Most people who take music lessons of some kind learn some quick and easy tips for reading the music, especially for naming the letter or pitch names that correspond to each line and each space of the music staff. The memory-helpers, or mnemonics, are constantly being revised or updated to suit students of the current day, to reflect innovations, and to share new observations that may help to enhance the practice of learning to read music.
Here is a collection of mnemonics from the past and present. Some of them have been found in lesson books for many years. A few of them have come from students of mine, and some are original with me.
Remembering the names of the letters in the music alphabet is pretty easy, right? Well, it is pretty easy when notes are named in ascending sequence; they are the first seven letters of the (verbal) alphabet: A B C D E F G. But remembering, naming, and reading the same letters in descending sequence (backwards) is probably not quite as easy or quick for the beginner. Here's how: just remember "C BAG FED." You might even sing it to yourself to the tune of "Hot Cross Buns," like this:
C C C
BAG BAG F-E-D, oh BAG
FED! FED! C-B-A-G FED!
"Everyone" knows the names of the lines in the treble staff, right? Who hasn't heard
"Every Good Boy Does Fine"? The first letters of these words name the lines of the treble staff from bottom to top, low to high (ascending). Here are some additional sayings that teach the same information and that may be easier for, or more appealing to, some students. Read them from bottom to top, since they name the lines from bottom to top. And, unless you are a teacher, there is no need to memorize more than one of them.
Fine Fudge [Fruit] Fashions Friday Filling
Does Deserves Designer Down Demand
Boy Boy Buys Broke Bins
Good Good Girl Guitar Garbage
Every Every Every Elvis's Ecological
The lines in the bass staff can be remembered with the following sayings: Again, these should be read from bottom to top and again, choose the one you like best; don't bother learning more than one!
Animals America Anything Apartments Always
Fight Fight Find Fancy Family
Dogs Did Didn't Dig Defend
Big Britain Bush Babes Babies
Great Great George Gorgeous Gopher
The names of the spaces in the treble staff couldn't be easier. "The spaces spell FACE." When you say that to yourself, emphasize the rhyme between SPACE and FACE. The names of the spaces in the bass staff can be remembered with the sayings, "All Cows Eat Grass" and "All Cars Eat Gas." If you need help remembering that FACE belongs to the treble staff, not the bass, remember that faces (on people, anyway) are up high, like the sounds on the treble staff. When cows are eating grass, their faces are low, like the sounds in the bass staff. (And don't forget that all of these sayings name the lines or the spaces from bottom to top.)
To remember the landmark lines on each staff, it can be helpful to know that the treble clef (also called the G clef) derived from a letter G that was placed on the G line (second from the bottom in the treble) to show "here is G." Notice that the curls of the clef cross many times over and around the G line. The bass clef (also called the F clef) originated from the letter F, placed on the F line in the bass to show where F is located. It is not quite so easy to see, unless a cursive F is written on a clef, and then fancied up. Just remember that the beginning dot of the "F" (the clef) is actually on the F line. And the two separate dots are on either side of the F line, one below and one above.
Landmark C's and Beyond
Speaking of landmarks, a "visual" mnemonic is created with the landmark C notes (that is, when all of the C's are placed on the grand staff), creating a kind of symmetry. This can be further developed by adding all of the F's and G's.
Middle C is "in the middle" between the treble and the bass staves (and it also has a ledger line through its middle). The first space up in the treble is F; the first space down in the bass is G. The second line up in the treble is G and the second line down in the bass is F. The third space up in the treble is C, and the third space down in the bass is C. The top line in the treble is F and the space above is G. The bottom line in the bass is G and the space below is F. Two ledger lines above the treble staff is C. Two ledger lines below the bass staff is C. Pretty cool, huh?
Another aid in remembering the names of lines and spaces is to note that the lowest line in any five-line staff is the same note as the top space, and the lowest space is the same note as the top line. In the treble staff, these pairs are E and E' and F and F'. In the bass these pairs are two G's and two A's. Also notice that the first (lowest) space of the grand staff is A, the first letter of the music alphabet.
When all is said and done, it's not really necessary to remember four or five little sayings in order to remember the pitch names when reading music. (This upcoming tip is best for older or more experienced musicians.)
It is only necessary to remember one mnemonic IF you understand the way the staff works. The lines and spaces simply represent the various pitches in their music-alphabetical order, repeated a couple of times; the pitch names move in order from bottom to top, moving from a space to the next line to the next space to the next line to the next space, etc. Since the order of pitches is always the same, there will always be the same alternation of pitch names. You can choose any saying, any mnemonic to remember. For example, if you really like to remember "Every Grandma Bakes Delicious Fudge," a saying that corresponds to the pitch names of the lines in the treble staff, you can also use it to remember the lines in the bass staff – by starting it on the first ledger line below the staff. Add the word "always" at the end, and you have the top line in the bass staff or the first ledger line above the treble staff.
Expand One Saying to Both Treble and Bass
If you prefer to remember F – A – C – E, you can use it in the bass as well as in the treble. This pattern begins on the space below the first (lowest) line in the bass and then names the first three spaces of the staff. But since FACE ends with E, the very next letter of course is F. That will name the line (fourth) immediately above the E (third space), and then the A-C-E will name the next line above the F, as well as the two ledger lines that come afterward. (The E of this repetition of the pattern is the lowest E in the treble staff, the one that is often remembered with the "Every" of "Every Good Boy Does Fine.")
For those who have trouble remembering the difference between sharps and flats, these reminders may be helpful. A sharp has many little projections, like sharp points. When you sit on something sharp, like a tack, you will jump up. A sharp will raise its note up a half-step, like someone who sat on something sharp.
