In this article we are going to go fast because understanding sheet music is not as hard as it may seem, the important terms are in bold letters so if you have trouble understanding any of them here you can look for an additional explanation elsewhere, but worry not, at the checkpoint we will explain how you don’t need to master or even understand all terms on this article.
This article is aimed at beginners. I suggest reading it in one go without stops because some terms only click when you know the rest and once you finish then check the terms that are not understood yet.
Sheet music/ partiture is the whole thing, if you want to know how to play a song, you search for the song name music sheet. In the sheet you’ll find 5 horizontal lines with symbols on them, that’s the staff, you have instructions (like how loud to play, the tone, style) on the staff.
*image of the start of a regular partiture
Each partiture has notes in different pitches “A, B, C, D, E, F, G” (Called Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si in other languages and C being Do, D being Re, etc), each letter is a pitch class each one going in the line or between lines on the staff. The pitch repeats, so after G you have A, and then again B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B..etc.
This is where the word octave comes in place, if you go 8 pitch classes up or down (up or down on the staff), you should end up in the same pitch class. Octaves have names using numbers from 0 – 9, for example in a piano the C in the middle is usually C4, if you go an octave lower that’s C3 all the way to C0 at the bottom and C9 at the top.
*Pitches in a piano from A1 to C8
To memorize the pitch of the notes in a regular clef (a term that we will check later), you can remember FACE for the in-between liners, or EGBDF for lines (Every good boy does fine).
There are notes that are a little higher in pitch called sharps, you can find them with the “#” symbol. There are notes that are a little lower in pitch called flats, you can find them with the “b” symbol. Sharps and flats are called accidentals.
If you look at a piano, the black keys are the sharps and the flats at the same time, C# for example is the same as Db, another example is that F# is the same as Gb. But as you can see in the same piano there are no black keys between all the white keys, that’s because B# (or Cb because is the same) and E# (or Fb) don’t exist
The space between notes is an interval. When I say a little bit higher for sharps and a little bit lower for flats I’m actually talking about the smallest interval (up or down it doesn’t matter) a half-step. Let’s go back to the piano keyboard, half step up (or above) C is C#, a half step below C is B (because there is no black key). Another example, half-step above D is D#, and half-step below D is Db or C#.
A whole-step is 2 half-steps, a whole-step above D is E, a whole-step below D is C, a whole-step below C is Bb (Because B# doesn’t exist).
At the very beginning of the music sheet, in the first part of the staff, you’ll find a Clef, a symbol that tells you the range in which you’ll be playing. The most common clef is the treble clef.
When I say range it means that the notes change, the note between the firsts 2 horizontal lines of the staff in treble clef is F, but in bass clef is one octave lower.
So now all notes depending on the clefs look like the image in this link.
The 5 horizontal lines in the staff are also divided by vertical lines called bar lines and the space between the vertical lines is a bar.
You place notes in the lines or between the lines on the staff, but you can also go beyond the lines up or down and add a 6th horizontal line, or a 7th, 8th. Those extra lines are called ledger lines.
Each note can have a different duration, and they have their respective names
*Here you can also see rests but we will talk about them here anyway
The eight notes have 1 flag on the stamp (the line that goes up or down from the note), the sixteenths have 2 flags and the thirty seconds have 3 flags. If the note has 2-4 flags in a row, they become a beam, a horizontal line that links notes. So if you see some notes linked together, that just means they are the same lengths, 1 beam for each flag the notes have.
We also have the dots that take half more than the previous note, so if you add a dot after a half note, the note with the dot takes 3 pulses/beats. For example, a dot after a whole note makes it last 6 beats, a dot after a quarter note makes it a ⅜ beat.
So now you know what note to play and for how long, first you check the clef to see what the notes will be, then you check the first note to know what pitch it is and for how long to play it.
If you don’t know how to play the pitches (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) on your particular instrument you should search for a finger chart, the finger chart will tell you what combination of fingers makes each note.
Now you may still have some doubts about some symbols that make you doubt if you are playing the song correctly, so we are going to continue with those, just know that you can stop right here especially if the music sheet you found on the internet comes with a play button to listen while you play.
Time signatures are the 2 numbers at the start of the staff, right next to the clef. The number on the top says how many beats are in a bar/measure and the number on the bottom says of what type.
Most songs are 4/4 meaning each bar has 4 beats of quarter notes, so you can fit one whole note in each bar or 2 half notes or 4 quarter notes and all the combinations that add up to 4 beats. Another example will be 5/4 you can have 5 quarter notes per bar.
It gets intimidating when we see things like 6/8, just look at it as a fraction, you can have 6 eighth notes per bar. The number on the button is usually 4 or 8 so don’t worry about having to learn a lot of time signatures.
To indicate that you don’t need to play a note, the music sheet adds rests, each rest has a length and a symbol the same way the notes have. Rest are used to fill the bars with the amount of space the time signature says. So if you are in ¾ and you only play 2 quarter notes in a bar, you will see a quarter rest to fill those ¾ and go on to the next bar.
But what happens if you are in a time signature like 4/4 and you want to play a note that lasts 5 quarters? You add a tie, a curved line that connects 2 notes between bars that say they are the same note. To answer the question in one bar you add a whole note, in the second bar you add 1 quarter note (and 3 quarters of rests don’t forget about that) and tie them together.
There are a lot of songs that repeat parts, for that we have repeats, this is a double bar line with two-point on the right and another double bar line with two points on the left when you get to the repeat with 2 points on the left you go all the way back until you find the repeat with 2 points on the right.
But what if you want to repeat more than twice? You will see an X3, X4, X99 above the repeat.
If you want to know how fast to play a song you will usually get a tempo, tempo used to be words that indicate how fast you should play a part, like allegro, adagio, moderato, etc. You can also see it indicated in BPS (beats per second), more on tempo here.
Besides how fast and for how long you should play, you can also know how loud you should play each note thanks to the dynamics
The last thing you’re gonna need is the key signatures and the natural. The key signatures are placed next to the clef, they can be 1-7 sharps or 1-7 flats, they indicate that any note that it’s in the same line that the sharps/flats of the key signatures are going to be sharp/flat for the rest of the song.
You can cancel sharps with a natural, a symbol similar to a “b” and a “q” put together, that means that the note played won’t be sharp or flat. The effect of naturals lasts for the next notes in the same bar, the bar line resets the effect, so you start using the key signature again.
Another example is that you have an empty key signature, you add a C# quarter note, then a C without the # simbol, that note is C#, but the moment they get to another bar, the # loses its effect, and the next C note is just a C. See the image below.
That’s it, we recommend finding simple songs music sheets first then going up in difficulty, thanks for reading.