So how do musicians read music? Well, if you've ever seen any
sheet music (like what's pictured in the corner), you may have been
scared away by the seemingly complicated array of notes and lines.
Reading music is actually quite simple, though, and we'll teach you
the basics of it. One thing that you should remember is that music
is read like a page in a book: you start at the upper left and read
across the lines until you get to the lower right.
What are Clefs?
So what is a clef? Well, a clef basically tells the musician what note each line in the staff corresponds to. Sound complicated? Well, it's actually pretty simple. Let's look again at that example in the upper left corner. The top line of music is in treble clef while the bottom line is in bass clef. So, the notes in each line are different because there are two different clefs. For example, the middle line in treble clef corresponds to a G while the middle line in bass clef corresponds to a D. To further complicate things, the middle line in alto clef corresponds to a C.
OK, so why did composers invent all these crazy clefs anyway? Well, good question. Clefs were introduced many centuries ago mainly for singers to use. This is because treble clef corresponds generally to the range of a soprano singer, alto clef corresponds generally to the range of an alto singer, and bass clef corresponds generally to the range of a bass singer. As composers grew skilled at writing music for singing groups, they translated their skills to writing for instruments. Of course, they did not want to learn a whole new system of writing music, so they just used the same clefs that they had always used before.
Clefs also translate well to string instruments. This is
because the violin is
higher pitched like a soprano and can use the treble clef. The
viola is a little bit lower
pitched than the violin and can use the alto clef. Also, the
cello is well suited to
playing in bass clef due to its lower range. Of course, the lower
instruments (viola and cello) can use the higher clefs to play when
they are playing high passages. The piano uses a variety of treble and
bass clefs often rapidly switching and using combinations of the
What are Key Signatures?
Let's look at that example in the upper left corner again. See those three flats (they look like the letter 'b')? That's an example of a key signature. We talked a little bit about keys in Lesson 3: The Scale. To refresh your memory, the key of a piece is just the scale from which the notes of the piece are taken.
OK, so how do these flats translate to the key of the piece?
Well, the flats are strategically placed on certain lines. When
musicians see notes on these lines, they know to automatically play
them flat. Using this technique of having a key signature saves the
composer time because he or she does not need to continually draw
the same flats over and over again. Of course, music could be
written without a key signature, but that would just be confusing
for the musicians and the composers.
What are Notes?
OK, so let's take a look at some real notes. See that picture to
the right of this text? Well, that's an example of a few notes. The
main differences in these notes are just in their stems, which is
everything but the circular part of the note. Every time one of
those "tails" is added, the note's duration gets halved. It's not
really important for you to remember each note value at this point
because it is much easier to understand note durations when you are
actually playing an instrument. Also, remember that we already
discussed a little bit about note durations in Lesson 4: What is Rhythm?.
What are Rests?
By now, you may be wondering why the whole, half, and quarter
notes/rests are different from the eighth, sixteenth, and 32nd
notes/rests. Well, we're not really sure why this happened as music
evolved over the centuries. One theory to why these notes and rests
are different is that composers wanted to let musicians easily see
and recognize notes that were commonly used. So, musicians can
quickly see whether a note is a half note or a quarter note without
counting the stems. This is just one of the countless tiny
timesavers that composers have built into music.