This post has been rewritten from bottom to top–even the title is different! Click to see my post about learning the art of sight-reading–even experienced musicians require some practice, as I’ve discovered!
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
Image Credit: TrivWorks.com
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
Image Credit: WiiNoob.com
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
Image Credit: SkyBlueMusic.com; click for larger pic in new window
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. 🙂
Talking about major and minor keys, as we did last week, inevitably brings up a question: “How do you mark minor keys’ key signatures? All we covered in the key signature lesson was major keys.”
The answer: To find out any minor key’s key signature, you have to know which major key it’s related to.
Mapping Out the Keys’ Family Tree
For every major key signature, there is a minor key which uses the exact same signature, because it uses just about the same scale (set of 8 notes). The only real difference is that the minor key scale begins and ends on a different note. When we talk about these minor keys in comparison with their similar major keys, we use the term “relative minor.”
(I’m not exactly sure why the people who created modern Western music notation chose to note minor key signatures this way, but it probably saved time and brain space. Instead of having to make 12 major key signatures, then make 12 more key signatures for minor keys, they used each key signature twice, because each major key already had a minor key that was very similar to it.)
To find any major key’s relative minor, simply go down three half-steps from the major key’s beginning note (the note it’s named after). For instance, say we’re trying to find the relative minor of C major, below:
What Has This Got to Do with Key Signatures? A Lot, Actually
One Important Caveat: That Pesky “Sharped Seventh Note” Again
Remember last week when I discussed that minor key scales are created by taking the major key scale, flatting the third and sixth note, then sharping the seventh–except that the “sharped seventh” is really in the same place as it is on the major key scale? Well, that comes into play here.
When you play the relative minor key, it’ll be the exact same scale as the major key it’s related to, except that the seventh note will be sharped. That change is not reflected in the key signature at all–it’s just something you have to remember. Take the key of A minor, for instance; it’s related to C major, which has no sharps and no flats. But when you play something in A minor, the seventh note is a G-sharp, because that’s just how minor key scales are constructed.
The Complete Key Signature Family Tree: The Circle of Fifths
To remember and reference all these various major-relative minor matchups, music theorists have come up with a cool little graphic called the Circle of Fifths, seen below (this was retrieved from line6.com):
Next Week: A Look at REAL Sheet Music
Now that we know a good bit about the way music is notated, let’s see how to apply that knowledge to real sheet music. That challenge appears next Saturday!
First, let’s look at a few graphics to help you visualize the “keys” I’m talking about. (I made this based on a piano keyboard, because I am a pianist and learned music theory largely by interacting with the piano. To me, seeing the notes as clearly as a piano displays them REALLY helps with learning theory.)
There are several things to take note of here. First, see how there’s a note labeled C on the left side of the image and another note labeled C on the right side of the image? The C on the right sounds higher than the C on the left–that’s the difference. The pitch names repeat themselves, but the notes get higher going to the right on a piano keyboard, and get lower going to the left.
Second, there are black notes fitting between some of the white notes on the keyboard, and all of them are called “something-sharp” or “something-flat.” That’s going to be important later in this post!
Lastly, each of the black notes have two pitch names instead of one. This is perfectly acceptable; for instance, you can call the note between C and D either C-sharp or D-flat. It’s really just personal preference.
(Oh, and don’t worry about the colors of each note being different–this has to do with my sound-color synesthesia. I was feeling kinda OCD about making sure the colors of each label “matched” the musical note. LOL)
So, What’s So Major about a Major Key?
Last week, we talked a good bit about key signatures, and at the end of the post, I gave you an “answer key,” of sorts, showing all the different key signatures. I also identified all of them as being “something-something major.” But you probably wondered: “What does ‘major’ mean, and why does she keep specifying it?”
When a musician says that a song is played in a “major” key, it doesn’t mean that it’s in an “important” key–it means that the scale of the key (all 8 notes played in sequence) follows this pattern:
Well, underpinning this simple sequence is a rule concerning how all major key scales are constructed, using intervals. Intervals are what I keep referencing when I say “whole step” or “half-step,” like so:
- A half-step is the interval between two adjacent notes on the scale, such as the interval between C and C-sharp, or the interval between E and F.
