Sheet Music Notation: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

What is sheet music?

Sheet music is a form of music notation that uses symbols and signs to indicate pitches, rhythms and dynamics in a piece of music.

You’ve most likely seen sheet music before, whether it’s in a the form of a nursery rhyme at school you’ve had to play on piano, or perhaps the vocal melody with lyrics for one of your favourite songs.

Understanding how to use sheet music notation will allow you to transcribe your music with ease, and also allow your friends and others to play your music. It’s a win-win!

Let’s learn more.

Read and enjoy the post!

Note: In order for you to fully understand the basics of sheet music notation it’s a good idea to get yourself familiar with the basics of music theory. Check out my Basic Music Theory: The Complete Beginner’s Guide.

Understanding the layout of sheet music

An overview of sheet music

Here is a blank piece of sheet music. It is your canvas, your work of Art. Everything you put in here will be your form of musical expression on paper for others to learn.

Blank sheet music example

But if you don’t know what each section of your sheet music means, transcribing your music will be difficult.

First let’s go through the layout and highlight what each part represents.

Note: In modern music standard tuning is A440 or A4 (aka Stuttgart pitch) which has a frequency of 440 Hz. This is the musical pitch of A above middle C.

The staff

The staff is the template on what music is written on. It has 5 lines and 4 spaces.

It looks like this:

The staff

Each of these lines and spaces represents a letter from the musical alphabet. However where these letters are positioned on the staff is dependant on which clef is present at the beginning of the staff.

So, what are clef’s?

Clefs

Clef’s are the symbol at the beginning of the staff at the start of the piece of music indicating the positioning of pitches from the musical alphabet.

We have several types of clef’s to use in music, but the two most common are the treble and bass clef.

Treble clef

The first main clef to learn is the treble clef, it’s also known as the G clef because it curls around the G line. Treble meaning ‘high-pitched,’ refers to instruments of a higher pitch such as a flute, violin and the vocal voice.

A treble clef looks like this:

Treble clef

Each line and space represents a letter from the musical alphabet.

Treble clef placement

To help you remember these placements there are many mnemonics about such as:

  • For lines
    • Every Good Boy Does Fine – E G B D F
  • For spaces
    • F A C E, just like the word face.

Bass clef

The second main clef to learn is the bass clef, it’s also known as the F clef because it curls around the F line. Bass meaning ‘low-pitched’ refers to instruments of a lower pitch such as bass guitar, cello and bassoon.

A bass clef looks like this:

Bass clef

Each line and space represents a letter from the musical alphabet.

Bass clef placement

To help you remember these placements there are many mnemonic about such as:

  • For lines
    • Good Boys Do Fine Always – G B D F A
  • For spaces
    • All Cows Eat Grass – A C E G

The Grand Staff

The Grand Staff is when two clefs are combined by a brace, seen on the left of the image.

The grand staff

When is the Grand Staff usually used?

The Grand Staff is mostly used in piano music because of the instruments wide range. The bass clef would be used for the left hand which play the bass or lower notes, the treble clef used for the right hand which play the higher notes.

Other instruments that use the Grand Staff include the harp, marimba and organ.

Ledger lines

A ledger line is a short line added above or below the range of a staff. It helps us identify the pitch of the note if it goes beyond the usual structure of the basic staff, which is 5 lines and 4 spaces.

It looks like this:

Ledger lines

These short ledger lines attach themselves to individual notes that exceed the basic staff.

They look like this:

Ledger lines with notes

Measures & bars

To make music easier to read and navigate we break it down into measures.

  • A thin singular vertical line represents different measures, these are numbered throughout the sheet music.
  • A thin double vertical line means it’s the end of a section; such as the end of a verse or chorus.
  • A thin and thick vertical line means it’s the end of the piece of music.
Measures and bars

The space in between each measure is called a ‘bar.’ This is where you position your notes to play or your rests to pause.

Key signature

If you’ve already been through my post: Basic Music Theory: The Complete Beginner’s Guide, you’ll understand what a key signature is. But for those who don’t, a key signature lets you know what notes are sharp or flat in a scale.

On sheet music, it shows which lines or spaces are to played at a sharp or flat pitch.

This is represented by a series of # or b symbols appearing directly after the clef.

Our example has one sharp on the F line. This means the key signature is G.

Key signature

Time signature

A time signature shows you how the music is to be counted, this is by how many beats per bar, and the type of note this beat is based on.

A time signature will appear at the beginning of the staff after the key signature, like this:

Time signature

The top number represents the beats per bar. It’s the driving beat to the song which we usually clap, or dance to naturally.

The most common beats per bar is 4: 1…2…3…4…1…2…3…4… etc.

The bottom number represents the type of note that beat is based on.

Our example above, is the most common time signature used; 4/4.

