Reading Music

Traditional music notation attempts to record music in a written form. This has developed over the years to include symbols for pitch, note duration, timing, rhythm and feeling, and more recently tablature specifically designed for guitarists.

Traditional music notation is written on a stave consisting of five horizontal lines, and, for guitarists, will always have a treble clef to denote the range the notes fall in (the treble range):

The time signature dictates the timing of the song. The top numeral (in this case 4) tells us there are four even beats to each bar or measure. The lower numeral indicates the note value that will receive one beat, in this case 4 refers to a quarter note. So there will be a total of four quarter notes in each measure. 4/4 time is also referred to as common time (sometimes denoted C), as it is the most common time signature in music.

If the time signature was 6/8, we would have 6 beats to the bar, and an eighth note will receive one beat, so we would have a total of six eighth notes per measure.

Notes are then written on or between the horizontal lines to indicate pitch. The higher the note is placed on the stave, the higher the pitch. For example, if a note was placed on the bottom line, that would tell us to play the note E. If we placed a note in between the bottom two lines, that would tell us to play the note F. We can write the chromatic scale starting from ‘A’ like this:


Notes can also be placed above and below the five lines too, on separate ledger lines when the pitch drops below or rises above the stave.

Sharps and flats are denoted withsharpandflatand are placed before the note. Once a sharp note or a flat note appears it stays that way until the end of the bar.

To cancel a sharp or flat within a bar, we use a natural sign (natural).

In the above example, every note (except the last) is given an equal playing time. This means they are to be played evenly. If one counts along to the notes while playing, it would be an even count for each bar, like this:

1 – and – 2 – and – 3 – and – 4 – and

It is important to keep a beat or count in your head like this when playing music. It is in fact a good idea to purchase and use a metronome during practice.


To denote how long we hold each note for, we use different note symbols. Each symbol has a note value half as long as the previous one, so we would hold that note for half the time.

As you can see, two sixteenth notes (semiquavers) occur in the same amount of time as an eighth note (so we would play a sixteenth note twice as fast as an eighth note, or hold it for half the amount of time), two eighth notes (quavers) make up a quarter note, two quarter notes (crotchet) make up a half note (minim) and so on.

So if we were reading a piece of music in 4/4 time and using half-notes (minims) we would require each bar to contain two half notes, as this is equal in time to four quarter notes. Any combination of notes can be used as long as they add up to the equivalent of four quarter notes in each bar (in 4/4 time).

If a dot (.) is placed after a note, that means it’s time value is increased by half the value of the note. So if we had a dotted quarter note, we would hold it for an extra eight count, or one and a half beats.


We also use rests in music to show when no note is played at all, or when there is a pause in the song. Like notes, these have different values corresponding to the length of pause that is needed.


The key (see Circle of Fifths) that the piece of music is played in is denoted by placing the correct amount of sharps or flats of the key before the time signature on the stave. These notes will be played sharp (or flat) throughout the piece (in this example F#, C# and G#):