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Music Symbols: How to Read Sheet Music

Post date: Dec 13, 2015

If you’ve checked out Music Melter’s guide to music symbols, you’ve most likely got a handle on the basics. Now that you’re familiar with the staff, notes, and time signatures, the next step is making the leap to reading more complex sheet music, which will help you decipher melodies and songs.

Dots and Ties

In the Music Symbols: What Do They Actually Mean? lesson, we learned that different note symbols have different values or durations of time for which they are played. In musical notation, there are also other ways of extending or shortening the duration of a note. Dots and ties, depicted in the image below, are often used for this purpose.

music dots and ties

dot located next to the note head indicates that we should add half the duration of the original note to the length of time it is played. As illustrated in the image above, a dotted half note tells us to play a half note (2 beats) plus a quarter note (1 beat). A tie is the curved line connecting two notes at the head that looks sort of like a skipping rope, and is commonly used to indicate that the note should be played across a bar (notice that in the picture above, the tie crosses the vertical bar line).

Note Values & Beaming

In the first Music Symbols lesson, we talked about whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. A quarter note can be shortened even further to an eighth note (played for half the duration of a quarter note), signified by the presence of a short curved line or flag attached to the note’s stem. Eighth notes can in turn be shortened to sixteenth notes, which are played for half the duration of an eighth note. Sixteenth notes are denoted using a double flag attached to the note stem.

understanding musical note values

It’s important to take note of the flags used to signify eighth and sixteenth notes because they look slightly different when written in sheet music. A lot of flags can make the staff look cluttered, so multiple eighth and sixteenth notes are written in pairs of two connected by beams—1 beam for eighth notes and 2 for sixteenth notes:

understanding beaming in music

Rest Values

Just as we use symbols to show when notes are played, we also use symbols to indicate pauses, or rests in a musical piece. Similar to notes, rests can last for 4, 2, 1, ½, or ¼ beats. As you can see from the diagram below, every note value has a corresponding rest value (i.e. a rest that lasts the same length of time):

understanding musical note and rest values

Musical Scales: Sharps, Flats, and Naturals

You may recall from the All About Major and Minor Scales lesson that all notes can be categorized according to pitch (the “highness” or “lowness” of their sound) as naturals, sharps, or flats. Sharps (#) raise the note by a semitone (the smallest musical “distance” between notes, also known as a half tone or half step), while flats () lower the note by a semitone. Natural keys raise or lower the note by a whole tone.

sharp, flat and natural keys on a piano

On a piano or keyboard, the white keys are naturals, while the black keys are sharps or flats. As you can see from the image above, not all of the white or “natural” keys are separated by a black key; some of them are located right beside each other (e.g. the E and F keys). What this means is that the white E and F keys, and the white B and C keys are separated by a semitone rather than a whole tone, unlike the rest of the natural keys. It’s also important to note that all the black keys are labeled with both a sharp AND flat note because each black key is both a half step up and a half step down from a natural. For example, in the diagram above, you can see that the first black key is a half-step up from the white C farthest to the left, which makes it a C#, but it is also a half step down from the white D key, so it is also labeled as Db.

Major scales and minor scales are each composed of a different pattern of whole steps and half steps, or whole tones and semitones. This is important to remember when understanding sheet music because the presence of a sharp or flat will help us decipher notes, scales, and key signatures in a staff.

In the staff, sharp or flat symbols are placed before the note, telling us to play the sharp or flat corresponding to that note. In the example below, the sheet music is telling us to play C-C#-D-D#-E.

semitone musical notes from c to e

The image below asks us to play the same series of notes, but this time, we are playing them backward from E to C.

musical semitones from e to c

While the examples above are helpful in showing us how sharp and flat symbols work, in formal music notation, the presence of a flat or sharp symbol in a staff actually tells us that all the notes in a measure following that symbol should be played as sharps or flats.

A natural symbol (♮) is used to cancel the sharp or flat in that measure, as seen in the image below, which tells us to play C-Db-D-Eb-E.

naturals in music explained

Key Signatures

In sheet music, instead of including sharp, flat, or natural symbols next to all the notes that require them, the beginning of the staff has a key signature or a combination of sharp or flat symbols located next to the clef. Key signatures tell us the sharps or flats in a scale or musical piece. When we do see a sharp, flat, or natural symbol included among the notes in the staff (in addition to a key signature), this means that this particular note is not part of the scale we are playing. These notes are called “accidentals”, and they are considered exceptions to the key signature, as they apply only in the measure in which they appear.

If a key signature has a sharp symbol (#) on the F- line of the staff, every F note in the piece is played as a F# --unless there is a natural symbol at some point in the measure, indicating an exception. The number of sharps and/or flats in a key signature reflects the pattern of notes that make up major and minor scales. Remember: you can start a major or minor scale on any note, as long as you follow the pattern of whole steps and half steps.

Many beginners have trouble recognizing key signatures, but with experience, you will begin to recognize the combinations of sharps or flats. Check out MusicMelter’s All About Major and Minor Scales lesson to learn the naturals, sharps, and flats in major and minor scales.

Below are several examples of key signatures with sharps and flats:

key signatures sharps and flats