Your Very Own Rosetta Stone – A Guide To Reading Musical Notation – Part One

Egyptian Art

One of the things that many people write to ask is “in which order should my past columns be read?” And I have to answer that I don’t really know! When I started writing for Guitar Noise, I was given pretty much free rein about what to write. Most of my topics came, and still come, from you, our readers. I had no preset lesson plan, if you will.

Now, close to two years later, I am desperately scrambling around trying to fill in as many of the gaps in my teachings as possible. This is going to take time and I don’t want to detract from the other fun lessons that are progressing even as we speak. So from time to time I hope to put out a column such as this one. Maybe Paul will even put it on it’s own page! Something with a clever, catchy title, like “Things David Really Should Have Written About Earlier If Only The Poor Sod Had Half A Brain…”

Today I’d like to give you a quick guide to reading music notation. This is something that many of you have asked for. It is also something that any and every serious musician needs. If you’re wondering whether or not you should bother to learn to read music, take the time to read Jamie Andreas’ excellent article Why Should I Learn To Read Music? that we put online last March.

What I’ve put together here for you is not a definitive guide. Rather, it is a basic starter kit, kind of like those phrase books you see tourists carrying around when they are unsure of the language but at least want to give it a try. It certainly is better than arrogantly expecting everyone to speak your language! With today’s column and some practice (sigh. Yes, everything does require practice, does it not?), you will be able to navigate through my lessons at least! You’ll also be taking the first steps in learning what is perhaps the only “universal” written language this planet has.

Setting Up Shop

One of the coolest things about knowing how to read music is that there is a lot that you can know about a song without even giving it more than a passing glance. Like the eternal question, “What key is it in?” But first things first.

Just as in reading any writing language, we have to learn the alphabet as well as the various “punctuation” marks. Fortunately, the alphabet part is very easy, because there are only seven letters. And each letter, as I’m guessing you are aware, is the name of a note:


This is the order they go in. Once you reach “G,” we go back to “A” and repeat the whole thing over again. This doesn’t change! As far as sequential order goes (this is in naming the notes in order, obviously not in playing a song) the note “C” will never be immediately followed by anything over than “D” and so on. You don’t have to worry about anyone ever telling you otherwise.

In music notation, notes are designated by symbols, which will typically look like one of the following:


We will come back to these in Part Two. Right now, however, we need to learn something else. How exactly do we know which note is, for instance, a “A” note? And to which “A” note on the guitar does notation note this correspond? Well, in notation, our notes are displayed upon what is called a “staff.” This is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces between each line. Don’t laugh, the spaces are important. It is where these notes are positioned in the staff, on which line or space they occupy, which determines what note you play. And here’s the beauty of it – the position will always be the same. If you want the note sounded by the open B string, for example, it will always occupy the place on the staff. Once you know where it is you will always know where it is.

But (and there always is a catch, isn’t there?) first you have to know which type of staff you are dealing with. You can identify a staff by a symbol that sits along its far left-hand edge. This is called a clef. And while there are numerous types of clef, only two appear primarily in the music we deal with, the treble clef and the bass clef. Here’s what they look like:


Now if you’re thinking to yourself, “I can see that the treble clef kind of looks like a stylized “G,” but why do they call the bass clef an “F clef?” you’ve almost got it right. This won’t be the most scientific explanation (like mine ever are, right?), but it will definitely work as a memory device. Look closely at the treble clef. Notice in particular the second line from the bottom. You may not pick this up with a passing glance, but the line that makes up the clef itself intersects that second horizontal line from the bottom four times; it crosses it more times than it does any other line in the staff. So guess what note occupies that line?

G Note

Yes, it is the G note. This G corresponds to your open G string. It always is and was and will be that note (okay, there is an “unless” and we’ll come to that in a moment). Going back to the bass clef, can you see that the second line from the top is surrounded by those dots? Yes, that is where the F note will be on that staff. This particular F, by the way, corresponds to the first fret on your low E string.

So just how do we read these notes? Well, If we know that G is the second line from the bottom of the treble clef, then we know that the next note, the one that will occupy the space between the second and third lines, will be A, since A immediately follows G. The third line would therefore be the B note and so on. Going in the other direction, and using the same logic, F would occupy the first space from the bottom and E would be the note on the bottom line. Let’s take a look at all the notes in what we’ll call the “main body” of the staff:

Staff Notes

Some of you probably might still remember the mnemonic phrases that you were taught in grade school. Reading up from the bottom, the notes which occupy the lines are E,G,B,D,F – “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.” Or “Fudge,” if you prefer. When you read the notes of the spaces upward from the bottom, you get F, A, C, E, which is easy enough to remember on its own.

And before you put two and two together and start thinking that you have to be able to read both staffs, relax. This music stuff’s been around for ages and no matter what anyone tells you, people have always opted for doing things the easy way whenever possible. It’s not just a modern phenomenon. Guitar music is (again, almost) always written solely in the treble clef. What happens is that lines and spaces get added above and below the staff and you continue to read them as if they were part of the treble clef. Here are the notes above and below the staff.

