Old-looking music notation

How to Read Music Notes

Ever wonder how music notation actually works? Being able to read music is such a useful tool for any musician, and understanding music notes and how they relate pitch will help with your note-reading immensely. That’s what will be discussed in this article.

By the end of this article you will not only have a deeper understanding of pitch, but how it is expressed in musical notation. This knowledge will make it much easier to remember which notes are which the next time you sit down to practice your instrument!

What is Pitch?

A mural of a man playing trumpet with sound waves coming out

One definition of music is that it is “organized sound”. All sounds can be measured in frequencies. Specifically, the frequency is the measurement of the physical sound wave form. The frequency that the ear hears from this sound wave is what we call pitch.

If the frequency is high, meaning that the wave repeats itself more quickly, it creates a high-pitched sound. Conversely, if the frequency is low, meaning that the wave repeats itself very slowly, it creates a low-pitched sound.

Some sounds, like the sound of a door slamming, create more than one frequency at a time. That is why it’s harder to pinpoint a specific pitch to such sounds because it’s actually several pitches all at the same time.

Musical instruments that exhibit this type of combination of frequencies are known as unpitched percussion. For these instruments we use only rhythmic notation, not pitch notation.

Playing With Pitch

A baby playing with a xylophone and a tambourine
Image by thedanw from Pixabay

When we speak, we’re usually changing the frequency of our voice very quickly. This helps us convey meaning. For example, when we raise the pitch at the end of a sentence it often gives the impression of a question.

If we speak at just one frequency, it can sound robotic. When we sing, we are essentially speaking at specific frequencies, depending on how we want the melody to go.

You can experiment with this if you have a tuner handy. If you don’t, there are plenty of free tuning apps you can download on your computer or other device.

First speak like you normally would and notice how much the pitch on the app fluctuates. Next see if you can speak or hum just one pitch, so that the tuner stays hovering at one note, such as C. Finally, slowly sing a simple tune and notice how, assuming you’re able to carry a tune reasonably well, the tuner changes to match each note as you change pitches.

Notice that if you slowly slide the pitch from one note to the next, the tuner spends some time in between the actual notes. Sliding up from C, for example, eventually reaches a C#, but there are actually a lot of frequencies in between those two pitches.

Out of all of that space, Western music has picked out just 12 frequencies* per octave that we consider to be “notes”.

(*The world between the pitches of our 12-note system is fascinating, but goes way beyond the scope of this article.)

What I want you to understand is that the notation system we use in western music is not comprehensive. It is limited to the specific pitches that are defined within our 12-note system.

Visual Representation of Pitch

At its core, musical notation is simply a visual representation of how high or low a note is.

If it’s higher vertically on the page, it is also higher in pitch, or frequency.

Pretend you’re playing Pictionary. If you wanted to communicate to your team that something was higher than something else, how would you do it?

Perhaps something like this:

Visual representation of higher vs. lower
(A dot, a line, another dot above that line, maybe an arrow for clarification unless that’s against the rules…)

That pretty succinctly gets the point across right? And that’s all that musical notation is doing as well.

However, there are more than just two notes being defined, which is why we have more than just one line for comparison. Specifically, we use 5 lines which together create what’s called a staff. Notes can be placed on any of the lines, or in between any of the lines (on the spaces), in order to represent a specific pitch.

The other important defining factor for this is what’s called a clef. The most common clefs are the treble clef and bass clef. Depending on which clef is on the staff, the lines and spaces represent different pitches.

If you stack a staff with a treble clef on top of a staff with a bass clef and connect it with a brace, it’s called The Grand Staff.

This is what’s used for piano, as well as many other instruments. Here’s a diagram of what pitch each line and space on the grand staff represents:

The grand staff in music

It’s important to note that these represent specific notes, not just in any octave. For example, the bottom line of the bass clef is what we call G2, or the second G from the left on a piano. The top line of the treble clef is F5, or the 5th F from the left on a piano.

That note on its own little line in the middle is what many know as middle C, also called C4. This note is equally common on treble clef and bass clef but looks slightly different:

Two different middle Cs

Some people get confused by the fact that the bass clef middle C is clearly written in a lower position than the treble clef middle C. These are still the same exact note on the piano. The spacing discrepancy is simply to make more space between the two clefs so they don’t get confused.

Sharps and Flats

You may have noticed that there are a few notes missing from the above diagram. If you count how many unique notes you find before they start repeating the same letter names, there are only 7 notes, not 12 like I said above.

The missing notes are defined by sharps or flats. If you’re familiar with how a piano keyboard looks, the missing notes are all the black keys on the piano.

A close-up of a piano keyboard
A piano keyboard is made up of white keys and black keys.

Sharps and flats exist to express a note that’s just one half step, or the interval of a minor 2nd, away from the one written. A sharp means to play the note a half step up, and a flat means to play the note a half step down.

Just for full disclosure, actually every single key on the piano could be a sharp or flat note. E could also be called F flat, for example. The difference is that the black keys can only ever be notated by using a sharp or a flat. If there are no sharps or flats used then the black keys will never be played.

I hope this has helped clarify how to read music notes and how music notation communicates pitch to musicians. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!

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Happy Practicing!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

How to Practice Piano Efficiently
Intervals in Music: An Introduction

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