Music Reading for Guitarists: The Basics of Standard Notation
Welcome to the Standard Music Notation Tutorial for Guitarists
There are many advantages to being able to read music written in standard (or staff) notation. For example, It contains more information than guitar tab, enabling you to play (or at least work out) pieces of music you've never heard before. You can transcribe music that's been written for a different instrument and make a guitar arrangement of it. You can share music that you've written yourself with musicians who play a different instrument because, unlike guitar tab, standard music notation is a universal language understood by countless musicians playing a huge variety of instruments.
Work through the lessons at your convenience. Don't try to learn it all in one go. Learning to read music is like learning to read any language — it takes time and practice.
12 Standard Notation Lessons
Lesson 1: Getting Started
Lesson 2: Notes on String 2 — B, C & D
Lesson 3: Rests, Three-Four Time and Eighth Notes
Lesson 4: String 4 Notes D, E & F
Lesson 5: String 5 Notes: A, B & C
Lesson 6: String 6 Notes: E, F & G
Lesson 7: The Dotted Quarter Note
Lesson 8: Sharps and Flats
Lesson 9: More on Sharps and Flats
Lesson 10: Key Signatures
Lesson 11: More Note Durations
Lesson 12: Chords
In standard music notation, (also known as 'staff notation'), music is written down by placing symbols on or between the lines of what's known as the music staff. There are several different kinds of music staff used by various instruments. Guitar music is written on the TREBLE STAFF, shown below.
Pitch and Duration
Each of those lines and the spaces between them represent a musical pitch. Symbols representing musical notes are placed on those lines or spaces. The higher the pitch of the note, the higher up the staff it will be placed.
The shape of the symbol tells us the duration of each note in relation to the 'beat' of the music. These symbols will be introduced and memorised gradually.
The first note to learn is E, which can be played on STRING 1 - open position. As you may know, that note, E, can also be found in other places too, but let's keep it simple and play it on the open (unfretted) 1st string. (In case you don't know, that's the thinnest string).
In addition to having pitch, notes also have duration. They last a specified amount of time. The various shapes indicate how long notes should last in relation to each other. In this section, there are three symbols to learn. The different shapes of the notes represent three different relative durations, called whole note, half note and quarter note.
Time Signature and Note Durations
Next, we'll place a number symbol next to the treble clef (the fancy sign at the beginning of the staff, which is actually an ornate letter G). This two-number symbol is called a TIME SIGNATURE. They will be explained in more detail as you progress through the lessons. In the example below, you can see what's called a 'four-four' time signature. What this particular time signature means is that we count 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 as we play, giving count 1 (also called 'beat 1') a little extra stress, and that a quarter note lasts for exactly one beat, a half note lasts two beats and a whole note lasts four beats.
Bars and Barlines
As the time signature is 'four-four', A vertical line is drawn after every 4th beat, (called a bar line), after which we start counting again. The space between the bar lines (where the notes appear) is called a bar or a measure, and with this '44' time signature, the note durations in each measure will always add up to four quarter notes, or, if you prefer, a whole note.
Just play that open E string to match the beat numbers shown below. Those numbers are there to help you count accurately in this example. In real music there are no numbers, but you'll find that you don't need them after you've practised a few times. If you're playing with a plectrum, you can use all downstrokes or you can alternate up and down strokes, depending on what level of guitar playing you've reached. If you're a fingerstyle player, then you should alternate between your index and middle fingers to play the notes.
How quickly you count the beats is up to you, unless there's a tempo indication given, telling you how fast you should count the beats. Otherwise, count at a speed or tempo that you find comfortable. Just make sure that you don't change the speed. The beats must be evenly spaced.
Next we'll mix up the durations so that you'll have half notes and quarter notes sharing the same measure. Every measure will add up to 4 as before, though. That's set by the time signature.
Now that you know the basic durations of whole note, half note and quarter note, it's time to introduce two new notes with different pitches. They are F on string 1 fret 1, and G on string 1, fret 3.
Now here are those three notes and durations that you've learned mixed up, exactly as they would appear in real music. Remember to count a steady 1-2-3-4 as you play.
