Appendix B: Reading Music Notation

Reading off a staff can be tricky, and it requires practice to master. I hope you’ll be able to appreciate the examples on this website even if you lack experience with notation, but if it’s new to you, having this appendix to review will probably help.

Each staff begins with a clef, a symbol that tells the reader how to interpret the notes on and between the staff’s lines. The two most important clefs are treble clef (which is generally, although not exclusively, used for higher instruments) and bass clef (which is generally used for lower instruments).

Treble clef


Bass clef


In each clef, the notes are arranged such that each line or space corresponds to all notes with one letter name. So, for example, the second line up on the treble clef staff is G; the same line is also used for G# and Gb.


Here are the notes on the treble clef staff.


You can remember the notes on the lines on the treble clef staff, from lowest to highest, with the following mnemonic, which is frequently taught to students beginning to read notation.


The spaces, meanwhile, spell the word FACE.

Here are the notes on the bass clef staff.


You can remember the notes on the lines of the bass clef staff with this mnemonic.


The notes on the spaces correspond to a different mnemonic.


We can also write notes above and below each staff, aided by ledger lines.





It is rather common for a part to contain many notes above the staff when the part is in treble clef, and below the staff in bass clef. For example, parts for the flute (a very high instrument) often contain many notes above the treble clef staff, whereas parts for the tuba (a very low instrument) often contain many notes below the bass clef staff.

The C just below the treble clef staff and the C just above the bass clef staff are the same note at the piano. This note is called middle C.


Since these notes are the same – not only both Cs, but also both in the same octave – we can see clearly how the treble clef is used for higher notes (since all the notes on the treble clef staff are above middle C) and the bass clef is used for lower notes (since all the notes on the bass clef staff are below middle C).

Rhythmic Durations

The rhythmic indications we’ll see most frequently are as follows, with each note being half the duration of the one that precedes it.


Eighth notes and sixteenth notes can be attached to one another with beams.



Dots And Ties

We can add a dot to any note to add half its length, or we can tie one note to another to combine their durations.


1                        1




The rhythms we’ve already discussed here divide beats into groups of two or four. For example, there are two eighth notes in a quarter note, and four sixteenth notes in a quarter note. When we want to divide the beat into three parts, we’ll use triplets.

Triplets are indicated by a bracket or a beam, along with a “3.” Three triplets receive the same total duration as two notes of the same type that do not have the triplet indication. So, for example:

1                          1

Time Signatures

The time signature that appears at the beginning of a piece of music tells us how to interpret the rhythms. In simple meter, the top number tells us the number of beats per measure (units of music marked off by vertical lines designed to organize the music and help the performer follow along). The bottom number tells us which note gets the beat (2 for half note, 4 for quarter note, and so on).

Time signatures in simple meter


In 4/4 time, the quarter note gets the beat, and there are four quarters per measure. In 3/4 time, the quarter gets the beat, and there are three quarter notes per measure. In 4/2 time, the half note gets the beat, and there are four halves per measure.

When the top note of a time signature is a 6, 9 or 12, the time signature is called a compound meter, and the usual rules don’t apply. Here, we divide the top note by three to determine the number of beats, and multiply the duration indicated by the bottom note by three to determine what note gets the beat. (The beat should be a dotted note.)

Time Signatures In Compound Meter


In 6/8 time, there are two beats per measure, and the dotted quarter (which is three times as long as an eighth note) gets the beat. In 9/4, there are three dotted-half-note beats. In 12/16 there are four dotted-eighth-note beats.

Compound meter is, in my experience, difficult for student musicians to understand, even if they’ve played pieces in those time signatures before. It is commonly used in situations where the beat is frequently divided into three parts rather than two or four. You might think of compound meter as a way of avoiding writing lots of triplets in situations where the beat is typically divided into three parts.

Fortunately, there are few examples on this site that require the use of compound meter, so it doesn’t require much more of our attention here. Compound meter does, however, frequently appear in notated music, so it would be worth studying if you hope to play notated music often or write it yourself.