Learn How to Read Sheet Music: List of Basic Musical Symbols

Being sheet music enthusiasts, we wanted to provide some help to those music enthusiasts who are just learning how to play or have played by ear for years and would like to learn how to read sheet music notation. We’ve created this tutorial for you, starting with the basic listing of music symbols. Topics covered include the musical staff, clefs, position of notes on the staff, key signatures, time signatures, basic note lengths, and bar lines. A future article will include stylistic markings, like accents, dynamics and tempo markings. For a more in depth discussion on reading music notation, check out our blog posts “Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Notes” and “Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Rhythms“.

Staff

Music-staffThe staff is the foundation of music notation. The five lines and four spaces correspond to musical pitches. The clef determines which musical pitch corresponds to a particular line or space. (The plural for staff is staves.)

Treble Clef

Treble ClefA clef is a type of symbol that indicates the musical pitch of written notes. The treble clef is also known as the G-clef because the second line of the staff passes through the curl of the clef. The note that sits on the second line of the staff in treble clef is the G above middle C, or G4. More on that later.
The treble clef is most often used by instruments like the violin, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and French horn. Pianists most often use their right hands to play notes on the treble clef.

Bass Clef

Bass ClefThis clef is known as the bass clef. The fourth line of the staff passes between the two dots, indicating the F below middle C, or F3.
The bass clef is most often used by instruments like the cello, double bass, bassoon, trombone and tuba. Notes in the bass clef are most often played with a pianist’s left hand.

Alto Clef

Alto ClefWhen the C-clef is placed on the third line of the staff, it is called the alto clef. This is the location of middle C or C4.
The alto clef is used most commonly by the viola. It rarely appears in keyboard music.

Tenor Clef

Tenor ClefWhen the C-clef is placed on the fourth line of the staff, it is called the tenor clef. This moves the location of middle C up one line from its position in alto clef.
The tenor clef is used by instruments like the cello, bassoon and trombone when they are playing in their upper ranges.

Position of Notes on Treble and Bass Clef Staves

269px-Bass_and_Treble_clef.svgMusical pitches are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Obviously, there are more than seven tones in the musical language. In the image to the left, you’ll see a number next to each note. This number indicates the octave each note is in. The higher the number, the higher the note sounds. For example, C4 (middle C) sounds higher than C3, but lower than C5. They are octaves of each other. If you think about it, the prefix ‘oct’ means 8 and the letter names start over every 8 notes.
Keep in mind, the numbers in this chart do not appear in regular sheet music. They are just for your reference.

Sharp Sign

Sharp SignThis symbol that looks like a pound sign or hashtag placed before a note indicates that the note is to be played higher in pitch by a semitone, or half-step. The note seen here is a C-sharp.

Flat Sign

Flat SignThis symbol before the note indicates that the note is to be played lower in pitch by a semitone or half-step. The note seen here is a B-flat.

Natural Sign

Natural SignThe symbol pictured here after the flat sign is called a natural sign. It cancels out any prevailing accidental (sharp or flat sign). In this example, you see a B-flat followed by a B-natural or simply B.

Flat Key Signature

Flat Key SignatureA key signature defines the key of the music and thus what flats or sharps are supposed to be played throughout the piece. This helps reduce the need for accidentals (i.e. placing a flat or sharp before a note in the music every time it occurs).
Flats in the key signature lower the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space by a semitone. This transfers to all octaves. Different keys are defined by the number of flats (or sharps) in the key signature, starting with the leftmost and moving to the right. For example, if there are three flats in a key signature they will always be B-flat, E-flat and A-flat.

Sharp Key Signature

Sharp Key SignatureSharps in the key signature raise the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space by a semitone. Different keys are defined by the number of sharps (or flats) in the key signature, also proceeding from left to right. For example, if you have three sharps in the key signature, they will always be F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp.

Whole Note

Whole NoteThe whole note is equal to four beats in 4/4 time (see time signature below). Most other note durations are fractions of the whole note.

Whole Rest

Whole_RestThis symbol indicates that there should be silence for the same duration as a whole note.

Half Note and Half Rest

Half_Note_RestThe half note is named as such because it is equal in length to half a whole note. Thus, in 4/4 time, the half note is equal to two beats. The half rest, pictured here following the half note, indicates silence for the same duration as the half note.

Quarter Note and Quarter Rest

Quarter_Note_RestThe quarter note is one-quarter the value of a whole note or one-half the value of a half note. In 4/4 time, it is equal to one beat. The quarter rest is pictured next to the quarter note.

