Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.
Welcome to the Standard Music Notation Tutorial for Guitarists
There are many advantages to being able to read music written in standard notation (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
Lesson 1: Getting Started
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Lesson 4: 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.
Lesson 5: 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.
Lesson 6: 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.
Lesson 7: 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.