- A whole step is the interval between two notes with another note squished between them, such as the interval between C and D, or the interval between G-flat and A-flat.
So the interval pattern described for you in the above graphic has you make two whole steps up the scale, then a half, then three more whole steps, then another half. This is how all major key scales are determined–if their scale abides by this rule, they are major!
Minor Key Scales: Some Minor Adjustments to This System
Now, in terms of minor keys, the nice neat little system we saw earlier gets a little bit of a monkey wrench thrown in it. The above graphic depicts C minor, and there are a few differences when you compare it to C major:
- Instead of hitting an E-natural (“regular E”), you hit an E-flat
- Instead of hitting an A-natural, you hit an A-flat
- B natural is still the seventh note, just like the C major, but for some reason, the seventh note is still considered “sharped” (never understood that, myself)
There is a very technical interval pattern for minor keys, but it’s very complicated. Basically, we musicians just remember that for every minor key’s scale, we take the major scale, flat the third and sixth note, and keep the seventh note in the same place.
Next Week: Every Key Has a Relative
Now that you know a little more about major and minor keys, we’re going to see how they’re related to each other, next week. (Thankfully, you won’t have to remember whose brother’s uncle’s cousin is related to whose! LOL!)
As I mentioned last week, time signatures are only one part of the important information given at the beginning of any piece of sheet music. Key signatures are the other part–they tell us what key the music is in, which gives us more information about the pitches used in the song.
First: A Few Notes (Heh) About Sharps and Flats
To learn more about key signatures, you need to know what sharps and flats are. Instead of being slang words for medical needles and shoes (or apartments, lol), respectively, in music these two words take on quite a different meaning.
You’ll see these symbols scattered around your music, adorning the left sides of notes as well as dotting the beginning of your sheet music. But their meanings do not change–flats mean lower the pitch, sharps mean raise the pitch.
The Making of a Key Signature: A Collection of Sharps or Flats
At the beginning of your sheet music, you’ll have anywhere from one to seven sharps or flats, all grouped together like this:
Making Sense of a Key Signature
Since we know that sharps raise the pitch of whatever line they’re on, while flats lower the pitch, then we can tell which notes are altered for the particular key we’re in.
For key signatures using two flats/sharps or more, there are a couple of little tricks to reading them.
Trick for Reading Flats
Trick for Reading Sharps
Even Faster Trick: Just Count the Flats or Sharps!
Though it’s best to know your flats and sharps well so that you can recognize them by sight, there’s a little shortcut experienced musicians use to reference various key signatures in short form. Just count the number of flats and sharps, and memorize which key goes with which number of flats or sharps.
For instance, one flat means F major, one sharp means G major; two flats means B-flat major, two sharps means D major, and so on. It really helps when you get up into the five- and six-sharp territories! 🙂
Yay! You Know How to Read Key Signatures!
With a little practice, you’ll be able to recognize key signatures as quickly as the pros do. (It DOES get easier, believe me!)
For Further Reading/Credits
As Promised: The Answer Key!
(aka C-sharp major)
(aka F-sharp major)
(aka B major, lol)
(aka D-flat major)
Music is just not music without rhythm, without something to tell you what the beat is, and where to accent the beat more strongly. In sheet music, that job belongs to the time signature, which tells you much of what you need to know about the music’s rhythm.
What Does a Time Signature Look Like, and Where Can You Find It?
At the beginning of each piece of sheet music, you’ll find a set of numbers that look like this:
Deciphering the Time Signature’s Meaning
It sounds like the following two examples:
Click to hear 4/4 time counted out, with beats 1 and 3 stressed
Pachelbel’s Canon in D is a good example of slow 4/4 time with beats 1 and 3 stressed.
“Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)” by Ashlee Simpson is a good example of a song in 4/4 time with beats 2 and 4 stressed (really stressed in this song!).
Why Are There Two Different Versions of 4/4?
Since 4/4 is so well-known and well-used, some people “feel” the stresses of the beat coming on 1 and 3, while others “feel” the strong beats on 2 and 4. Both are valid perceptions, and both have applications in various styles of music. For instance, country and Southern gospel music often uses the 1 and 3 stresses, while much of the popular rock/pop and hip-hop genres use the 2 and 4 stresses.
