Music Theory Fun, part 7: Let’s Read Some REAL Sheet Music

As a tidy ending to this series on music theory, let’s test the music-reading skills we’ve learned with a few samples of real sheet music. (Don’t worry, you can do it!)

For each piece of music, remember to look for and study the following notations–doing it in this order seems to be most helpful for me, at least:

  • Time signature
  • Key signature
  • Rhythms (how long you hold each note)
  • Notes (what pitches you hit)

Sample #1: Auld Lang Syne

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An old favorite for New Year’s, likely one we’ve either heard played a good bit or sung. What time signature is noted on this piece? How about key signature?

(If you said “Common Time,” also known as 4/4 time, for the time signature, you’re right! That’s what that little “C” means at the beginning of the first measure, as we learned a few weeks back. Remember what 4/4 time means?)

Also, if you can’t find any key signature, don’t fret–there are no noted sharps or flats, which means that this piece is in C major. (It also could technically be in A minor, but seeing that the many Gs in this piece do not have sharp symbols beside them, it is most likely C major.)

Let’s look at the rhythms, too. Hmm, I see a lot of “dotted quarter followed by an eighth note” rhythms scattered throughout the piece, plus a lot of eighth notes strung together in pairs. What else do you see?

And lastly, let’s look at notes. For instance, how often does the note of C appear in this piece, since the piece is in C major?

Sample #2: Super Mario Bros. Theme

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Here’s a tune a lot of us gamers know! Let’s check it out and see what we can learn from its sheet music. First, look at the time signature and key signature.

(If you said 4/4 time and C major, you’re right again! As with Auld Lang Syne, there are no sharps and flats noted, but that’s a key signature in and of itself–C major.)

How about rhythms? I see quite a lot of eighth notes, but not just any eighth notes–they’re all quick little notes with some fancy-looking 7’s and something that resembles a curly brace in between them. The fancy 7 and the weird curly brace are both rests, which means that you quit playing anything for just a moment. (In the case of the Super Mario Bros. melody, you can probably hear the breath of space in between the struck notes–this makes the notes, when they are played, stand out a bit more, because there’s silence surrounding them.)

And speaking of notes, do you see a few sharps and flats scattered about, hovering right in front of notes? For instance, I see a couple of F-sharps right at the beginning, and a B-flat/D-flat pair in the second measure on the bottom line. Composers do this occasionally, sneaking in weird or cool-sounding notes to make the melody more interesting–these are called “accidentals.” Without those accidentals, this melody would be very different! What else do you see in terms of notes?

Sample #3: Over the Rainbow

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Saved the hardest one for last, but this is a tune you’re still more likely to know. This is a piano adaptation of the popular tune from The Wizard of Oz, so there’s going to be some extra notes and rhythms thrown in there, but don’t let that daunt you! You can decode this just as easily as you did the others.

First of all, what is the time signature and key signature?

If you spotted those three flats right off the bat, good for you! We remember from a couple of weeks ago that to figure out a key signature full of flats, you look at the next-to-last flat in the group. In this case, what’s the next-to-last flat?

(If you said E-flat, you’re right!)

But what about the time signature? …Actually, this particular copy of sheet music does not have it printed on here. But there’s a trick to figuring it out:


  • Look at the first measure–in the treble clef, there’s a half note (held for two beats, as we remember from a few weeks ago), then there’s a pair of notes played together that are both held for two more beats. Then there’s a straight vertical line, separating the first measure from the second. (Ignore the big string of eighth notes for right now. LOL)
  • Two half-notes means four beats, so whatever this time signature is, it’s got 4 beats per measure. So we now know that 4 is the top number of the time signature.
  • And apparently, since they only had room for two half-notes in the first measure, that must mean that the quarter note is counted as one beat–which means that the bottom number of the time signature must also be 4, representing the quarter note. So this is in 4/4 time, too, even though it doesn’t have it printed!

Whew! Well, aside from all that hullabaloo over the time signature, what else do you notice about this piece? I see lots of ornamentation, lots of embellishments on the melody added in (all the messy strings of eighth notes and big chords). This technique is something my Nannie referred to as “playing the doodly-doos” (LOL), and it serves to make the music sound richer and fuller. Looks pretty challenging to play at first, but all it would take is a little practice!

Congratulations! You Know More About Reading Music!

I hope this series has given you a greater insight on reading sheet music, and perhaps even inspired you to start playing an instrument or singing. But, of course, I could not have done all of this had it not been for my own wonderful music teachers over the years, who gave me knowledge, insight, and inspiration–I can only hope I’ve passed that same fire for music on to you. 🙂

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