#5 Learn How To Read Music

beginner harmony & theory Feb 10, 2019

In this free video lesson, for absolute beginners on saxophone (or any treble clef instrument), you'll learn how to read written music notation.
Music notation can seem like weird hieroglyphics at first but by the end of this lesson you should have a good grasp of the basics. It's actually quite easy to read music when you know how!
For all the free sax lessons in my Complete Beginner's Series click here.
Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on youtube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.
How did music notation start? (0:49)
  • I haven't got time to go into a full history of music here, but the earliest notated music can be found on tablets from Mesopotamia (cuneiform), the hook and banner banner notation written on parchment in Byzantium times and, the pre-cursor of modern notation, the 9th century neumes used in monastic plainchant choral music
  • the 11th century stave looked pretty similar to today's except using four lines instead of five
What is a stave in music? (1:14)
  • music is notated on five parallel lines, known as a stave or staff
  • you read music like a book - left to right along the top line (stave) then down to the left edge of the next line down (stave) and so on
  • notes are places on the lines and in the spaces on the stave
  • the notes get higher as you go further up the lines of the stave and vice versa, just as you get higher when you go up the rungs of a ladder
What is a clef? (1:38)
  • a clef is a symbol placed at the start of ever line of music that calibrates the range of the stave. Think of it like a key on a map
  • for saxophone we always use a treble clef, or "G clef" (as it centres on the G line)
  • bass instruments and lower sounding instruments use a bass clef
  • when using different clefs the notes on each line and space are different. Yup! That's confusing. To everyone. Even musicians.
  • there are other more unusual clefs, such as the alto clef used by violas, or a percussion clef, but for saxophonists we only ever need to worry about the treble clef
  • by the way, piano music is written on two linked staves - the top, right hand stave with a treble clef and the bottom, left hand stave in bass clef, so count yourself lucky that you only have to deal with one stave being a saxophonist!
What letters are used for musical note names and why? (2:00)
  • the notes are named with the first seven letters of the alphabet, A-G
  • these seven note names are duplicated in octaves across the whole span of usable music
  • the notes could all be labelled with numbers, or anything else for that matter, but for some reason they are letters and we're stuck with it!
  • you can click here for a much fuller explanation of note names and why there are only seven note NAMES but twelve available PITCHES. Confused? You should be! lol
What are flats and sharps in music? (2:04)
  • flats (looks like a kind of lowercase letter "b") and sharps (looks like a hashtag #) are symbols placed before notes that lower or raise that note by one semitone, respectively. A semitone is the smallest interval in music
  • so a Bb ("B flat") is a semitone lower than B, and a C# ("C sharp") is one semitone higher than C and so on
  • to learn much more about why we have flats and sharps click here
How do I remember which notes are on each line and space? (2:18)
  • there are memorable rhymes that help us remember what note is where on the stave
  • for the treble clef lines, from the bottom to the top, we use the first letter of the rhythme "E-very G-ood B-oy D-eserves F-ootball". E-G-B-D-F
  • for the treble clef spaces, from bottom to top, simply spell the word face F-A-C-E
  • therefore, every note from the bottom line to the top line of the treble clef is E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F
What happens if we want a note that is below or above the 5 lines of the stave?
  • if we "run out" of stave we use a thing called a "ledger line", which is a short line, parallel with the usual stave lines, that extends the stave up or down for that one note only
  • there may be multiple ledger lines extending the stave in either direction for very high or low notes
  • low bass instruments actually use a bass clef to avoid having to read loads of ledger lines all the time
What are "bars" or "measures" in music? (2:13)
  • to make it easier to read, music is divided up into short chunks called bars (UK) or measures (USA)
  • each bar/measure always has the same number of beats and is marked out on the stave by vertical lines
  • the number of beats within each bar/measure is defined by the time signature
What is a time signature in music? (3:22)
  • the time signature, at the start of each piece of music but not on subsequent lines, tells you how many beats there are in each bar/measure
  • the time signature has two numbers. The top number is the number of beats in each bar/measure, the bottom number is what type of note division is being used
  • to begin with the bottom number will usually be 4, so you only need to look at the top number
  • the most common time signature is 4/4, so common that it is sometimes abbreviated as just C, for Common Time
How do you know how long a note lasts? (3:44)
  • different note lengths are differentiated by the style of each note head (filled in or empty) and the stem attached (or not attached) to the note head
  • a note that lasts for 4 beats is called a whole note (USA) or semi-breve (UK) and has a hollow note head with no stem
  • a note that lasts for 2 beats is called a half note (USA) or minim (UK) and has a hollow note head with a stem
  • a note that lasts for 1 beat is called a quarter note (USA) or crochet (UK) and has a filled in note head with a stem
  • a note that lasts for half a beat is called an eighth note (USA) or quaver (UK) and has a filled in note head with a stem with a tail. Consecutive quavers have their stems joined up with a "beam" instead of individual tails
How do I know how fast a piece of music should be played?
  • the speed of a piece of music is called the "tempo"
  • the way music is notated is the same for any tempo, it's just that the beats will fly by quicker with a fast piece of music
  • the tempo is either represented by various Italian words such as lento (slow) or presto (fast) or by an exact tempo marking, written as a note length followed by a number of beats per minute. So for a tempo marking of "crochet=60" each beat lasts exactly one second
What about rests, dynamics, phrasing and everything else? (5:49)
  • there are special symbols for rests in place of each of the note values which I've left out for this lesson to keep things manageable!
  • dynamics (how loud a note is played) are indicated by abbreviations for Italian words: f (forte, loud) and p (piano, quiet). These two can be combined with m (mezzo, "moderately") to give mf (quite loud) and mp (quite quiet) or doubled up to give ff (very loud) and pp (very quiet)
  • the way notes are detatched from each other, or played smoothly, and all other aspects of musical performance can be indicated by various lines, dots and symbols which we don't have time to go into in this lesson
  • individual instruments often have unique notations. For example, violins often have bowing instructions marked in and piano music has instructions for use of the pedal. Harp music should be left well alone at all times!! lol
  • there are also shorter note lengths than eighth notes (quavers). A note that lasts a quarter of a beat is called a sixteenth note (USA) or semi-quaver (UK) and has a filled in note head with a double tail
So that's the very basics of how to read music. To see it all happen in an actual example (complete with Disney style bouncing Mickey head) click here.
Of course, being able to read music to a high standard takes lots of practice and lots of time and it's worth remembering that music notation is only ever a REPRESENTATION of the actual music - interpretation is a massive part of the equation!
Hope you enjoyed the lesson and I'll see you next week to learn how to play the Phone It In Emote from Fortnite! Jamie :-)
Video Time Stamps
0:00 - intro and titles

