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How to Read Standard Sheet Music Notation

In this episode, Ryan shows you how quick and easy it is to learn to read music with 4 simple mnemonic phrases!

Learn to Read Traditional Sheet Music Notation

- contributed by Ryan Cullen

PDF Handout

(00:14): Hello everyone. It's Ryan Cullen, Academy Director here at the Louisiana Academy of Performing Arts. And I'm here today to discuss with you something that comes up with all of our new students. So if you're a new student watching this, you're going to be right at home because we're going to get you started on the right foot here with learning to read standard music notation. It doesn't have to be complicated. It's very straightforward and easy once you get the hang of it. Now, there are several other types of notation for guitar and drums, such as tablature and rhythmic notation, we're not going to focus on that today. Today, we're just looking at, what we call, International Pitch Notation, which is the standard music notation that most music students are going to be concerned with.

(01:08): So we have a little lesson prepared for you now, and we're going to just walk you through that and get you started. So let's go ahead and take a look at that now. So now we have our handout here on the screen and you'll notice that we have some lines and spaces here. Let's talk about that first. As you may or may not know, notes, a standard music notation, can be placed on a line or as you see down here, in a space. So we have a series of lines and spaces, we have five lines here and four spaces. And those lines and spaces are what make up the musical staff. So we have what we call line notes, and those are notes that go on a line, or we have space notes, and those are notes that sit in between the lines or in the spaces. Now you might be wondering, well, what about these notes that have a line through them?

(02:21): And they're not really on the staff, but they're above the staff. Or if you look down here, this note, B3, is below the line that we drew in, it's like an extra line. And this note over here, G5, sits on top of the staff above the top line. What do we call those notes? And what are they doing there? Well, these are ledger line notes. These are notes that we draw the lines and spaces on demand. If we tried to create a staff with every possible line and space, that would be a lot of lines and spaces and there's no way that it would be practical to try and memorize or read that it would be very difficult. So we just draw these extra lines and spaces on demand as we need them. And in theory, they can go pretty low, below the staff or above the staff, high above the staff.

(03:25): And so now let's go ahead and talk about the little symbol that you see over here on the side. This is called a treble clef, and it's also referred to as a G clef, because the center of it sits on the G line and actually defines the G line. So you can either refer to it as a treble clef or a G clef. And so what does a treble clef do? Well, a treble clef, if you think about the radio in your car, there's an option in there to adjust the treble. Treble generally refers to higher pitches or higher frequencies, so the high notes. If you have a piano at home, it would be all of the higher notes that go on and on to your right. And we have a little piano down here on our handout, so as we progress to the right, we're going up in pitch, our pitches are getting higher, the notes sound higher, and those are going to be typically treble clef notes.

(04:34): The notes in this middle range here of the piano could be either the bass clef or the treble clef. But once you get to this C5 here, generally speaking, those are all going to be written in the treble clef because they're higher notes. Now I just said something else, I said bass clef. Well, the bass clef, if you think about your car stereo again, you also have an option to adjust the bass, and I think most people know what bass is. It's that boomy sound, some people like to turn it up really loud in the car. So the bass clef notates the lower notes. So if we look at our piano again, down here, again, these notes could be in the bass clef, in some cases, but once you get right in here and on down and going to the left here, those are typically going to be written in the bass clef.

(05:44): Another name for the bass clef, we had two names for the treble clef, treble clef or G clef, because the center sits on the G line. Well, what do you think the bass clef is known as? The F clef. If you look at this little section right here, we have a little dot on the bass clef is right on the fourth line, and I'm counting from the bottom one, two, three, four, which is an F. So we also refer to the bass clef as the F Clef. So now before we go any further, let's just make sure that we all know what a line note is in the treble clef and what a space note is in the treble clef. So once again, a line note is going to have a line going right through the middle of it. And of course the treble clef is this symbol up here.

