how to read sheet music

How to Read Sheet Music: A Step-by-Step Guide for Musicians

Nicole McCray
Nicole McCray

Most of us have gone through the same scenario in which we hear a song for the first time, and instantly we think, “I want to be able to play that.” But then we see sheet music that looks like a foreign language (it is), and we get scared off. 

But learning how to read sheet music doesn’t have to be so scary. And once you master it, you are on your way to making music. Reading sheet music is no different than learning the basics of any sport. 

So, let’s get started with the basics. 

Step 1: Learn The Basic Notations of Sheet Music

Starting with the basic notations of music makes sense. This is the foundation that you want to build off of. We have three major notations. 

The Staff

The staff is the lines and spaces that organise where all the notations go so that the musician knows what to play. The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces between those lines. The lines are labeled one through five, starting at the bottom. The spaces are also labeled one through four starting at the bottom. 

The lines and spaces are designated for a particular note. The exact note is determined by the following:. 

  1. The Treble Clef
  2. The Bass Clef

The Treble Clef

The Treble clef is reserved for higher-pitched notes. You may have learned the acronyms for these notes in music class. Chances are even the best of the best have used these.  The notes are “E, G, B, D, F” and “F, A, C, E.”

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” and “FACE”  

The Bass Clef

These are the lower-pitched notes. These notes are. “G, B, D, F, A.” Or, “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always.”  The other notes are “A, C, E, G.” 

Or “All Cows Eat Grass.”

Step 2: Know Your Notes, Note Values, Dot Ties, and Beams

Here is where you may want to review this section a few times till you get the hang of things. 


Note heads are the circular part at the bottom of the stem. The notehead will either be black or white. This indicates the note value. The stem can either be pointed up on the right side of the notehead or pointed down on the left side of the notehead. This doesn’t actually change the note value, but it makes it easier to read sheet music. 

Note Values

Note values indicate just how long to play the note for. Let’s look at it like this. 

  1. A notehead without a stem is a whole note and indicates four beats. 
  2. A notehead with a stem that is not coloured in is a half note and indicates two beats. 
  3. A notehead with a stem that is coloured in is a quarter note and indicates one beat. 
  4. A notehead with a stem that is coloured in with one flag is an eighth note and indicates half a beat. 
  5. A notehead with a stem that is coloured in with two flags is a sixteenth note and indicates a quarter of a beat. 

Dots and Ties

Dots and ties are different ways to extend or hold a note for longer than its original form. For instance, a dot after a notehead will add another half of the note that is indicated. So it will be the original note + half of the original note. Ties add two notes together and indicate that they should be held for their total value. 


Beams connect notes in a different way. Beams connect quarter notes when there are too many flags attached. This cleans up the sheet music making it easier to read. 

Step 3: Understanding the Tempo

To understand the beat of a song, we need to look at the time measure. The time measure has a top and a bottom number that is on the left side or the start of the staff after the clef. The top number will indicate how many beats are in a measure, while the bottom number signifies how long each beat is. 

Step 4: What Are Sharps and Flats?

Sharps and flats are common for beginners to get confused. The best way to learn these is to look at piano keys and piano chords. To sharpen a note on a keyboard, the pianist would play one note to the right. The keys to the right produce a higher note. As you move to the left of the keyboard, the notes get lower. Moving one key to the left flattens the note. 

Sharps look like a hashtag or the pound sign, while flats look like a lowercase b. 

Step 5: Make Mistakes 

The only way to learn how to do something is to make mistakes and give something a try. When reading this guide to learn how to read sheet music, you may already feel lost. But it is very similar to when you are assembling furniture. You may look at the instructions and see all the steps and start to feel overwhelmed and confused. 

But interestingly enough, when you start doing it step-by-step, it appears to be easier than you thought. Grabbing your instrument and working on reading sheet music while also learning the notes is the best way to learn. 

Get Started! 

Half the battle is getting started. As you start to learn to read sheet music, refer back to this article as a study guide. This will help give you reminders when you do make mistakes and how to correct them. 

Nobody ever starts out as a pro. Not in music and not in sports. It may come easier for some than others, but in the beginning, we all had to learn the same way. Then one day, you may just join the list of the greats. 


Related Content