Beginner Music Theory tutorials
4. Musical sheets
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So this day has finally arrived? The day I actually start reading music?

  1. Topics of discussion
  2. Reading and understanding a musical sheet

1. Topics of discussion

In this tutorial, we will be taking a look at musical sheets and discussing every element that appears on them. We will also learn how to read notes. So, let's have some fun.

2. Reading and understanding a musical sheet

A musical sheet is the most common method musicians use to write their music. And this method is a universal one, meaning that it doesn't matter what instrument you play, you can always write your music on a musical sheet.

Musical sheets have various elements inside them, used to designate the tempo of the song, the key of the song, the time signature and of course the notes of the song (organized in what is known as bars or measures). Worth noting is that the areas in which the notes are actually written are called staffs and they consist of 5 horizontal lines, each having an empty space area and that notes are written on either the lines or the space area. More on that below.

Musical sheets can have multiple staffs. The example I am about to use is a sheet containing what is known as a grand staff, which is used to write a piano song. This type of staff actually contains two regular staffs, one for each hand. Other musical sheets can also contain multiple staffs, but most of the time each staff is dedicated to a different instrument. These types of sheets are extremely useful for conductors, who are required to follow several instruments at a time and need to know when each instrument starts and stops playing during a song. And there are of course sheets that contain a single staff, dedicated to a single instrument.

So, let's take a look at a musical sheet:


Quite a lot of stuff there. Let's break it down:


The tempo section is used to tell the musician how fast a piece is meant to be played. Now there are two ways in which you can specify tempo:

  • using a number and a note duration, like in this example
  • using an Italian tempo word such as Andante, Allegro etc.

In our case, the tempo is read as quarter note equals 120 or 120 beats per minute (BPM). We'll discuss these in detail in a separate tutorial.

Next up we have the time signature. As you can see, it consists of two numbers. The number at the bottom represents the note duration used to measure a beat in a measure while the number at the top represents the number of beats in a measure. In our case, the time signature is read as four quarter notes. We will learn about time signatures in more detail in a future tutorial.

Up next is the key signature. This is used to tell the musician what key (or scale) the song is written and played in. In our case, it is a variant of the F minor key (scale) called melodic F minor. We will discuss this as well in more detail in a future tutorial.

The next aspect is that of clefs. Clefs are important because they designate the octaves in which you are supposed to play the notes. On the top staff we have what is known as the G2 clef. It's called the G2 clef because its starting point is located on the line where the G note is located, which is the second line of the staff (hence the G2 name). More often than not though it can be referenced to as the G clef or treble clef.

Notes written on the G2 clef staff usually pertain to the fourth octave or higher. As you remember, the fourth octave is the one that starts with the middle C note and is also known as the middle octave. As a general rule, notes with medium and high pitches are placed on staffs with the G2 clef.

The clef on the lower staff is called the F4 clef for the same reasoning as above. Notes written on this type of staffs are usually the ones with lower pitches (or bass notes, if you will). Usually the notes on this clef are from the third octave or lower. Also, this clef can also be referenced to as simply the F clef or the bass clef.

As you can see, note placement is different for these clefs (e.g. the G note is on the second staff line for a G2 clef and on the 4th space area for an F4 clef). However, two rules are available for both. First, the higher the pitch of the note, the higher its position on the staff. And the second rule to remember is that each note has its very own position reserved on the staff, be it a line or a space. The only time this is not true, in a sense, is when you use accidentals but even then the notes are different, though based on the same one. We'll get to that when the time is right.

And finally, let's talk about measures. Measures are closely linked with time signatures in that you cannot have more notes in a measure/bar than the time signature allows you to. A measure is used to delimit a section of a song and it usually contains what is known as a musical motif (which is basically a group of notes that wants to transmit an idea, expressed by using notes instead of letters). Measures are separated by a vertical line called a bar separator and the end of a song (the last measure of the song) is designated by a special kind of marker, as you can see. The terms bar and measure can be used interchangeably.

Since this tutorial in particular is more about reading notes, let's take a look at our good old friend, the C major scale, written in both the G2 clef and the F4 clef versions:

C Major Scale (G Clef)

C major (F clef)

As you can see, we have notes both on the 5 lines of each staff and outside of them. This is of course allowed and we can write notes outside of the designated 5 lines by using ledger lines in the places where one would expect a staff line. Also worth noting is the alternation between lines and spaces. Two consecutive notes are located on a line and on a space area, or on a space area and then on a line, be it a staff line or a ledger line.

When it comes to the G2 clef, the notes on the lines are E, G, B, D and F, while the notes on the spaces in between are F, A, C and E.

When it comes to the F4 clef, the notes on the lines are G, B, D, F and A, while the notes on the spaces in between are A, C, E and G.

You may also notice that the notes have different lines. These are specific to their duration, meaning how long the note is played. In our particular example we have 16th notes on the G2 clef and whole notes and quarter notes on the F4 clef, which also has what is known as rests in the beginning. We will detail all of this in another tutorial.

One final note is with regards to places where you see notes on different positions on a staff but on top of each other. That tells the musician that he needs to play all the notes at the same time.

And that about covers it for this tutorial. Next time we will be taking a look at musical tabs. See you then. And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask below.

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