How to Read Sheet Music for Guitar

Music Notation is a system of symbols that musicians use to write down their music. As a beginner, looking at music notation is like looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs. All the symbols seem so strange and confusing.

But don't worry! Learning how to read music notation isn't that difficult. And once you master it, every classical guitar piece will be at your fingertips!

This page will give you a basic overview of how to read music notation - a quick introduction or a quick review of all the essentials. To learn more about a specific topic here, go to Music Notation. Or to practice reading music, go to sheet music or beginner lessons.


The Music Staff

Music notation is written on a music staff that looks like this:

A music staff has 5 lines that are evenly spaced apart. The symbol on the left is called a treble cleff. This symbol appears on each line of classical guitar sheet music.


Music Notes

Music notes represent different pitches on the guitar. Each pitch correlates with a specific fret on the guitar. Music notes either look like a circle, or a circle with a line attached to them:

Music notes are placed on the lines or the spaces of the music staff:

Sometimes, extra lines are added above or below the music staff to add more notes:

When you read sheet music, you go from left to right.

As notes go higher on the music staff, they get higher in pitch. As they go lower, they get lower in pitch:

Each music note has a letter name, A through G. As the pitch goes up, the letter goes up too - A, B, C, D, and so on. Then, after you reach G, it starts over again at A.

Click here to learn where each note is located on the classical guitar fretboard.


Note Values

Each note has a specific note value, which tells you how long to hold that note relative to all the other notes.

The whole note looks looks like an empty circle. It is the longest value of all the notes.

The half note looks like an empty circle with a line attached to it. A half note is 1/2 the value of a whole note.

The quarter note looks like a black circled with a line attached to it. A quarter note is 1/4 the value of a whole note.

The eighth note looks like a black circle with a line, and a flag attached to it. When several eighth notes are next to each other, they are connected by a line. An eighth note is 1/8 the value of a whole note.


Rest Values

A rest is a symbol that indicates silence. When you see a rest in music, you don't play anything. Each rest has a different duration that coincides with a note value:

The whole note rest looks looks like a short dash below the second line of the music staff. It has the longest value of all the rests.

The half note rest looks like short dash above the third line of the music staff. A half note rest is 1/2 the value of a whole note rest.

The quarter note rest looks like a vertical squiggly line. A quarter note rest is 1/4 the value of a whole note rest.

The eighth note rest looks like a line with a dot. An eighth note rest is 1/8 the value of a whole note rest.


Structural Markings

Structural markings are symbols that indicate the overall organization of the piece.

Bar lines are thin, vertical lines that divide the music staff into separate sections. These separate sections are called measures.

The double bar line is the last bar line in the piece, and indicates that the piece has ended.


Time Signatures

The two numbers that appear at the beginning of each piece are called a time signature.

The time signature is what tells you the rhythm of that piece. It organizes music notes into rhythmic units called beats. A beat is a strong rhythmic pulse - like tapping your foot on the ground.

The bottom number of the time signature tells you which note value receives one beat:

  • 2 = each half note receives one beat
  • 4 = each quarter receives one beat
  • 8 = each eighth note receives on beat

The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure of music. Remember that a measure is the space between bar lines.

  • 2 = 2 beats per measure
  • 3 = 3 beats per measure
  • 4 = 4 beats per measure
  • 6 = 6 beats per measure

For instance, if you see 4/4, that means that each quarter note receives one beat, and there are four beats per measure (each number = one beat).

Or if you see 3/2, that means that each half note receives one beat, and there are three beats per measure.


Accidentals

Accidentals are symbols that tell you to raise or lower a note by one fret on the guitar. There are two types of accidentals, sharps and flats.

Sharps tell you to raise the note by one fret. So a G# (4th fret) would be one fret higher than a G (3rd fret).

Flats tell you to lower the note by one fret. So a Gb (2nd fret) would be one fret lower than a G (3rd fret).

In music notation, sharps and flats appear directly before the note that they alter:

If you see an accidental once. it applies for the rest of the measure. However, it does not carry over into the next measure.

If you see a a natural sign , this cancels out the accidental. So if earlier you saw a G#, then later in the same measure you saw a G, then you should play the G normally again..


Key Signatures

When a group of accidentals appears at the beginning of the piece, this is called a key signature.

When you see a sharp or flat in the key signature, this means that the sharp or flat applies to every note in the entire piece.

For instance, this key signature has a sharp on F# and a C#. So every time you see an F or a C in the music, you will actually play an F# and a C# instead:

This specific key signature (F# and C#) is called D Major. There are 14 different key signatures that you will learn eventually.


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