A flat looks like a b that has been squished flat. When a tire is flat, it goes down. A flat will make its note go down a half-step, like a flat tire.
Another mnemonic will help you remember the order in which the flats and the sharps are added in the key signature. The order of sharps is exactly the reverse of the order of flats.
Even though the sharp keys are often taught first, the flats are easier to remember because they start with a recognizable word: B-E-A-D. The next three, the last possible flats, are the names of the first three keys that most students learn about: G, C, and F. [The major key with no sharps or flats is in the middle, preceded by the key with one sharp and followed by the key with one flat.] So, if the key signature contains seven flats (a rare, but occasional occurrence), the flats will appear in this order in the key signature: B-E-A-D-G-C-F. Key signatures containing sharps will add them in the following order, which is the exact reverse of the order of flats: F-C-G-D-A-E-B.
No matter how many or how few sharps or flats there are, they will show up in the key signature in the order listed here. Four sharps would be F, C, G, and then D. Three flats would be B, E, and A.
Guitar students may need some help remembering the names of the strings (and the names of the lines of tablature, which are the same). From low to high, i.e. from string 6 (near the face) to string 1 (near the floor), the lines are E A D G B E. They can be remembered with the saying
"Early Americans Disliked Great Britain Exceedingly."
If help is needed to remember the names of the strings in order from high to low, string 1 to string 6, remember
"Early Britons Gave Democracy Ample Experience."
If any help is needed in keeping straight which of these two sayings is which, think about the intervals between adjacent pairs of strings. All are a fourth apart, except for the B and G strings, which are a third apart. Going from low to high, G to B is a major third. Moving from high to low, G to B is a minor sixth, much larger than any interval between guitar strings. That should help you know which saying names the strings from low to high, because G precedes B in the saying "Early Americans Disliked Great Britain Exceedingly."
If you enjoy learning about musical modes, you might want to remember them with a mnemonic. Actually, what this mnemonic does is to help you remember the sequence of the roots of the modes for any given key signature. That is, if you know the Ionian mode (the major key) associated with a given key signature, just know that the other modes will use the same pitches (including altered pitches – sharped or flatted), and the roots of the modes will follow in a specific order after the root of the Ionian, like this:
A Aeolian [pron. ee-OH-lee-an]
Why "likes" instead of "loves" – doesn't Dolly Parton actually love music? Well, yes, to be honest, she does. But, if we use the word "likes" for the mnemonic, then it is a simple task to associate "li" (likes) with Lydian and "lo" (lot) with Locrian.
Here's a quick example of using this mnemonic: If you have a key signature of five sharps (F, C, G, D, A), then:
the Ionian mode (the major key) is B major [B C# D# E F# G# A# B];
the corresponding Dorian mode is C# [C# D# E F# G# A# B C#];
the Phrygian is D# [D# E F# G# A# B C# D#];
the Lydian is E [E F# G# A# B C# D# E];
the Mixolydian is F# [F# G# A# B C# D# E F#];
the Aeolian (natural minor) is G# [G# A# B C# D# E F# G#];
and the Locrian is A# [A# B C# D# E F# G# A#].
If you don't understand musical modes just yet, watch for another posting of mine that will provide some helpful information about them for beginners.
Enjoy these sayings! I hope they assist you and your friends or students in the wonderful process of learning more about reading, writing, and making music.
Osaheni O on December 01, 2019:
C, Go Down And Enter By Force helps with the major key sharps
C, Flats Becomes Easy After Direct Guide helps with Flats.
This sound easy.
Still working on minor
Jonathan on December 14, 2013:
The method I was taught to remember the order of sharps and flats in a key signature was
and reverse for the flats
Love your mode aid, I never could remember those. Thank you.
louromano on March 25, 2012:
Nice article. Excellent hub.
Wilktone on September 06, 2011:
Another one for the order of the modes, I Don't Particularly Like Music Any Longer.
Nice collection! Thanks for posting!
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on June 29, 2011:
Thank you readers! stratocarter, jpcmc, jamiesweeney - I'm glad you liked it. I am working on another installment of mnemonics, coming soon (I hope).
jamiesweeney from Philadelphia, PA on June 06, 2011:
Cool this hub.
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on April 26, 2011:
Absolutely useful! It makes music easier to remember.
stratocarter on July 19, 2010:
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on July 06, 2010:
Thank you so much for your kind words, Shalini! Oh my, the idea of a rap on the knuckles sounds really painful and hardly conducive to a good learning experience. Ouch!
Shalini Kagal from India on June 30, 2010:
You must be a wonderful teacher! I wish I'd had someone like you when I was young (many centuries ago! :D) All I got was a rap on the knuckles.
This is such a detailed and yet simple and memorable way of teaching. I'm sure you make music come alive with those mnemonics!
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on May 13, 2010:
Thank you for your kind words, Juelstephen! I do hope these tips are helpful.
I have seen - both as a student and now (especially) as a teacher - that people have different ways of learning. The observation is not original with me, of course, but it does provide some interesting study into how we learn, and how we go about trying to share our knowledge with others. My perspective, in theory at least, is that if the material is learned/absorbed and understood, it really doesn't have to be learned in MY way.
I hope some of your Hubs relate to your songwriting, perhaps sharing some of your songs?
Juelstephen from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA on May 12, 2010:
This article was an absolute gem. I am not a musician of instrumentation...
I am a songwriter. I play the keys with a modicrum of apptitude--my instructers would be furious--and have a great appreciation for those, that have an understanding of that, which I call akin.
My true instrument is the voice, which make us brethren.
Well met and be well.
An excellent hub. Excellent.