(06:47): So any note that has a line right through the middle of it, that is a line note. And you can practice this in your theory book, you should have a theory book hopefully, that you have been issued. And one of the exercises in there will be identifying line and space notes. Space notes will always sit either below the line or in between the lines, it will never have a line going right through it. So that's something very important. And then the same thing in the bass clef. Everything is exactly the same, except we have a bass clef instead of a treble clef there. So again, treble clef is high notes, bass clef, low notes. All right. Now that we have that understood what we have done in this handout is we've broken down, memorizing the names of the notes in four different sections here.

(07:51): So we have a little, what we call, a mnemonic device for each section. So we're going to start with the treble clef line notes and the easiest way to learn these notes is to memorize these little phrases that I've come up with today and they all seem to be about food for some reason today, maybe it's because I'm recording this before lunch, I don't know, but I thought they would be fun and they should be very easy to remember. And the other thing to remember when we're using these mnemonic devices is we're always starting at the bottom of the staff and working our way up to the top of the staff. So that's how we're going to approach this. So when you're reading the phrases and memorizing them, what you need to do is take the first letter of each word and apply it to the pitch. And that is your note.

(08:52): So if we read the phrase, Can Ellie Go Buy Donuts For All? We would take the first letter C here for Can, and we would apply it to this pitch here, and that would be a C. And then you do the same for each other note. So this line note on the first line is an E and this is a G and so on. So now that you understand these little phrases here and we know well we take the first letter of each word, and that is the name of the note. Great. Now we look up here and we see the letter, we understand the letters, but what are these numbers doing there? What is the four? And what is the five? And why do we have numbers with letters?

(09:41): Well, in the musical alphabet, we only have seven letters. That's right. We don't go all the way through Z for musical notes, we just use A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and once we're done, well, we play another A, B, C, D, E, F, G and so on. If you look down here at our piano, this is an 88 note standard piano keyboard, you'll notice that the very first note, all the way down at the bottom of the piano is an A and then the next key is B, the next key is C, next one is D, E, F, G after G, guess what comes? A. Starts all over again? A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, and so on. So there are several A, B, C, D, E, F, and Gs that we need to account for. And so to do that, we've assigned numbers to each one of them.

(10:46): The place where we have started here is C4. C4 is in the middle of the piano, and we also refer to it as Middle C. And every particular note is eight keys away from its other self, if you think of it like that. So the first C is all the way at the bottom, we call it C1 and then eight keys later, we have C2. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and then C3 comes another eight keys later. And that's why we call it an octave. An octave is eight keys. So every octave, we have a new number for the note. And the letter C, is actually what changes the number each time. So whenever you get to a new C, a new octave has started, in standard pitch notation anyway, that's how they break up the numbers.

(11:58): And as you can see on a standard piano, we have eight Cs. So C1 through C8. We have two notes down here that don't have a number one, A and B0, they're very low notes. So hopefully that gives you a better idea of what the numbers are now. So once you've memorized, Can Ellie Go Buy Donuts For All? Then it's a good idea to take these C4, E4, G4, B4, D5 and identify them down on the piano. If you don't have a piano at home, there are numerous internet virtual pianos that you can click on your keyboard and practice it that way. It's important whether or not you actually play the piano or are taking piano lessons that you understand how these notes relate to the piano and your instrument. So on your instrument, no matter what instrument you play, you are going to have a C4, D4, E4, those are pretty much guaranteed.

(13:09): Now, the highest notes and the lowest notes, you may have more or less of, or none of. Some instruments are going to have more note ranges than others, but most of the time, pretty much every instrument's going to have that middle range. So you need to know what note ranges you have on your instrument, and you need to know what they're called and what they look like on the staff. And we use the piano because it's the most visual of all of the musical instruments. It's very easy to see where things are in relation to the staff. And so that's why we're talking about it and placing so much importance on it.