What this means is that each bar is based on 4 quarter notes.

Time signature meaning

The number on top can vary, but we have two more common bottom numbers; 2 and 8.

The number 2 is based on the half note, and the number 8 is based on the eighth note.

Common time signatures using these are 2/2 and 6/8.

So, what are quarter, eighth and half notes?

Let’s fill in the bars with some notes and understand how they’re constructed and what they mean.

Adding notes to your sheet music

Firstly, to create music you’ll need the musical alphabet and as we covered earlier depending on the clef you’re using the position of the notes on the staff will vary. However, during this next stage we’ll demonstrate examples using the treble clef.

Notes construction

Music notes are written by using a combination of vertical lines, known as stems, short curved like lines, known as flags, and filled or outlined circles, known as heads. 

Independently they will look like this:

Note construction

Note: Flags can also appear as straight horizontal lines rather than curved lines, however they represent the same type of note.

The combination of stems, flags and heads for a note indicates the notes duration.

So let’s look at the different types of note duration.

Note durations

There are 5 different types of note duration that are most commonly used, these are:

  • Whole note (semibreve)
  • Half note (minim)
  • Quarter note (crotchet)
  • Eighth note (quaver)
  • Sixteenth note (semiquaver)

Note: There are also thirty-second (32nd) notes (demisemiquaver) and sixty-fourth (64th) notes (hemidemisemiquaver) duration, but unless you are shredding at super-supersonic speeds on an instrument you will never use them.

Note durations

The relationship between each note duration is best shown in a hierarchy format:

Note length hierarchy

As we can see the whole note is at the top holding the longest duration. Comparing to the other note duration one whole note is equal to:

  • 2 half notes
  • 4 quarter notes
  • 8 eighth notes
  • 16 sixteenth notes

Now you can see where each note gets its name from, and also why using the numerical name is more popular.

All the notes have a different beat duration depending on the time signature of the music.

Let’s go through each individual one in more detail:

Whole note (semibreve)

Our Master at the top of the hierarchy.

In the time signature 4/4, a whole note will last 4 beats which will fill the entire bar, as a bar requires 4 beats. It is 4 beats because it takes 4 quarter notes to make a whole note, and the time signature /4 is based on the quarter note.

However, depending on the time signature the amount of beats a note can have will change.

In time signature 12/8 a whole note will last 8 beats because it takes 8 eighth notes to make a whole note, and the time signature /8 is based on the eighth note. A whole note will not fill the bar as they’re 4 beats remaining to use.

In time signature 2/2 a whole note will last 2 beats which will take up the entire bar, as a bar requires 2 beats. It is 2 beats because it takes 2 half notes to make a whole note, and the time signature /2 is based on the half note. Even though the time signature 2/2 is the same as 4/4, the beat/pulse of the song is different.

Whole note - semibreve

Half note (minim)

Regardless of time signature, 2 half notes have the same value as a whole note.

In time signature 4/4, a half note will last 2 beats because a half note is equal to 2 quarter notes, therefore you’ll need 2 half notes to fill the entire bar, as the bar requires 4 beats.

In time signature 12/8 a half note will last 4 beats because a half note is equal to 4 eighth notes, therefore you’ll need 3 half notes to fill the entire bar, as the bar requires 12 beats.

In time signature 2/2 a half note will last 1 beat because a half note is equal to, well 1 of itself. You’ll need 2 half notes to fill the entire bar, as the bar requires 2 beats.

Half note - minim

Quarter note (crotchet)

The same principle applies to quarter notes. 2 quarter notes equals a half note and 4 quarter notes equals a whole note.

In time signature 4/4, a quarter note will last 1 beat because a quarter note is equal to 1 of itself. You’ll need 4 quarter notes to fill the entire bar, as the bar requires 4 beats.

In time signature 12/8 a quarter note will last 2 beats because a quarter note is equal to 2 eighth notes. You’ll need 6 quarter notes to fill the entire bar, as a bar requires 12 beats.

In time signature 2/2 a quarter note will last half a beat because a quarter note is equal to half a half note, in other words you need 2 quarter notes to make a half. Therefore you’ll need 4 quarter notes to fill the bar, as the bar requires 2 beats.

Quarter note - crotchet

By now, hopefully you’ll get what I’m driving at here when it comes to the relationship between time signatures and note durations.

But let’s quickly finish off the eighth and sixteenth notes.

Eighth note (quaver)

The same principle applies to eighth notes, 2 eighth notes equal a quarter note, 4 eighth notes equals a half note, and 8 eighth notes equals a whole note.

In time signature 4/4, an eighth note will last half a beat because 2 eighth notes equal one quarter note. You’ll need 8 eighth notes to fill the entire bar.

In time signature 12/8, an eighth note will last one beat because the time signature is based on itself. You’ll need 12 eighth notes to fill the entire bar.