Eighth Note and Eighth Rest

Eighth_Note_RestThe eighth note is – you guessed it – one-eighth the value of a whole note or one-half the value of a quarter note. In 4/4 time, it is equal to half of one beat. The eighth rest is pictured next to the eighth note.

Sixteenth Note and Sixteenth Rest

Sixteenth_Note_RestThe sixteenth note is one-sixteenth the value of a whole note, one-quarter the value of a quarter note and one-half the value of an eighth note. The sixteenth rest is pictured next to the sixteenth note.
As you can see, there are two flags attached to the note stem on a sixteenth note and one flag on an eighth note. For every additional flag, you halve the value of the note. For example, three flags indicates a 32nd note and 4 flags indicates a 64th note.

Beamed Eighth Notes

Beamed Eighth NotesA beam is a horizontal or diagonal line used to connect multiple consecutive notes, indicating a rhythmic grouping. The number of beams is the same as the number of flags on a note. In the image shown to the left, there are two eighth notes grouped together, which is equal in value to one quarter note. It is common to see as many as four eighth notes grouped together.

Beamed Sixteenth Notes

Beamed 16th NotesBecause sixteenth notes have two flags when written individually, they have two beams when grouped together. It is common to see sixteenth notes grouped in pairs, which is equal in value to one eighth note, or grouped in a set of four as seen here, which is equal in value to one quarter note.

Dotted Half Note

Dotted_Half_NoteThe dot after any note value tells you to add one half the value of that note’s duration. A half note is worth two beats. The dot indicates you add half the value of the note, which is one beat. So the length of a dotted half note is three beats: 2+1=3.

Dotted Quarter Note

Dotted Quarter NoteA quarter note is worth one beat. The dot indicates you add half the value of the note, which is half a beat, equivalent to an eighth note. So the length of a dotted quarter note is one and a half beats: 1+.5=1.5.

Time Signature

Time SignatureTime signatures define the meter of the music. Sheet music is made up of sections, called measures or bars, which consist of the same number of beats in each, as defined by the time signature. The top number of the time signature indicates how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number indicates the note value that gets a beat. In this example, there are 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat. This time signature is extremely common and is sometimes denoted by a ‘C’ (see below). The time signature appears at the beginning of a piece of music.

Common Time

Common TimeThis time signature indicates that the music is to be played in Common Time, which is equivalent to 4/4.

Simple Meter

Simple MeterThe meter of music defines the rhythmic structure and the pattern of pulses in the music. It is indicated by the time signature. The meter is often described as simple or compound, which is defined by how the beats are subdivided. Simple meter is a meter in which each of the beats of the measure can easily be divided into two equal parts. Quarter notes, as we discovered earlier, can easily be divided into two eighth notes. Refer to the example to the left. Common examples of simple meter time signatures included 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2 and 3/2.

Compound Meter

Compound MeterCompound meter is a meter in which each beat divides naturally into three equal parts. Take a look at the time signature to the left. From what we learned earlier, this time signature indicates that there are six beats in a measure and the eighth note gets a beat. However, unless the tempo of the music is very slow, it is common to group these notes into larger beats. As you can see from the example, there are two groups of three notes, with the first and fourth eighth notes getting the pulse. Examples of compound meter time signatures include 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc.

Triplet

TripletsA triplet is a rhythm in which three notes are played in the space of two. The most common example is the eighth note triplet. An eighth note triplet rhythm is three evenly spaced notes played in the space of two eighth notes. It is written with a single beam and the number three above or below the beam.

Bar Line

Bar LineBar lines separate measures, or bars.

Double Bar Line

Double Bar LineThis type of bar line separates two different sections of the music or are often placed before a change in the key signature.

Bold Double Bar Line

Bold Double Bar LineThis indicates the conclusion of a movement or an entire piece of music.

Repeat Sign

Repeat SignThis type of bar line tells the musician to repeat the music from the beginning, or to repeat the section of music in between 2 repeat signs.

Brace

BraceThe brace connects two staves of music and indicates that they should be played simultaneously. This is often seen in keyboard sheet music, in which the right hand plays the top staff and the left hand plays the bottom staff.
Mary Had a Little LambWith the symbols we’ve discussed above, you should be able to read and play these two measures of a very familiar child’s tune on a piano or keyboard. If you aren’t sure about where the notes are located on the piano, we’ve included a labeled image of two octaves of a piano keyboard below. Try it and see if you recognize it!

1000px-PianoKeyboard-Lettered

 

Want more tutorials? Check out our other articles in the “Learn to Read Sheet Music” Series:

Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Notes
Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Rhythms
Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Dynamics, Articulations and Tempo

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