Kitchieboy's Music Tutor
Learning to Read Music
(But Not Enough to Hurt Your Playing)

So you would like to learn to read music....

or learn more about "modes" .....(what do they mean by "modal tunes" anyway?)...

or you "volunteered" to give a beginners' workshop on reading music, and it's four days away and you don't have your workshop materials together yet and you need some ideas.....

Well, read on.................

This isn't Julliard or Berklee or CCM, but it can get you by............

Written music notation can be thought of as the ultimate tablature system. It works for any instrument, including the voice.

The music notation system we use originated in the Middle Ages, and caught on like wildfire.

Music used to be part of the core curriculum of a good classical education, along with mathematics, geometry and astronomy.

Some people think that the invention of music notation led to the invention of algebra.

It's practical. If you read music, you can learn tunes from all those gif files on the world wide web and from books. You can write down your own tune collection so you don't forget tunes. You can scribble out the first few bars of all the tunes you know in a little notepad, to prevent the "I know that tune but I can't think of how it starts" ailment.

It's not difficult. Remember the old kindergarten song about "ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP,"? You only have to remember the first seven letters. Being able to count with your shoes on is handy, but you rarely will need all your fingers.

So let's get started. Written music is basically a bunch of dots written on lines - or the spaces between lines - on a musical staff - which is a set of 5 parallel horizontal lines. You can think of a staff like graph paper with pitch going up and time going across. Several staves will fit on one page, and you read them from the top left. Sometimes staves are linked with a vertical line and/or a bracket at the left end, which means they are to be read together - not one after the other.

Each staff is marked with a "clef" sign. Most Celtic, folk, fakebook and WWW lead line music is written in treble clef. We won't use bass clef much, but it's on this page so you will know what it is when you do see it.

The lines in the treble staff are, from low to high, E G B D F. Millions of kids taking music lessons memorized that as "Every Good Boy Does Fine".

If you'd like a more feminist mnemonic, try "Every Girl Beats Ducks Flat".

Or, for a totally non-sexist version, start at the top and try "Fifty Dollars Buys Good Eats", reading the lines from top to bottom.

Or make up one of your own.

Each staff has 5 lines. There is an imaginary line between the bass and treble clefs for "middle C". (Middle C is about in the middle of a piano keyboard.)

When music notes get above or below a staff, "extra" lines are written just long enough for the note. That's why there is a line through the hollow dot that is middle C in the picture. Middle C is written on the line below the treble clef and on the line above the bass clef. It's actually the same note, but people usually leave a lot of space between staves to write in lyrics.

The spaces between the lines in treble clef are F A C E - which spells "face".

The space below the bottom line on the treble staff would be D - between the E line and the middle C on the imaginary line in the first drawing. And the space above the top (F) line would be G. Alphabetical order going up - A through G, then start over, alternating lines and spaces. What would be the first imaginary line above the top line of the treble clef?

Why only 7 letters? You've heard the term "octave" and "oct" means "eight". Well, when you get two tones an octave apart, they actually sound like the same note sung or played higher or lower - no discord and not even the sound of barbershop harmony. So why not use the same letter over again?

Not good enough, you say? How about that 440 A, the one in the treble clef in the above drawing, the one that everyone says they tune to? That is a sound made by a vibration of strings, reeds, air, vocal cords, etc. at 440 vibrations per second. Double that, and you get 880 vibrations per second. Same note, double speed, an octave higher. Halve it to 220, and you get the same note half speed, an octave lower. Or on a stringed instrument, fret or finger the string in the exact middle to get the note one octave higher - half as much string, vibrating twice as fast. (I said music notation was part of the classical math curriculum, didn't I?)

Still not convinced? Trust me, it works. People have been doing it this way for centuries. Seven letters is plenty, and we'll add five more tones when when get to sharps and flats for a total of 12 tones to an octave.

What's next? How about keeping track of those notes?


Kitchieboy's Music Tutor - Learning to Read Music
(But Not Enough to Hurt Your Playing)
A service of The Kitchen Musician®