So far, you've played notes that last 1, 2 and 4 beats. If we want a note that lasts 3 beats, we can add a dot to a half note. Adding a dot to any note increases its duration by half of the original value. So, if a half note equals 2 beats, a dotted half note equals 2 + 1, or 3 beats.
This concludes lesson 1 of the standard music notation tutorial. We've covered quite a few topics so far, and you should now have an understanding of the basics, including: the treble staff, the notes E, F & G on the staff, the "four-four" time signature and note durations of whole note, half note, dotted half note and quarter note. Play through the exercises as often as you need while counting the beats (1-2-3-4) aloud until you understand everything. When you feel that you are starting to play the exercises from memory, it's time to move on as it means you are no longer reading them and that they have served their purpose. Now you can confidently move on to lesson 2.
Notes on String 2: B, C & D
In lesson 2, we'll have a look at the notes: B, which is found on string 2 when played open, C, which is on fret 1, and D, which is on fret 3. We'll also cover the two notes on string 3, which are: G on the open string and A on fret 2.
Now we can add those new notes to the three already covered in lesson 1 (E, F & G). Notice that symbol that looks likes a letter C (but actually originates from a semi-circle). It's a commonly-used abbreviation for the 4/4 time signature that you learned earlier.
Another thing to be aware of is the small numbers in the next-to-last measure. They are fingering suggestions. You sometimes see them in actual guitar music. In this case it tells you to use finger 4 to play the note G instead of finger 3. As the next note is also on fret 3 but on string 2, it's more efficient to use finger 4 for the G note and finger 3 for the D note. Jumping across to the next string with the same finger is less efficient.
The Repeat Sign
The following example introduces the repeat sign at the end. Play until you reach the repeat sign, then go back and play it all again (making sure to keep in time and not miss a beat).
The Notes G & A on String 3
- G is on string 3 open
- A is on string 3 fret 2
Notice that G sits on the line that the treble clef sign is curled around. That's because, as mentioned in lesson 1, the treble clef is in fact a fancy-looking letter G, intentionally placed around the second bottom line to fix that pitch as G.
All the Notes Learned So Far
Here are G & A plus all the other notes weve covered until now. As you can see, the note 'stems' point upwards because they are positioned below the vertical middle of the staff. Sometimes we follow a different rule concerning stem direction, but more on that later.
The numbers 5 & 8 are bar or measure numbers. Bar numbers are often included in music scores.
This concludes lesson 2. Practise the exercises until you can instantly find and play the notes without missing any beats. When you're ready, move on to lesson 3.
Rests, Three-Four Time and Eighth Notes
Rests in music are periods of silence. They have durations equivalent to notes. This lesson introduces musical rests of whole note, half note and quarter note duration.
To play this example with rests, make sure you mute the previous note to stop it sounding through the rest.
And now a new time signature. Three-four time (shown as 34) has 3 quarter note beats per bar or measure. Note that the whole note is too long for this time signature. However, the symbol for the whole note rest can be used and means a whole measure rest. Just make sure you remember to count it as 3 beats and not 4 beats when the time signature is 34.
Eighth notes and Eighth Note Rests
Now it's time to learn another very important note duration - the eighth note. As its name suggests, the eighth note has a duration half as long as a quarter note. Another way to look at it is that two eighth notes last as long as one quarter note.
The eighth note looks like a quarter note but with a 'flag' attached to its stem. Eighth notes can be joined (beamed) together for easier readability. In the figure above, both stems of the pair are pointing down, even though the first one (being below the middle line) would usually point upwards.
Groups of eighth notes are beamed (depending on the time signature) so that we can see where the beats fall. It makes counting in time a lot easier if we can see the notes grouped into beats. Here's how they're grouped using time signatures of 34 and 44. In 34, there are three pairs, and each pair equals a quarter note beat. In 4/4 we want to see where the midpoint of the measure is, so we can beam the first four together into one group and the remaining four can be beamed into another group.
How to count eighth notes
To count eighth notes (in the time signatures covered so far) we count them in pairs and say ONE - and - TWO - and THREE - and, etc., as the diagram below shows.
To finish, here's an 18th century French folksong featuring eighth notes. As a visual aid, the first few bars show the count. These are never shown in actual music scores.
String 4 Notes D, E & F
This lesson introduces the notes D, E & F on the 4th string. Here's how those notes look on the staff.
