped because the 2nd note in the example is a minim which lasts for 2 beats.

Let’s take a look at example no. 2

Rhythm in 4/4
Rhythm in 4/4

From left to right we have a dotted crotchet then a quaver followed by 4 connecting quavers. Since quavers are involved, an easy way to make sure you’re clapping the rhythm in time is to add the word “and” to your count. So, instead of 1, 2, 3, 4 say 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Remember the “and” should fit within the duration of the 4 count. Do not lengthen the overall duration of the count because of it. Now let’s take a look at the following table to see how to clap the rhythm.

dotted quarter note.eighth noteeighth noteeighth noteeighth noteeighth note

Example no. 4

Rhythm in 6/8
Rhythm in 6/8

As we have mentioned earlier the 6/8 time signature means there are 6 quaver beats in every bar. This can be counted as follows 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Again we can make use of “and” to account for the semi-quavers that are seen in the example. Let’s break this down in the table below along with where the claps will fall in place.

eighth note.sixteenth noteeighth notesixteenth notesixteenth notesixteenth notesixteenth noteeighth note

Remember a dotted quaver is the length of a quaver plus a semi-quaver or to simplify it more you can also think of it as 3 semi-quavers. Hence it occupies the first 3 counts (1, &, 2). We then have a single semi-quaver note so that takes up the 2nd “&”. The first phrase finishes with a single quaver note so that will take up beats “3” and “&”. Moving onto the 2nd phrase we have 4 semi-quavers grouped together. So this will take up the next four beats (4, &, 5, &) and again we finish off the 2nd phrase with a single quaver note so that maps to “6” and “&”.

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Quality Sheet Music: The Bollypiano Standard

Note: this article is aimed towards musicians with at least a basic understanding of reading sheet music, but those without this can skip the sheet music examples/terminology and still appreciate the overall discussion.

Why do we care about quality in our daily lives? What does a quality product mean, and how does its quality affect its user?

Here at Bollypiano, we consider those questions when designing quality sheet music arrangements of South Asian pop music for the player. Bollypiano operates under four central principles, which we can memorize as the acronym PAPA. Sheet music should be:

  • Professional – notated and formatted to music industry standards.
  • Accurate – transcribed and arranged such that the melodies and chords in the sheet music closely* (subjective term discussed later) match the original song. Note: this only applies to transcriptions and arrangements, not original compositions
  • Playable – natural to play for whatever instrument it’s designed for.
  • Affordable – financially accessible to a large audience of people around the world, reflective of the global nature of South Asian culture and its diasporas. This point is not relevant to this article.

This article carefully describes how Bollypiano approaches quality with the first three principles in designing its sheet music products, with the hope that it can provide helpful advice for any aspiring amateur or professional musician/composer in the world looking to design their own quality sheet music for any purpose.


Notated and formatted to music industry standards

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a definitive list of standards that the “music industry” considers professional easily searchable on the Internet. A cursory search using sheet music industry standards from the UK reveals the following four search results:

  • “Sheet music – Wikipedia” – no doubt a fantastic article on what sheet music is
  • “Understanding Split and Lyric Sheets – Songtrust Blog” – advice to songwriters on how to design a special type of sheet music
  • “How Does Music Publishing Work?” – don’t worry about this just yet, but this is not related
  • “Music Industry Guide – The British Library” – advice on how to navigate the music industry

Fortunately, the eighth search result links to a question posted on asking the very same question we are asking, with a reasonable answer. The accepted answer recommends reading the book Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation by Elaine Gould, which itself only concerns notation (to be fair it is a very deep topic already). However, if you don’t want to go off and read an entire book, the above illustrates how hard it is to find definitive standards for notating and formatting sheet music.

There are other ways to learn, such as through music education and years of training in music composition, but Bollypiano does not make the assumption here that you, dear reader, necessarily have that benefit or time. Therefore, we have chosen to set our own “Bollypiano standards” in terms of what makes a sheet music “professional”, using our own music experience, training, and what other established sheet music platforms use. Before we go in-depth describing what “professional” means, let’s summarise it as generally as possible.

Bollypiano considers sheet music “professional” when it is:

  • Made using music notation software (with the benefit of automatic notation/formatting it provides)
  • Notated through pitches and durations in a context, in such a way that any musician can easily and quickly understand, play, and feel the music
  • Formatted to clearly 1) convey the structure of the song; 2) give every symbol (note, signature, accidental, etc.) enough space for readability; 3) inform the reader about the song title, songwriters, and any other relevant song metadata

Professional Notation

Bollypiano follows western music notation as the standard for notating our sheet music. For those learning music notation, we encourage using music notation software (Bollypiano uses Sibelius, but MuseScore is a suitable free alternative) as they automatically help you format notation to make sure your notes’ durations make sense (how they look is a different matter), as well as other helpful automatic formatting. To understand what separates “professional” and “un-professional” music notation, we must start from the basic ideas of music notation. The core idea, at least for Bollypiano’s purposes, is this: music notation is a system which represents the pitch and duration of any instance of sound within its larger context. Let’s look at a sheet music example below.