In time signature 2/2, an eighth will last one quarter of a beat because an eighth note is one quarter of a half note. You’ll need 8 eighth note to fill the entire bar.

Eighth note - quaver

Sixteenth note (semiquaver)

Lastly, 2 sixteenth notes equal 1 eighth note, 4 sixteenth notes equals 1 quarter note, 8 sixteenth notes equals 1 half note and 16 sixteenth notes equal 1 whole note.

In time signature 4/4, a sixteenth note will last quarter of a beat because 4 sixteenth notes equals 1 quarter note. You’ll need 16 eighth notes to fill the entire bar.

In time signature 12/8, a sixteenth note will last half a beat because 2 sixteenth notes equals 1 eighth note. You’ll need 24 sixteenth notes to fill the entire bar.

In time signature 2/2, a sixteenth will last one eighth of a beat because 8 sixteenth notes equals 1 half note. You’ll need 16 sixteenth notes to fill the entire bar.

Sixteenth note - semiquaver

Beaming of notes (combining)

Eighth and sixteenth notes are special as they can connect to themselves but also each other.

Here we have 2 eighth notes and 2 sixteenth notes connected:

Beaming of notes

Their note duration hasn’t change, they are still 2 notes.

Here they are joined together, 1 eighth note and 2 sixteenth notes.

Mixed beaming of notes

How they beam together depends on the time signature.

In the time signature 4/4 you’ll need to connect them to the value of 1 quarter note. In the time signature 2/2 you’ll need to connect them to the value of 1 half note.

Note rests

With each type of note duration comes its equivalent rest. A rest is an interval of silence where the musician does not play a note.

Note rests

Note rests have the same hierarchy as note duration, however, when using rests, you’ll use the largest note rest you can fit in that space.

For example, if the rest is equivalent to 1 quarter, you’ll use the quarter rest not 2 eighth rests, or 4 sixteenth rests.

It doesn’t matter what time signature you’re playing in either, you fill the space with the largest rest possible.

Dotted notes

On occasions where you need a note duration that doesn’t exist, this is where dotted notes come in handy.

A dotted note increases the note duration by an extra half of its original value.

Here’s an example:

We need a note duration of 3 beats, in a time signature of 4/4 a half note has 2 beats but by adding a dot after it, it now has a value of 3 beats.

Dotted notes

What if a note needs to exceed the bar? Or what if I need to increase its duration by more or less than a half?

Many questions, and we answer them with ‘ties.’

Ties & slurs

A tie connects the duration of notes together of the same pitch.

This can be used on occasions where a dot is insufficient such a duration being equivalent to a half note and an eighth note:

Tied notes

It is also used on occasions where a note needs to exceed the bar, such as in 4/4 a note lasting 6 beats would exceed the bar. Therefore you’d use a whole note tied to a half note, equalling the 6 beats you need.

Note: Ties can connect to the same note in the next bar to increase a notes duration.

Slurs look identical to ties in music, however their purpose is completely different.

Similar to a tie, a slur connects the value of the note duration, but the difference is that it connects notes of a different pitch. Therefore you smoothly transition between different pitches without pausing.

Slurred notes

A slur can connect as many pitches as you like and can connect notes in consecutive bars.

Annotating your notes

Let’s explore the most common types of articulation first.

Articulation

An articulation affects how a note is played.

There are several types of articulation, however, we shall focus on the 3 most well known and most used types: staccato, accent and marcato.

Staccato

The first type is a staccato note. It is shown by adding a small dot above or below the head of a note depending on where it’s positioned on the staff.

Staccato note

A staccato articulation means that the note is short and detached. Think of it as a sudden burst.

Accent

The second type is an accent note. It is shown by adding the greater than symbol above or below the head of a note depending on where it’s positioned on the staff.

Accent note

An accent articulation means that the note is to be played louder and harder.

Marcato

The third type of a marcato note. It is shown by adding a caret symbol above or below the head of a note depending on where it’s positioned on the staff.

Marcato note

A marcato articulation is the combination of a staccato and an accent, meaning the note is to be played loud, short and detached. This creates a shocking sharp sound.

Dynamics

Adding dynamics to your music can impact your listeners in a variety of ways. This can range from soft and gentle, to loud and aggressive. It allows the listener to understand the emotion, and the stress behind the movement of the notes that’s being played.

The six main dynamic notations to learn are: pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte and fortissimo.

Let’s learn what each one means.

The first is pianissimo, this means that you play the notes very softly. Labelled as pp.

The second is piano, this means you play the notes softly. Labelled as p.

The third is mezzo piano, this means you play the notes moderately soft. Labelled as mp.

The fourth is mezzo forte, this means you play the notes moderately loud. Labelled as mf.

The fifth is forte, this means you play the notes loudly. Labelled as f.