Now look at the notes arranged musically. Play and repeat until you know them and can recognise them instantly.
The next exercise is an arpeggio, meaning a chord with notes being played individually. It's fine to let the notes ring out beyond their written duration. This enables the notes to blend and produce the sound of the chord.
Notice that the repeat sign comes before the last measure, Play to the repeat sign, return to the start and play to the end, past the repeat sign.
String 5 Notes: A, B & C
Lesson 5 introduces three new notes: A, B & C. These can be found on the 5th string on frets 0, 2 & 3, respectively. These notes are so low in pitch that they exceed the range of the treble staff, so small 'ledger lines', are placed below the staff whenever needed.
The Scale of C Major
This exercise uses just one of those notes, which is C on string 5, fret 3, with your 3rd finger. This exercise is the C major scale: C D E F G A B C ascending and descending.
The Scale of A (Natural) Minor
Here are the other two notes, A & B. This exercise is the scale of A natural minor. The notes are easy to remember as they comprise the first seven letters of the alphabet and ending with the next higher A:
- A B C D E F G A
Here's another arpeggio. Again, where practical, let the notes sound longer than their written duration, so they'll combine to produce the chord. Hold the chord shapes throughout each measure for each measure and play the strings in the order shown.
String 6 Notes: E, F & G
This lesson introduces the lowest natural notes of the guitar in standard tuning. They are the notes E, F & G on frets 0, 1 & 3 of the 6th string. Because they're so low-pitched, even more ledger lines are needed, which makes them more difficult to read. Make up some exercises of your own to practise.
Here they are again with notes of the 5th string included.
The Dotted Quarter Note
This lesson introduces the dotted quarter note. As with the dotted half note, the dotted quarter is a quarter note extended by half of its duration. A quarter note equals two eighth notes, so a dotted quarter note will have the same duration as three eighth notes. As the example shows, note 2 is played on the "&" between beats 2 and 3.
Here's the dotted quarter note put to great use in Ode to Joy, a famous melody taken from Beethoven's 9th symphony.
To play the next piece, you need to learn a new note: A on string 1 fret 5. This time its pitch is too high for the staff so an upper ledger line is needed.
And here's a chance to use it in the traditional Welsh song 'All through the night'. If you've never heard the song before, play it at a slow to moderate speed (tempo).
Sharps and Flats
So far we have covered all the 'natural' notes that can be found within the first position (first four frets) of the guitar. The fretted notes that we have so far ignored are the sharp/flat notes. They are named after their neighbouring 'natural' notes but with the addition of the word sharp, if it's higher in pitch than the neighbouring note, or flat if it's lower in pitch.
- The symbol for sharp is ♯
- The symbol for flat is ♭
In text, we place the symbol after the note, such as G♯, D♭, but in notation, the symbol is placed before the note.
As the notes not yet covered each have two neighbours, they can be named in two ways. For example, the note on string 1 fret 2, is higher than F on fret 1 but lower than G on fret 3, so it can be called F sharp or G flat. The name that is used in any piece of notated music depends on the musical context. In a piece of music in the key of G major, it will be called F♯.
If you don't know why this is the case (but want to know), you need to learn about how scales are constructed. This article: major scales can explain it.
If there's no musical context, then it doesn't matter which name we choose to call it by.
Here's an example where it must be called F sharp and not G flat. It's the G major scale. This example covers two octaves,from low G on string 6, fret 3, through G on the open 3rd string, up to G on string 1 fret 3.
Here's F sharp in the song Scarborough Fair. Look for it in bar 7. Use your second (fretting hand) finger to play it. The reason that it's called F sharp and not G flat is that the song is in a musical mode called A Dorian, which is a scale composed of the notes:
- A B C D E F# G A.
More on Sharps and Flats
In this lesson, you'll learn more about how sharps and flats affect notes. The first thing to know is that a sharp or a flat sign will affect not just the note that it's placed in front of but all following notes in the same bar unless contradicted by a different accidental on the same staff position as follows:
If we want to revert back to a normal unaffected note before the end of the measure, a 'natural sign' is used. Like the other accidentals (sharp and flat) a natural sign will affect all notes on the same staff position that come after it but before the bar line.