0:49 - super quick history of written music

1:14 - the music stave

1:41 - clefs

2:00 - note names

2:06 - flats and sharps

2:18 - rhymes for note names

3:08 - rhythms

3:16 - bars (measures)

3:23 - time signatures

3:34 - recap

3:45 - note lengths

4:49 - note lengths summary recap

5:00 - putting it all together

5:18 - real example (Mary Had A Little Lamb)

5:49 - rests and everything else

6:12 - sign off


Video Transcript
Greetings! I'm Pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson. This is Get Your Sax Together, bringing you high-quality sax knowledge straight from the pro stage.

Now if you've ever wondered what those weird musical symbols are, you know like the ones you see on dodgy ties from the 1980s?...then stay tuned because in this free lesson for complete beginners of ANY instrument I'm going to teach you how to read music.

This free sax lesson is part 5 of my series for complete beginners - you can find the other parts on the card up there - and as usual if you're enjoying the content please do subscribe down below and "ring the bell”!

Alright, let's learn how to read music!

So I could go on and on about the history of music, you know, cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, Byzantium hook and banner notation, 9th century monastic plainchant notated with neumes, Guido d’Arezzo and his 11th century four line stave... but I won't bother, because frankly you know all that stuff anyway right??

Right, got a lot to learn so without further ado I’m gonna jump behind the screen. Let's go!!

So you're looking at a "stave". This is the five parallel lines that virtually all music is written on. The notes, represented by circles, are going to be placed on the lines, and in the spaces, of the stave with higher notes near the top and lower notes near the bottom. You read music just like you would a book - one line at a time going left to right.

So before we can put any notes on the stave we need a thing called a "clef" which is a symbol repeated at the start of every line of music. There are several different types of clef. You can think of a clef as a kind of code that calibrates what range of notes the stave is but if you play sax the good news is you only ever need to deal with a treble clef which looks like this.

We use the first seven letters of the alphabet A to G to give us the main note names. Those seven notes can be modified with flats or sharps in various ways to give us 12 notes in total but that is for a later lesson. For the meantime, we're just dealing with the 7 main notes.

The note names can be easily remembered with two simple rhymes - one for the lines and one for the spaces. The rhyme for the lines, going from the bottom line to the top line, is Every Good Boy Deserves Football E-G-B-D-F.

That's one of the most popular rhymes but honestly you could have any rhyme you want. How about - Eleven Greedy Beavers Drink Fanta? [slurp]

The spaces are even easier. From bottom to top they spell the word FACE - F-A-C-E. That means that the notes across the whole stave from bottom to top are E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E and F.

Awesome, so now we know what notes to play let's explore how rhythms are notated.

Each line of music is divided into bars. Each bar is fenced off with vertical bar lines. The top number of the time signature tells us how many beats are in each bar. The top number of this time signature is 4 so there are always four beats in every bar. 

Ok, quick recap - music is chopped up into equal segments, called bars, and the time signature, which only appears once, at the start of the first line, tells you how many beats there are in each bar.

Ok, on to the different note lengths now. I'll give you the American names for note lengths, which make perfect sense, and the British names, which make no sense!

A note that's hollow is called a "whole note" and lasts for 4 beats. In a 4/4 time signature that note lasts the whole bar. The UK name for that is a “semi-breve".

A note that’s hollow but has a "stem" is called a "half note" and is worth two beats. In a 4/4 time signature that note takes up half the bar. We call that a “minim".

A note with a stem that's filled in is called a "quarter note" and lasts for one beat. In a bar of 4/4 there are four quarter notes. We call that a "crotchet" and, finally for now, a filled-in note head with the stem with a twiddly bit on the tail [lol] is called an "eighth note" and lasts for half a beat. In a bar of 4/4 there are eight eighth notes. We call that a “quaver”. Multiple eighth notes in a row have stems connected with a “beam".

So in summary, a whole note - four beats long, half note - two beats long, quarter note - one beat, eighth note - half a beat.


Now you know the basics of how to read music - which note to play and how long it lasts for. Let's see how it unfolds in a real example then. I’m not sure if my final cut pro skills are gonna stretch to a animated bouncing Disney Mickey or anything like that but I'll have a go!

Right, this is what “mary had a little lamb" looks like written out in treble clef... [music plays]

So now you know the absolute basics of how to read music, however, there's a lot more to the equation that we haven't even touched on yet, like rests, key signatures, dynamics, sixteenth notes, chords, phrasing and articulation, tempo information and so much more, but that's all for another day.

So I hope you enjoyed this video learning how to read music. As usual, if you enjoyed the content please subscribe down below. Check out some of my other videos and I'll see you next time on Get Your Sax Together!

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