The last is fortissimo, this means you play the notes very loudly. Labelled as ff.

Dynamics

So, how long do these dynamic notations apply? A bar? To the end of a section?

The dynamic notation applies until instructed otherwise. If the piece starts with ‘pp’ and no other dynamics are present in the piece, then you’ll perform the entire piece very softly.

Next, we have accidentals which will be the last section we’ll cover on notation that directly affects the notes being played.

Accidentals

An accidental modifies the existing note from a key signature by raising or lowering it by one half step (semitone).

The three symbols that are placed to the left of these notes are a sharp #, flat b or natural ♮ symbol. Each are shown below:

Accidental symbols

When you place an accidental next to a note, all notes of the same pitch in that bar are played the same way. Therefore, if you place a ♮ next to an F#, then all F#’s in that bar will also be played as an F natural instead.

Here is an example:

Accidentals in action

If you need the accidental to only apply to one note, then on the consecutive notes of the same pitch in the same bar you would have to restore it by placing another accidental.

Following on from the example earlier, our key signature meant all F’s are sharp. The ♮ symbol meant playing a natural F, we would then place the # symbol on the consecutive F to restore it back to its key signature.

Restoring a note

Navigation and repetition notation

Navigation and repetition notation in music helps us to navigate through a piece of music by telling us what parts to repeat, or to jump back or forward to, and play.

We’ll just be going through the main ones you’ll most likely use.

Repeats

With how modern music is structured today in terms of repetition such as verse, chorus, verse, chorus; you’ll find the repeat sign incredibly useful.

Rather than transcribe the entire section again, wasting time and paper, you’ll add a start and end repeat sign.

The open repeat is a thick then thin line followed by a colon, a closed repeat is a colon followed by a thin then thick line.

Repeat notation

These are super easy to spot.

Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings)

Volta brackets gives a repeated section a secondary ending. The first ending is labelled with 1. and the second ending is labelled with 2. 

In the example below we’d play the first 2 bars, then go back to the first because of the repeat sign, however on the second play through we wouldn’t play bar 2 again, we’d jump to the volta 2 bracket and continue.

Volta brackets notation

Navigation

Sometimes navigational notation can be overwhelming to a beginner, as traveling back and forth in a piece of music can be confusing.

Therefore, I like to think of navigational notation as having 3 purposes, to act as a: portal, target or a destination.

Here is a quick list of each:

  • Portals – Da Capo, Dal Segno, and Da Coda
  • Targets – al fine and al Coda
  • Destinations – Segno and Coda 
Portals

We have 3 possible portals; 2 primary and 1 secondary. The only difference is that a secondary portal requires the music to have traveled through a primary portal first.

  • Da Capo (D.C.) means ‘from top’ and is a primary portal. By using D.C. on sheet music you’re telling the performer to repeat the music from the very beginning.
  • Dal Segno (D.S.) means ‘from the sign’ and is a primary portal. By using D.S. on sheet music you’re telling the performer to repeat the music just played from the nearest segno sign.
  • Da Coda means ‘from tail’ and is a secondary portal. By using Da Coda on sheet music you’re telling the performer to jump forward to an ending passage marked by a coda sign. However for this portal to work you need to have travelled through a D.C. or D.S. portal first.

To summarize, D.C. and D.S. are portals back in time so you can repeat history, and Da Coda is to the future, to something new.

Primary portals are phrased with a target on sheet music.

Let’s look at them.

Targets

We have 2 possible targets:

  • Al fine means ‘to the end.’ By using al fine on sheet music you’re telling the performer to repeat until you reach ‘fine.’ Once you reach ‘fine’ the piece ends.
  • Al Coda means ‘to the tail.’ By using al Coda on sheet music you’re telling the performer to repeat until you reach ‘Da Coda.’ Once you reach ‘Da Coda’ you jump forward to the ending passage marked by a coda sign.
Destinations

We’ve mentioned two destinations; segno and coda. Destinations are marked with their sign on sheet music.

Here is what the signs look like on sheet music:

Segno and coda notation

To the left we have a segno sign, and to the right we have a coda sign.

Possible transitions

D.C. al fine — fine: Play from the beginning until the phrase fine.

D.C. al CodaDa Codacoda: Play from the beginning until the phrase Da Coda, at Da Coda jump forward to the coda sign.

D.S. al fine — segno — fine: Play from the nearest segno until the phrase fine.

D.S. al Coda — segno — Da Codacoda: Play from the nearest segno until the phrase Da Coda, at Da Coda jump forward to the coda sign.

It’s your turn

Well, now you’ve learned the basics, what’s next?

Go transcribe your music!

Transcribe and pass to others to learn and play with you.

I hope you go on to create some awesome music!

Good luck, and get creating!

Further reading:

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