(13:54): Let's move on to the treble clef space notes. And so once again, we're going to start at the bottom here, and we're going to say, Before Dad Forgets, Ashley Can't Eat Garlic! That's right, her face turns purple or something like that. So stay away from the garlic, Ashley. All right, so if you can remember this, you can remember that this is B, this is a D, this is an F, A, C, E, and a G. And then go down here at the piano again, look at the keyboard, find where they are in the piano, play them on the piano.

(14:31): So we've covered now the treble clef line notes and the space notes. Let's take a look at our phrases for the bass clef. We begin with the bass clef line notes, and we're starting all the way down at E2. Let's find E2 on the piano, E2 is going to be right down here, I don't know if you can see my cursor, but it's right down there. So our little phrase is, Elvin's Grandma Bakes Delicious Fried Apple Cobbler, who doesn't love a good apple cobbler? I know I do. That's probably why I wrote this. So we want to say, this is an E, this is a G, this is a B, this is a D and so on.

(15:20): Go down to the keyboard again, see where they are. If you're not a piano player, see where these notes are on your instrument. Maybe you don't have them. Maybe they're too low. If you're a flute player, you're not going to have this bass clef. And that's something else that you need to know about too, some instruments are just pitched in the treble clef. Some instruments are just pitched in the bass clef because are lower notes.

(15:52): So a flute player is only going to read music in the treble clef, a bass guitar player is only going to read notes in the bass clef. And there's a few other clefs that we're not going to talk about today, but these are the general ones that you need to know about. So let's look at the base clef space notes, Friday Afternoons Charlie Enjoys Great Big Desserts. What a great time for a dessert, huh? Friday afternoon. So if you memorize this little phrase, you will be able to identify F, A, C, E, G, B and D. Now, what kind of note is this D up here again? That is a ledger your line note, because it sits on top of that line, it's a space note, but still a ledger line note because we have to write that extra line on demand. So just trying to review that with you here.

(16:58): And let's look down here again and make sure that you can find all of these notes on the staff. So starting here, and again, I'm not sure if my cursor is coming through, but Friday Afternoons Charlie Enjoys Great Big Desserts, all the way up to D4 there. Now you'll also notice that, we were talking about this earlier, you can have certain notes in both the treble clef and the bass clef, C4 is a good example. The first note we started with was C4 in the treble clef, and it's right here in the trouble clef, but in the bass clef, if we look at C4, it sits way up here. Those are both exact same note, they're just written in two different ways. If you think about it, it makes sense because, this is the middle, middle C is in the middle of the piano, so it's going to be on the lower side of the highest notes. And it's going to be on the higher side of the lower notes, right in the middle.

(18:15): And so it's important to know that. You could have every single note on every clef, but it would be terrible to look at if you did that, it's not practical. That's why we only play certain notes in both clefs, like the C4, or this D4, or this B3, they fit both nicely in either clef. Once you have too many lines, too many ledger lines, nobody likes to read lots of ledger lines, just gets too messy. So homework is to memorize these four different phrases. Once you memorize these four phrases, you'll be able to identify pretty much any note within the most common ranges of most instruments. There's going to be some higher and lower notes that you'll get to later, and a good way to do that is to practice with flashcards, so hopefully you have your flashcards that you're working with.

(19:22): If not, we do have those through LAAPA Press as well, and that is a fantastic way to really get fast at this. On the back of the cards, it also has the correct piano key so that you can quickly refer to that on the piano and know where it is. Again, if you're not a piano student, you do want to make sure that you know where these notes are in relation to your instrument. So work with your teacher to understand that as well, so that you have a really good understanding of this getting started. And the key to playing in ensembles with other musicians, quickly and efficiently, or if you're doing recording work with professional musicians, standard music notation is the most common thing that you need to know and it's what everyone uses. Having a good ear is great too, and your training is essential, but reading music is going to take you a long way. So good luck to you on your journey with reading music notation and enjoy learning music. See you.

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