The next piece to try is the old English song, Greensleeves. Notice how it starts on beat 3 instead of beat 1. That's called a pick up measure or pick up bar. Count the first 2 beats and start playing on beat 3. As you can also see,the last measure contains only two beats. That's done to make up for the incomplete first bar. Between them they make a complete bar of 3 beats as determined by the time signature.
Two new notes are brought in too, B flat on string 3, fret 3. and C sharp on string 2 fret 2.
Moving up the fretboard
At this point, you've covered all the notes found within the first four frets, or first position of the guitar. To expand your reach in order to play the same notes and some new ones higher up the fretboard, see my article:
Flats and sharps also occur as key signatures. A key signature is a number of sharps or flats (never both) placed at the beginning of every staff system on the page. They tell you to automatically make every occurrence of that note sharp or flat as required. The number of sharps or flats in a key signature can range from zero to seven.
Music written in a particular key will use the key signature that is always associated with that key.
For example, a song in the key of G major will use the key signature of one sharp (F sharp) because the G major scale contains just that one sharp. It saves having to put the sharp sign in front of the note F every time and makes for a cleaner page and easier reading
Here's how key signatures are arranged on the staff. Don't try to memorise them, they're just provided for reference. You will learn key signatures gradually as you explore notated music from any sources you find..
Exercises with Single Sharp and Flat Key Signatures
Try these next exercises that are in two common keys (G major and D minor). Their respective key signatures are one sharp and one flat.
Notice that there are accidentals (B natural and C sharp) in the D minor example. Music in minor keys often has sharped 6th and 7th scale notes. That's one handy way of determining that the key is D minor and not F major. Another clue is that it ends on the note D.
More complex key signatures can be attempted as you gain confidence and fluency, The article: Sight Reading for Guitarists: Key Signatures provides more practice material.
More Note Durations
Earlier you saw how adding a dot to a note increases its duration value by half. We can also extend notes by using ties. Here's an example of a tie. The first note is played for its own durational value plus the duration of the note (or notes) that it's tied to.The tied notes aren't played - just counted.
There are also shorter note durations, such as 16th notes, 32nd notes and 64th notes. These are shown by adding more flags or beams to the note stem. As the names suggest, a 16th note is half as long as an 8th note but twice as long as a 32nd note and so on.
What's important is not the actual duration of the notes, but that the notes are the right length in relation to each other. Unless you're playing with other musicians, you can choose a speed (tempo) that is comfortable to play the shortest duration notes contained within the music you're playing.
Here's an exercise based on the scale of C major. Play it at any comfortable tempo at first and then try to gradually increase your reading speed. Watch out for the ties.
To show chords in notation, the notes are stacked vertically.
Mixing Chords and Notes
It's common in guitar music to play a mixture of chords and notes. The chords supply the harmony while the single notes can be melodic phrases or bass runs or just short licks used as fillers.
In the example below, the music is in two parts. There is a lower bass part, with downward pointing stems, and an upper part of chords and melody notes with upward pointing stems.
Chord reading needs a lot of practice. For more reading practice material see
Sight Reading for Guitarists: How to Read Chords in Standard Notation.
To end this tutorial, here's a guitar waltz by the classical guitar composer Aguado with chords and melody notes. Roman numerals are there to indicate the fretboard positions. III--- means play the note B on string 3 fret 4 with 2nd finger, and play the note D as usual on string 2 fret 3, but with your 1st finger.
In section 2, you also have to play the note G on string 4 fret 5. The section showing III - II - I means start in 3rd position to play (B & D) and then slide to 2nd position for the notes A sharp and C sharp. Then finish in 1st position to play the notes A & C. Notice how the tempo can be slowed at that point for greater effect.
As this piece was written for classical guitar, players using a pick won't be able to play certain notes together as they're not on adjacent strings. Feel free to fill in (or omit) any notes of the chords to make them playable with a pick.
This concludes this basic music reading tutorial for guitarists. Obviously, there's a lot more to learn, and you can find more in-depth articles that focus on specific aspects of standard music notation from the links below or on my HubPages profile.
The most important thing to do if you want to become a fluent reader is to find as much notated music as possible and try to play it. Lots of practice is essential. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.