How To Read Sheet Music – And Not Die Trying!

how to read sheet music - sheet music

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Reading sheet music is an ability that will take your guitar skills beyond the beginner level! With the basic pointers that you will find here, you can start to practice reading sheet music at home!

Why do I need to read sheet music again?

You might be thinking that reading sheet music is only for those who study in music academies, or the people who play seriously for a living.

Let’s take the suggested exercise to explore the notes on the fretboard as an example.

  • Press your A string behind the 3rd fret, pick, and you’ll hear C.
  • Pick your D string open; you’ll hear D.
  • Press your D string behind the 2nd fret, you’ll hear E.
  • Press your D string behind the 3rd fret; you’ll hear F.
  • Pick your G string open for G.
  • Press your G string behind the 2nd fret; you’ll hear A when you pick it.
  • Pick your B string open; you’ll hear B.
  • Press your B string behind the 1st fret and pick; you’ll get C in a major octave!

Now, these are relatively clear instructions but are somewhat convoluted. Let’s take a look at how this would look in sheet music notation.

C Major Scale
C Major Scale

Isn’t this… Simpler, more elegant, faster to read, and better organized? When thinking about the implications and inherent difficulties of trying to explain something more complex than a simple scale, like a full song, it does make sense that music has its language.

Ok. Let’s do it! What do these symbols and lines mean?

Let’s do a quick breakdown of the typical sheet music transcription.

The staff

Empty Staff
Empty Staff

The 5 lines in which you see the music symbols (more on them ahead), is called the staff or stave. These lines are number from the bottom up, 1 to 5, respectively. The notes on it are meaningless until you assign a clef to the staff. A clef is the main reference for what the notes mean in the staff. There are three clefs: 

  • The treble clef (also called the clef of So). This clef indicates that the 2nd line bottom to top, right when the symbol’s spiral starts, we will find G. This is the clef we will use for guitar by default.
  • The bass clef (also called the clef of Fa). This clef indicates that the 4th line, where the stroke is the strongest, we will find F. This is the clef you usually would use for bass guitar.
  • The alto clef (also called the clef of Do). This clef indicates that the 3rd line, where the arcs of the symbol meet, we will find C. This is a rather uncommon clef for fretted string instruments. It is used for instruments like the viola, the alto trombone, and the mandola.
how to read sheet music - Three Clefs - Treble Clef, Bass Clef, Alto Clef
Three Clefs: Treble Clef, Bass Clef, Alto Clef

With this in mind, let’s talk about the clef we’re the most interested in.

The Treble Clef

As stated above, it is the clef in which the vast majority of pieces for guitar are written in. It indicates that in the 2nd line, we will find G. We will find the notes of the diatonic major scale in the remaining lines and spaces. For instance, since 2nd line is G, in the space between the 2nd and 3rd lines, we will find A. In your guitar, this G is the sound of your open G string. 

There is a fun way to memorize the notes in the staff in relation to the treble clef: Every Good Boy Deserves Fries!

In the 1st line, we will find E; in the 2nd line, G; 3rd line for B; 4th line for D, and the 5th line has F. So, Every Good Boy Deserves Fries, or Dances Fine, or Doesn’t Fall. Whatever works for you! 

What about the spaces? The answer is FACE. 1st space between the lines is F, 2nd space is A, 3rd space is C, and 4th space is E. So, FACE.

Now, how do we write the notes below and above this range? We use ledger lines. For instance, middle C (C4 in academic notation) is located in one ledger line below the staff. Conversely, in your guitar, it is located in the 3rd fret of your A string. Here’s a challenge: how many ledger lines do you need to use to find the sound of your open E string?

Time Signature

how to read sheet music - Time Signatures
Different Time Signatures: 4/4 | c | 3/4 | 6/8

The numeric fraction after the clef is called time signature. It represents the relationship between the beats and the measure. The number above represents how many beats will fit into the measure, and the number below represents what symbol is used as a reference.

For example, a 4/4 time signature means there are 4 beats inside a measure, and that the unit of reference will be the quarter note (more on that below). This time signature is also called the common time signature and is represented by a lowercase c.

Another common time signature is 3/4, which means that there will be three beats in every measure.

Measures, in sheet music notation, are divided by bars. The common usage for measures, in modern music, is being able to switch chords every measure or every couple of measures. So each measure counts contains a melodic course and a harmonic theme. When several chords are repeated after a certain number of measures, this is called a chord progression.

For more information on other time signatures and how to understand and feel them, I recommend Ben Levin’s video on odd time signatures, which you can find here.


The symbols represent how long a note will be played in relation to the measure. 

  • Semibreve / Whole note: This note occupies the entirety of the bar when the bottom number is 4.
  • Minim / Half note: You can fit 2 in each measure in the common time signature.
  • Crotchet / Quarter note: These are the unit in the common time signature.
  • Quaver / Eight note: These divide the basic pulse into 2 separate notes. From here, notes are beamed; they will have a bar on top if two eight notes are in the same beat.
  • Semiquaver / Sixteenth note: These divide the crotchet into 4 separate notes and are also beamed together if they are in the same beat.

As technical and technological capabilities have increased, we have been able to push musical boundaries. In some really complex pieces, musicians have used hemidemisemiquavers, which are sixty-fourth notes.

Picture this: a common song ranges between 100 and 150 beats per minute, which would be a quarter note every half a second. Now imagine a flurry of hemidemisemiquavers, which is roughly 30 notes a second. Man, that’s some fast music! 

When we need to mute the sound, these silences also have their symbols called rests.

how to read sheet music - Notes and Rests
Notes and Rests

You will find more information on how to read sheet music here.

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Rick is the founder of All Stringed. He started playing with a classical guitar when he was 10, but changed soon to electric guitar and later also to an acoustic. You can find more about him here.