Learn to Read Notes – Quick and Dirty!

by | Aug 18, 2013 | Music Theory | 3 comments

Learning to read notes is NOT difficult and EVERYBODY can do this!

Don’t let your inability of reading notes stop you from playing a musical instrument. In this post I will teach you everything you need to know to learn the basics of reading notes… quick and dirty!

What do you need to know?

So before you start to read notes, ask yourself: what do I want from the sheet music? What do you want to read from the paper? Do you want to know what instrument it is for? Is it, for example a low instrument like a cello, or maybe a high instrument like a violin? In case of a piano, you would like to know if you need to play it with the left hand, or the right hand. Then you need to know whether it’s a high note or a low one; you need to know a little bit about sharps and flats, major scales, the rhythm of the music and how long each note will be. And lastly, you will also need to know whether you have to play loud or quiet and have a notion of the character of the piece.

So.. how is this all written in music?

Of course, there are many aspects of music which are not written in the sheet music. This is also why, if you are looking at a performance of the same piece by different people, the can be some differences you will notice. To get a better idea of what is in the sheet music and what is not, you can always look up a performance of a piece you really like, and watch videos of it by different people. This way you will easily spot the differences.

Secondly, when seeing a piece of sheet music we have to know what instrument it is for and how high the notes should be. To know this, we have the five line scale – you probably have seen this before- in which the notes are written. If you play the violin, you will see the violin key at the upper left of the sheet. The start of this key indicates where the G-note is when playing the violin (also check the video to get a clearer picture of what is meant by this).

When you play viola, you will see the viola key at the left side when the notes will start. Instead of a G-note, this Viola Key indicates where the C-note is located on the five lines. Lastly, for the cello, we have a bass-key (also called F-key or cello key) that points out where the F should be. Important to understand is, therefore, that the key in front of the note indicates what instrument the notes are for; without the key, you cannot tell which note you see on the scale.

What about Sharps and Flats?

When you are playing the piano, you will see that your instrument has both white and black keys. Here it is important to notice that there is a large different between these, namely an entire tone. While the white keys range from note A, B, C.. to G, the black notes are half a note off the both white keys they are in between (again, if anything is unclear, I recommend you to watch the video).

The reason why this is the case, is because this is how it is designed in the Western music system. This is not the case in all music systems in the world, however. For example, in some cultures they don’t use half notes, but work with quarter notes instead, so it is definitely not fixed.

To return back to the white and black keys on the piano, what if I want to have the same major scale (meaning the differences between the white and the black keys on the piano)? In that case, we don’t use the ‘normal’ F-note, but we use the F-sharp. In sheet music, this is written as a # on the place where you would normally play the F to indicate that you should play the F-sharp instead.

However, as the title of this paragraph already indicates, we also have F-flats. So if we go down and we say we want to have a major scale of F, then we want to have the distance between while and black keys to be big-big-small-big-big-small again. However, if we look at the piano we see it is big-big-big-small-big-big- small. So what you do in this case to make the third ‘big’ small, is to play the black key rather than the white one: this is the B-flat (the black key).

How to read rhythm from sheet music?

So that is how you know how high the note must be.

However, now we know the tone height, we also need to know the rhythm. For this, you have whole notes (no colour, no stick), half notes, (no colour, but with a stick) quarter notes (colored ones), and eighth notes (with have a little flag on it). Lastly, there is also an option which goes even faster, at which you’ll see a double flag on the notes (see video). Overall, how the notes look does thus define how fast you will need to play them. For this, remember that whole notes take as long as two halve notes, four quarter ones, eight eighth notes etc.

What you also want to do sometimes, is to put a pause in your music (silence). This you do by drawing a line under (whole note pause) or on the line (half note pause) of the note scale.

Now you know all this about reading sheet music, you might now also wonder why you sometimes see a dot after a note. This means that the note before the dot will be played 1,5 time longer than it would usually have been. You make use of this to make sure the counting of your notes is aligned with the counting that is supposed to be in the bar. Since the length of a note is not fixed, you can find out how fast you should play a piece of music by looking at the Italian terms which are often written above the piece (e.g. Cargo/Allegro). This tells you also a bit about the character of the music, however I would recommend to just look this up online since it is not too difficult to understand 🙂

And lastly, how do you write down how to play loud or quiet?

Okay, so we know now how to write down the length of the note, the rhythm and the height of the note. If you want to know how loud to play the music, you can also indicate that from some Italian terms. Forte, meaning loud, is abbreviated with an F underneath the notes, whereas you will find a P, standing for Piano, written below your note(s) when you need to play quietly. Additionally, if we want music to get louder (or quieter) as we go, you will write a sidewards triangle (see video) in between the P and the F.

While there is soooo much more to learning notes and music theory that what I explained above, I hope this explanation definitely helped you to understand the basics and to start practicing with it! If you have any questions about this video or about any other topic, please write them down in the comments below so I can help you with it or make a separate post about it.





  1. Marc Thomas

    Your videos are totally cool . Is there much difference playing the viola s the violin? You sometimes explain about the violin and I wonder whether or not it translates… Cheers, Marc viola-baby

    • Violinist Zlata

      Hi Marc, Happy to read you like my videos! Most things explained for the violin are applicable to the viola too except if I’m talking about specific strings. All the best, Zlata

      • Carolyn Keeler

        In your lessons do you give viola lessons? I am starting the viola again and want help reading music of the alto clef. i can read treble clef with no problem. Besides transposing music is there another way to play treble clef music on the viola? I want to take your viola lessons with your help. I get paid the 22 of Sept Can I still join?


  1. The First Notes and Scales You Learn on the Violin (why those sharps?) | Violin Lounge - […] Also watch my video ‘Learn to read notes quick and dirty’. […]

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