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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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