Music Theory/How to read Music

This Wikibook is here to give the reader an idea of how to read music; however, this is not to say that this book will teach you to read music correctly. Neither will it teach you to play a musical instrument. Most music related subjects (and most other subjects for that matter) really ought to be studied under a teacher. If you do not want to hire a teacher then this should give you a general idea of how to read music.


Middle C on the staff

The staff is what every other symbol of musical notation is written on. It consists of 5 lines and 4 spaces that are used to identify which note is meant to be played based on which clef is shown at the beginning of the staff. When a note is too high or too low to be written on one of the lines or spaces (such as Middle C), smaller lines must be written above or below the staff.


The two most commonly used clefs are the treble clef   and a bass clef.  

The clefs determine what pitch the notes should fall on; for instance, the treble clef is a G-clef, so wherever the clef ends on is the note G. In the case of treble clef, it is the second line up from the bottom (the end of the clef wraps around the line). The bass clef is an F-clef, so the line between the two dots is the note F. Instruments that use the treble clef include the flute, trumpet, all the saxophones, all the clarinets, guitar (except for the bass), violin, and several others. The bass clef is used for instruments like the bassoon, bass guitar, cello, tuba, and trombone.

Time SignatureEdit

One measure in 4/4 time.

A time signature is usually written as two numbers (one on top of the other) at the beginning of a piece that divides the piece into smaller bits called measures. These make it easier to read and provide hints as to which notes in each measure should be stressed. Measures are broken up using vertical lines that extend from the top line to the bottom line. The top number signifies how many beats each measure will contain, and the bottom note sets down which note will take the value of one beat; so, in 4/4 time, there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note will get one beat. Hence, there will be a time value equal to four quarter notes in every measure. The most common time signatures are 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and 2/4.

Note and Rest DurationsEdit

Chart illustrating the divisions of note values in music.

The notes and rests on a staff show the duration of a sound or a pause in the music. There are several different time values of notes and rests; the most basic of which are the whole note and rest:


The half note and rest are half as long as a whole note:


The quarter note and rest are one-quarter the length of the whole note and one half the length of a half note:


The eighth note and rest:


The sixteenth note and rest:


And so forth with each increasing division getting one extra "flag."