We can see the Note which is an instance of sound – it is produced, it “happens”, and is on the sheet music. It has a pitch“A” (or more technically, “A above middle C” or “A4”) which represents its sound frequency 440 Hz (Hertz), and a duration “half” (US) / “minim” (UK) which represents how long the sound happens for (relative to the tempo marking of “126 bpm”). A note’s pitch and duration displayed on the sheet are affected by its larger context, represented by the red boxes. This larger context describes how the note’s pitch and duration on the sheet music really sound in the real world. The “larger context” is itself a deep and broad topic (who knew there was so much to music notation?!). 

Our discussion so far has alluded to the idea that music notation (and sheet music in general) is a representation of real world sounds. There are technically an infinite amount of ways one can represent a song in music notation, but there is always a small number of best ways to do it. By “best”, we mean that, like a set of instructions for a tool, the notation is easily and quickly understandable to any musician who can read sheet music. 

Using the example again from earlier, imagine being given the notation below instead of the first Naina Da Kya Kasoor example to play. 

Alternate representation of the Naina Da Kya Kasoor example

The pitches and durations are there, but there is less context. How fast do we play this? What time signature/meter drives the rhythm of the song? Without a key signature, do we have to put up with repeating sharps/flats throughout the whole sheet? What notes do I play in the left hand? There are many worse examples on the Internet!

Below, we outline general aspects of pitchduration, and context to keep in mind when notating sheet music “professionally” which music notation software won’t catch (as mentioned their usage is highly recommended). Music notation terminology will be used below.


  • Notes, particularly in the treble clef, are notated on the staves as much as possible without the use of ledger lines – more leeway can be given to left-hand notes if they are part of octaves (the higher note in the octave is more readable, so the reader can assume the lower note is the same note but an octave lower)
sheet music pitches
Ledger lines: the B version is harder to read than the A version, especially if the pitches go even higher for many bars. Occasional high ledger lines are fine, just not too often
  • Pitches are separated by staves corresponding to how sheet music is written for a particular instrument. For example, piano music almost always has two staves, while violin music always has one staff
  • Be aware of what key signature is in use, and notate accidentals accordingly. As a rule of thumb: key signatures with sharps translate to sharp accidentals, and those with flats translate to flat accidentals; exceptions to these cases involve chromatic note movement, in which case use the accidental which follows the up- or down- step (sharp for upwards movement, flat for downwards movement)


  • Consider where to tie held notes together given the time signature/meter, for meter/rhythm readability
sheet music ties
Ties: in this 4/4 example, the natural halfway point is the beginning of the third beat in the bar, so there should be no single note’s duration that crosses over it, which B does
  • If there is more than one melody line happening at the same time, use different “voices” to represent them. This can be found in any music notation software’s “voices” functionality
Voices: Section A clearly shows the two distinct voices (one in the low D, the other with the other notes on top), whereas B does not
  • For the same note instance (tied over multiple notes) or same silence happening over a period of time, consider simplifying how it is displayed on the page by grouping the tied notes or rests together into less symbols. For example, oftentimes we can display a single half/minim rest instead of two quarter/crotchet rests, because it is easier to read


The following aspects should be present:

  • Tempo marking
  • Clefs – usually treble and bass for piano sheet music, but ultimately depend on which range (low/middle/high) of the keyboard the player’s hands are in at that time
  • Time signature – one which matches the beat/rhythm of the song and neatly groups notes together per beat
  • Key signature – one which necessitates the least number of accidentals throughout the sheet; this includes modal key signatures (a song notated in E minor but containing a lot of C#s should be considered E Dorian, therefore it should use a key signature containing C# like F# minor)
  • Expression/dynamics markings – how soft or loud should the song be played? Use Italian piano/forte dynamic markings, as is standard in Western sheet music, as well as “hairpins” to indicate the sound level getting softer or louder

Professional Formatting

Thankfully, our discussion on formatting will be less music terminology-heavy than the one on notation. As with notation, the “professional” sheet music creator must remember the principle of designing easy-to-read sheet music when formatting their sheet music. For Bollypiano, “formatting” entails a few aspects which will be discussed below.

Song Structure

Almost every song in existence has some kind of structure, and a good sheet music representation of a song shows that structure in some way – usually through double bar-lines, special indications of section-wide repeats (D.S. al coda, etc.), and/or splitting staff systems like a coda section.

Symbol Readability

Symbols (notes, accidentals, etc.) should not overlap each other or look squished onto the page. Music notation software may or may not have tools to prevent this – Sibelius’s has the “magnetic layout” tool for this problem, for example, but these tools will not detect all “collisions” like this. Forcing too many bars onto a single staff system also causes these problems, as well as forcing too many staff systems onto a single page. You may need to look over your sheet with your own eyes at the end of your work to check for any collisions after enforcing these tools.

sheet music clashes
Symbol collisions: imagine trying to read and play sheet music like this for the entire song – not fun!