Other Symbols You’ll See in the Time Signature Slot
Other Time Signatures with the Quarter Note = 1 Beat
For practice, let’s look at a few more time signatures.
This one looks a little different. The bottom number is the same, meaning that the quarter note represents one beat, but the top number is 3–this is called “3/4 time,” also known as “waltz time.” That means that there are only 3 beats in this measure. That means you can have 3 quarter notes in a measure, or a half note and a quarter note, a dotted half note, a half and 2 eighths, etc.
This is what 3/4 time sounds like:
“Kiss from a Rose” by Seal is an excellent example of moderate 3/4 time.
In this example, the quarter note is still representing one beat of music, but there are only 2 beats in a measure–this is called “2/4 time.” You can have 2 quarter notes per measure, or 1 half note, or 4 eighth notes, and so on.
This is what 2/4 time sounds like:
The children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is actually sung in 2/4 time. (To me, 2/4 sounds like a faster 4/4, at least in rhythm.)
What About When the Bottom Number is Different?
The top number, as we learned earlier, represents how many beats are in a measure. The top number here is 6, so there are 6 beats in a measure. The bottom number, however, is 8…which means that the eighth note represents one beat of music, instead of the quarter note.
So, in this time signature, which is called “6/8 time,” you could have 6 eighth notes in a measure, or 3 quarter notes, or 2 dotted quarter notes (worth 3 eighth notes each), etc.
Here’s what 6/8 time sounds like:
“Silver and Cold” by A.F.I. is in a pretty fast 6/8 time, with beats 1 and 4 stressed.
To me, 6/8 time sounds like a slower 3/4 time, more like a swing or pendulum going back and forth.
Wow, in this time signature, there are 12 beats in a measure! And, with the 8 on the bottom, that means that you could have 12 eighth notes in a measure, or 6 quarter notes, or 4 dotted quarters, etc.
It’s not as many beats as it sounds, especially once you start hearing music in 12/8 time. This is actually my favorite time signature, because it sounds like really slow 4/4 time with extra little dance-like pulses added between each strong beat.
Here’s what 12/8 time sounds like:
“Memory” from the musical Cats is a great example of 12/8 time.
Now You Know The Most Common Time Signatures!
These five time signatures that I’ve shown you today are the most commonly used in Western music. But there are many more out there, quirky and not often used. This blog post will help you understand the sheet music rhythms for about 70% of the Western music that is written these days.
Next Week: What’s All This about Keys?
Next week, we’ll learn about another important piece of information stored at the beginning of sheet music–key signatures! Just as important as time signatures, they tell you about the pitches you’re going to be using while you play.
All the recordings of beats being counted out were done by me–hence, the rather sad audio quality. 😛 Hopefully they’re useful to you in learning how different time signatures are counted out!
Pitches, as we learned last week, are one big part of music notation. After all, you can’t write down a melody if you don’t know which notes are written where! But the other big part of music notation is rhythm–how long is each note in the melody held? That’s what we’re going to look at today.
A Note Held for One Beat: The Quarter Note
A Note Held for Two Beats: The Half Note
A Note Held for Three Beats: The Dotted Half Note
A Note Held for Four Beats: The Whole Note
Notes Smaller Than One Beat: Yes, They Exist!
Melodies are not just made up of notes that are one beat long and larger–there are plenty of note time values that are fractions of one beat. Here are two of the most prevalent “fraction” notes:
Hooray! You’ve Learned All the Basic Notes!
If you know these six note types, you can start to understand most of the musical rhythms that are put in front of you. (There are other note types, of course, but they are not used as often.)
Next Week: Time Signatures, the Rhythmic Frames Around Songs
Next time, we’re going to look at different time signatures–they affect how music is measured, which beats are strong, which beats are weak, etc. Pitches and rhythms fit within time signatures like paintings fit in frames, providing a basis for a melody you can dance or clap to. 🙂
It’s wonderful being able to compose your own music or to play and sing familiar songs written by other people. Having composed music since at least the age of seven myself, I thoroughly enjoy crafting and shaping a new piece, nurturing it slowly into life on the piano keys. I also enjoy playing and singing other people’s music by ear, most often by listening to it many times from a CD or digital recording.
