Types of music notations

Let’s say you want to learn a song, you search for the music sheet and you find there are 2 or 3 different versions of it, one seems old or incomplete, another is for another instrument and the last has symbols in another language.

In this article we will go over the different formats, what are they, understanding the basics of how they read, the problems you can encounter when you search for songs in that format and how to solve them in a fast and beginner friendly way.

What is notation?

Music notation is any way to show music visually. The types of notations are music sheets, tablatures, lead sheets, MIDI, percussion notation, shape notation and graphic notation.

Music Sheet

This is the standard notation, it has many variables based on history and music genre, before we discuss those differences we recommend learning to read sheet music, so you can understand the terminology.

One of the differences you may have noted is how some people call the pitches.

Standard notationC D E F G A B 
SolfegeDo Re Mi Fa Sol La Si/Ti
Nashville Numerical Notation1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Svara / SargamSa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni
*C, Do, 1 & Sa are equal

Solfege is usually used in singing classes or in specific countries like Mexico and other countries of Latin America. The Nashville numerical notation is used for people with little to non music theory knowledge to help them start playing faster and Svara is used in India.

The next difference is the type of sheet music you may get, if you want the music sheet for all the instruments that’s a score, if you only want your instrument part, that’s called a…part, but you may have to search it like “[name of song] music sheet for [instrument name]”.

The third difference you may find is the pitch notation, the standar is scientific pitch notation, it uses the letters A-G and it names the octaves from 0-8, so the lowest note in a piano will be A0, the highest G8 and of course middle C is C4. There’s also Helmholtz pitch notation, it was used in the past, it also uses A-G but instead of 0-8 it goes C,, C, C c c’ c’’ c’’’.


Tablatures are used for string instruments like the guitar or the banjo, here every horizontal line is a string and each number is the fret your hand should press. 

Tablatures or tabs need to be specific to your instrument to sound good, a bass tablature won’t sound good on guitar even if the bass has 6 strings, there are also tablatures for harmonica that use numbers to indicate the hole you should blow and the plus and minus symbols to indicate if you should blow or draw air.

Not all tablatures indicate rhythm, so for a lot of songs you will have to play until you find the correct timing. That can be fixed with newer tabs online, in these tabs you can play the tablature and hear it (usually with midi instruments) and even follow along. Another solution is having the tab below and the music sheet above.

Not all tablatures indicate the tuning of the instrument, so we recommend getting a tuner (for example a free one online or an app), finding a tab that indicates the tuning and then going back to the tab that has rhythm included, just make sure they’re similar enough.


Bar-based MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) is more a technology than a notation. It’s used to connect music instruments with other instruments and computers. For example you can play a midi keyboard, record the songs note by note, modify it and convert it to mp3.

But when we talk about midi notation and what most people think when you want a midi sheet is usually a midi file, that way you can use it in a playing software like synthesia to play the notes like it was a game (guitar hero for example).

So for midi you’re going to get mostly piano lessons, you search them like this “[name of the song] piano midi”. 

A couple of tips we can give you is that some midi songs are made to play the vocals or another instrument of the song, you can find a lot of songs that don’t even have piano, so you can start there if you want to play familiar songs right away, but if you want to learn the piano part of the songs in piano, you may have to search harder or go to music sheet. 

Midi depends on the software you choose to use, but even if you don’t have a midi instrument you can always follow based on a youtube video. 

This format is great to practice and learn without the need to know a lot of music theory, we recommend showing the name notes on your keyboard, the notes falling and the keys you play until you learn them,that way you get music theory and practice at the same time.

Lead Sheets

Lead sheets are guidelines, they look like music sheets but usually have the chords indicated on top of the bar lines and the lyrics of the song below. The intention is for you to be able to improvise if you want to, you can try different notes based on the chords, you can mess a little with the tempo and transpose.

Besides the improvisation, they are usually easier to read for beginners, because even if you don’t know the tempo, you can follow the song lyrics. If you want to experiment, improvise or prefer the extra information it gives you, lead sheets is the answer.

Graphic notation

Graphic notation is a way to notate in a way that doesn’t give specific instructions, the idea is to write the idea of the song but leave the interpretation open. This type of notation was born with the idea that sheet music was too specific, so much so, that it didn’t leave to the imagination.

This type of notation is similar to eye music, but not the same. Eye music is a way to make the music notation feel like a piece of art, just by looking at it

This video for example is both graphic notation and eye music

Percussion / Drum notation

Percussion or drum notation is read like a tablature or a music sheet, you have the staff, and you write notes that indicate the tempo, the difference is that each line is 1 percussion.

You can learn drum notation really fast,but the problem that you may find is that the notation is not standardized, specially because some songs use different percussion, so make sure the notation indicates which line represents which percussion.

Shape notation

Shape notation is used to facilitate teaching of music reading and is similar to the music sheets, with the difference being that each pitch has a shape and a corresponding solfege silabe. This creates a triple mental association helping you learn faster.

This notation is used to teach singing, especially in groups like chorus. The problem you can find is that some shape notations use 4 shapes and others 7, 4 shapes solfege is “Mi, Fa, Sol, La” and 7 shapes is “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si/Ti”. So you may have to learn 2 versions of shape notation.


Now you know exactly what you are looking for when you search for a song and if it comes in a different format, you can adapt or search for another. 

As you can see there are a lot of ways to write music, sadly not all the songs are in all formats, so what we recommend is to start with the one you like the most and when you can’t find a song in that format either get them in another notation or even trainscrive it yourself.

Luis Gerardo

Musician as a hobby for +6 years, documenting every instrument in simple words for this website.

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