Song Metadata

The term “metadata” is rather technical, but it simply means information that adds context to the product, whatever it is! In this case, sheet music metadata includes:

  • Song title
  • Song subtitle (optional) – if it comes from a movie, if the sheet is for a specific instrument, if the music has been transposed from the original song recording key signature, etc.
  • Songwriter/composer – music & lyrics credits for the original song (if the sheet is an arrangement or transcription), and a composer/arranger credit for you
  • Copyright – usually found at the bottom of the first page. If the sheet is an arrangement or transcription, include the original copyright holder. In any case, include your own as well. Music copyright itself is a large and complicated topic which this article will not go into!
quality sheet music
Metadata formatting: every sheet should display suitable metadata on the first page


Melodies and chords closely resemble the original song

As noted in the introduction, this section only concerns arrangements and transcriptions, not original compositions. We must first start with some general definitions:

  • Arrangement – a musical work derived from an original composition, transformed into its own composition (it could also mean extra instrument parts added to a song by a music writer who is not the original composer, but is not relevant here)
  • Transcription – a record or representation of any piece of music to convey what is originally heard

Bollypiano deals exclusively with both types of work defined above, and has a particular approach to arrangements with respect to their representation of the original song. It should be made clear that standalone arrangements, by definition, have no requirement to be strictly accurate (in terms of melodies, chords, even chord progressions, etc.) compared to the original song. A composer of an arrangement has artistic license to write whatever they want in it. But what makes an arrangement effective is for an audience familiar with the original song to recognise it from the arrangement. Therefore, there needs to be some accuracy and resemblance to the original song when it comes to an arrangement. In Bollypiano’s case, we have chosen to arrange piano music with a target of >99% accuracy with respect to the original song’s melodies, chords, and chord progressions, with some leeway on whether to include lengthy instrumentals/interludes or not (we assume the player is satisfied with playing the main sections of the song).

If an arranger has trouble trying to produce an “accurate” arrangement with this definition, they can try the following:

  • Verify whether each chord in the arrangement is in the correct mode (major or minor)
  • Attempt to include as many notes from the original chord in the arranged chord as possible; for example, the original chord is a complicated C minor 7th with added 11th (C, Eb, G, Bb, F), but the arranger should at least extract/arrange a C minor chord (C, Eb, G)
  • Listen to and record what the bass in the original song recording is playing – it is often one of the best indicators of what the chord is at that moment

These points hint at the fact that musical aural skills are of the highest importance for any arranger/composer!

Transcriptions are meant to be accurate representations of the original song. They could cover the entire song, or they could cover a famous instrumental solo (as is found sometimes in jazz transcriptions). A common name for transcriptions which accurately capture the melody, chords, and lyrics of a song is a “lead sheet”. At Bollypiano, we go the extra step with lead sheets by annotating the most important instruments that can be heard in the original song recording (although this may be subject to change depending on what our customers want!).

Bollypiano considers sheet music “accurate” when:

  • Any listener can easily recognise the original song, guaranteed by adhering to a standard of at least 99% accuracy for all melodies, chords, and chord progressions
  • Both arrangements and transcriptions follow the rule above


Natural to play on the instrument written for

Humans naturally have physical limitations when playing an instrument. Assuming no physical injuries or impediments, a pianist has ten fingers on two hands to press the piano keys with. Beyond that, the discussion on physical limitations with these ten fingers in piano music gets tricky, because it is difficult to explain exactly what piano music is “playable” and what isn’t without accounting for all variations in human physiology. What a composer/arranger can do to verify whether their work is “playable” for a given instrument they’re writing for is:

  • Play the sheet music themselves – this is often the quickest way to identifying playability issues
  • Ask any player of that instrument they know to read and play the composer’s sheet music, then receive feedback on how to modify the written music to be more playable
  • Consult an orchestration guide – these are designed primarily for orchestral composers, but provide general tips as to what to do or avoid when writing for a particular instrument in the guide

Another aspect of playability is whether the music written by the composer is too physically high or low for the instrument itself. A convenient tool to check this is simply to use music notation software, which would give some indication/warning on whether a note is outside of the physically playable range. However, the success of this is dependent on whether the composer is writing for the intended instrument in the software or not – a mistakenly low note not playable on the violin will not be caught if the instrument written for is the piano, for example.

Bollypiano considers sheet music “playable” when:

  • A player/musician of the instrument written for can physically comfortably play it, without awkward/challenging movements in the hands (or any other body parts!)


Writing sheet music, let alone quality sheet music, can be challenging and require years of experience and training. In summary, creating quality sheet music by Bollypiano’s standards entails the following:

  • Notate and format sheet music which is easily and quickly understandable to any musician
  • For effective arrangements, consider what level of accuracy is important enough for your purpose
  • Make sure your sheet music is naturally playable by getting yourself or someone else to play it
  • Use music notation software

Thank you for reading, and go forth and create beautiful sheet music!