But what about writing all your self-created music down, or recreating others’ music from reading it off a page? That’s where music notation comes in, and where you have to make use of something called the grand staff.
The Grand Staff
Image Credit: Piano-Lessons-Made-Simple.com. I used this image as the basis for my example images in this post. (Thank you Photoshop for having a “music note” graphic!)
This is one of the more familiar forms of music notation, using this system of lines and the spaces between the lines.
The curvy thing with what looks like a “:” out to the side is called the bass clef, and it marks where all the notes that are below Middle C should be notated.
Together, the treble clef group of lines and the bass clef group of lines form the grand staff, joined together by that big curly brace on the left side of the above image. Using the grand staff, you can write notations for any kind of vocal, instrumental, or piano piece.
Which Notes Go Where?
In this notation system, every line and space represents a note on the keyboard. The following graphic shows which notes go in the spaces, which notes go in the lines, and then which notes fall between the treble and bass clefs’ lines.
From this diagram, you can see that the bottom space on the treble clef is where you would write an F above middle C, and the bottom line is where you would write an E above middle C, and so on. In the bass clef, the top line is where you would write an A below middle C, and the top space is where you would write a G below middle C, and so on.
To remember which notes go in the lines and spaces, here are the acronyms and memory sentences my music teachers taught me:
- F A C E = The spaces in the treble clef, bottom to top
- Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF) = The lines in the treble clef, bottom to top
- All Cows Eat Grass (ACEG) = The spaces in the bass clef, bottom to top
- Great Big Dogs Fight Always (GBDFA) = The lines in the bass clef, bottom to top
In between the treble clef’s lines and the bass clef’s lines, you have more room for notation. There’s D above middle C, which hangs below the bottom line in the treble clef, and B below middle C, which sits above the top line in the bass clef…and lastly, Middle C. (I noted Middle C twice in this graphic because it can be written as part of the bass clef or treble clef–it’s kind of like the number 0, sitting in between the positive integers and negative integers in math.)
Identifying Notes in Sheet Music: A Little Self-Quiz
Using the identification chart in the last section, you can start picking out which notes are which, like in the example below:
Next Week: How Long Do You Hold These Notes?
Next time, we’ll be looking at note time values, also known as “hold this note for one beat, hold this one for four beats,” etc. This is where the rhythm part of music notation comes into play! 🙂
I may be able to pick up melodies quickly and compose my own piano/vocal music, but I sure don’t sight-read well. Even after many years of musical study, I still sometimes have to squint at the page and use the old sight-reading tricks, like “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, “F-A-C-E”, “All Cows Eat Grass”, etc., to remember which notes are which. And sight-reading a piano piece, trying to play both staffs together? Forget it. It’ll be a hot mess, especially if I’ve never heard the song before. Having to produce music based on something visual is definitely not natural for me.
But sight-reading doesn’t have to be a stumbling block forever, as I’ve found out! Scroll down to discover a few tricks I’ve picked up to help me play along a little faster (pun intended).
#1: Look at Sheet Music for Songs You Know Really Well
Don’t dismiss this as pointless before you try it! Since you already instinctively know how the melody “goes” and what the rhythm does, it’s much easier to read a known song’s sheet music. Sites like OnlinePianist and MusicNotes have sheet music for even very current popular music–find a song you know, and start putting the notes and rhythms in your head with the marks on the page.
#2: Memorize At Least One Note’s Position
#3: Practice Notating The Chorus of Your Favorite Song
This works as both ear training and sight-reading training. First, sketch out a quick grand staff (you can use the one in the image above as a guideline), then listen to your favorite song, and mess around on an instrument of your choice until you find the starting note of the chorus. Mark the line or space where it belongs, and then move on to the next note and the next until you’ve noted the whole melody.
Once you have the pitches marked out, then you can go back and add in the correct rhythm value for the notes, such as quarter note, eighth note, etc. Here’s my example for a favorite song of mine:
Sight-reading can be a huge pain, but these 3 tips have helped me inject a little fun into practicing this skill. Try any or all of them out for yourself, and let me know what has helped you the most!