Above Below

You can see that the low E will more often than not be the lowest note you’ll encounter in sheet music for the guitar (although, believe it or not, there are songs dated as far back as sixteenth century written specifically for drop D tuning!). When a musical passage starts going way above the E on the twelfth fret of the first string, you will often run into this symbol:

Octave 1
Octave 2

This indicates that the notes should be played one octave higher than the notation. You’ll see this a lot if you’re reading notation of leads.

Oh, and just to throw my two cents in, learning how to read the bass clef isn’t a bad idea…

Accidentals Will Happen

In this lesson, I also want to point out some other things that you will find when you look at a staff of music. At the beginning of each piece of music, the staff will be followed by two important pieces of information – the key signature and the time signature. And just so you know, I moved the time signature waaaay out into the staff so that I could label it easier. Normally, it’s right after the key signature.


Today, let’s look at the key signature, shall we? You may not know this, but sheet music is often much more helpful than TABS in ways that benefit the player who is not concerned with playing things note per note. The key signature is the number of sharps or flats (or the lack thereof) that appear immediately after the clef. This will, much more often than not, tell you what key a song is in. Notice I said sharps or flats, not both. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Earlier, when I wrote out the seven letters of the musical “alphabet,” you were probably wondering if I’d left something out. Technically speaking, no, because I only intended to write out the letters of notes. That did note mean that I was writing out all the notes. If you’ve read any of my beginner’s theory pieces (Theory Without Tears or The Musical Genome Project) you are well aware that there are more than seven notes. There are actually twelve. Some are designated by just a letter, while others are a letter and a symbol like this – # – or this – b. The “#” means “sharp” or “one half step above the note of the letter. C#, for example, is a half step above C. A “b” is a flat sign, meaning that we have moved a half step down from the note of the letter. Eb is a half step below E. And let’s note here that this does indeed mean that some notes actually share the same name. “Ab” and “G#” are, for our purposes, the same note. Here’s a handy chart:

Sharps and flats

In musical notation, the symbols for flats and sharps are called accidentals. There is also an accidental for “natural” meaning that the note should be the straight letter value, neither flat nor sharp. I can’t do it on the keyboard, so let me show you what these look like on the staff:


Why on earth would you even need a “natural” symbol? Well, that should become clear momentarily. Suppose you were writing out a song in the key of E, a fairly common key for guitar music. There are four sharps in the E major scale. See for yourself:

E F# G# A B C# D# E

Now remember what I told you about people wanting to do things the easy way. Would you want to have to put a sharp notation every time you wrote one of these four notes? Of course not. What you would do is write out your sharps ahead of time, at the very beginning of the piece. This is like a big billboard saying, “Hey! Whenever you see an F, it’s supposed to be an F#, okay?” This is what the key signature does. So, how do you know what key a song is in? Well, you may not believe this, but there are rules! These rules are dictated by the formation of the major scale. Here’s a run down:

Key of C
Key of G
Key of D
Key of A
Key of E
Key of B
Key of F
Key of Bb
Key of Eb
Key of Ab
Key of Db

The real beauty of this, as in so much of what we’ve been talking about, is that these symbols are constants. If you see a song with only one flat in it, it is going to be Bb. There are no keys that just have an Eb in them. But suppose you were writing a song in G and you wanted to write out a G7 chord. A G7 chord is composed of G, B, D and F. Not F#. This is where a “natural” accidental will be used. It will momentarily negate the sharp in the key signature. Yes, only momentarily. How long? Well, that’s something we’ll take up in Part Two, which will deal with timing and measures.

What about minor keys, you ask? Well, remember that every minor key is the relative minor of a major key. So if you know what the key signature of the major key is, you will also know what the relative minor is. If, for example, you see that the key signature has two sharps, then you can be almost one hundred percent certain that the song is in either D major or B minor.

Before we go, though, let me leave you a parting gift. Here is the notation (along with the TAB) for the first five frets of each of the guitar’s six strings. You will see how notation takes the lower and higher notes into account as well as see how the guitar gives you several places to play the same note (the open G string, for instance, is the same note as the fifth fret on the D string). For the sake of not driving myself crazy, I have mixed up the flats and sharps. In guitar music you are more likely to run into Bb and Eb than you are A# and D#. Likewise, F#, C#, and G# are much more common than their flatted twins. Here you go:

First String
Second String
Third String
Fourth String
Fifth String
Sixth String

Do me a favor. Sometime between now and reading the next lesson, take a moment and look at some sheet music. Test yourself by picking out some notes and identifying them. Also test yourself by checking out the key signatures at the beginning of the piece (or seeing whether or not it changes sometime during the song!). Reading music is like reading anything. The more you do it the easier it becomes. You’re never too old or too young to learn a second (third or fourth) language.

Until next time…