How to Read Music Notes: Intro to Written Music

Music notation (written music) isn’t music… at least not yet.

Before embarking on our journey toward learning how to read music notes, we first need to clarify our understanding of what written music really is, and its role in the music-making process. Now that we have an overview of how the staff works, it’s time to take a step back and try to gain a better perspective on the whole idea and purpose of written music.

What Music Notation Is (And What It Isn’t)

Written music is simply a set of instructions about how music should be played or performed. It’s not actually music, at least not until someone follows those instructions and turns them into sound.

In this way, it’s different than language. Language can take the form of speech or writing, but either method works just as well to convey ideas or messages. The message is what’s important, and it doesn’t matter how we receive it.

Music, on the other hand, is sound itself. Music notation that’s written down on paper is just a system of instructions with which we can make music. Even if we “hear it” in our heads, it’s not actually music yet. This may seem obvious, but it’s actually really important to appreciate.

Streamline the Reading Process

OK, so we’ve established that music notation is nothing more than a set of instructions for a particular musical piece. But what kind of instructions are we talking about?

Well, there are actually hundreds, or even thousands, of possible instructions you might see on a piece of music. Here’s the good news, though: it’s possible to simplify this giant mess of symbols and indications into just a few basic types of musical information. Here’s how it works –

All the various instructions we might find in written music can be organized into three simple categories:

     1) What to play (which notes to play)

     2) When to play

     3) How to play the notes (including the type of sound to use) 

That’s all there is to it.  Any indications on a piece of sheet music, whether they’re various kinds of musical symbols, or words in (sometimes) foreign languages, will fall into one of these 3 general categories:

Notation example with various types of musical instructions

Learning how to read music notes really means learning to understand and interpret these 3 basic types of instructions at once: the what, the when, and the how. At first, this is a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach at the same time. But with practice and conditioning, it eventually becomes second nature.

One Step at a Time

The best way to improve your reading is to first focus on each skill separately. And that’s exactly how we’re going to approach it. Here’s an overview of the step-by-step process we’re going to use to learn how to read music notes:

Step 1 – First we will learn all about the “what” of music – which notes to play. This includes learning which notes correspond to the lines and spaces of the staff. This is the pitch aspect of music

Step 2 – Next we will learn rhythm, the “when” of music. This includes how fast to play, when to play, how long to hold each note, and more.

Step 3 – The final step in the process of learning how to read music notes will be the last area of music notation, the “how”.

Some examples of “how” to play music would include whether it should be played loudly or quietly (known as ‘dynamics’), whether to emphasize or accent certain notes, to play notes short, long, etc. Also included in this category are indications of specific ways to play an instrument that alter the sound or tone quality, such as applying heavy distortion to an electric guitar, or using a mute on a trumpet.

All these types of instructions, and more, are included in the “how” of written music. We can view this as sort of the icing on the cake; taking the specific pitches and rhythms, and making a performance out of them. First, we learn the notes and rhythms, then we add the “how”(the dynamics, articulations, etc.), and the result is music notation that jumps off the page into the real world.

Short and To The Point

What’s pretty amazing about our music notation system is that it allows us to write music that can be as complicated as we want, in the simplest way possible. Rather than writing a 100-page thesis paper to try and explain to a group of musicians what a piece of music is supposed to sound like, every aspect of music can be notated in an extremely concise manner. It allows us to communicate very complex ideas conveniently, and with the least amount of effort.

Every symbol or mark on a sheet of music has some importance. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been put there. It’s a little bit like a blueprint for a building. Unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing, it’s probably not a good idea to ignore any little circles; they might just be the foundation pillars!
Similarly, as we’re learning how to read music notes, keep in mind that whatever musical symbols you see are usually there for a reason, and represent specific instructions about how the music should sound.

Musical Performance

The transformation from written music into actual music happens in musical performance. That’s where music begins to exist as sound, in the real world.

The same sheet music will sound at least slightly different each and every time it’s played. The particular musicians, instruments, and hall or room that it’s being played in all contribute to the final sound. That’s why we can go to the concert hall and hear a Beethoven symphony for the hundredth time, and it’s still new! Each orchestra will often have their own unique version of the same music, performed with its own personal style and flair.

Even music notation that’s filled with specific instructions nearly always has significant leeway in terms of how exactly to follow those instructions. Imagine a composer indicates for the music to be played “aggressively”. Well, just how aggressive is aggressive? How fast is fast?  How slow is slow?  How loud is loud?  These are the types of areas where musicians, conductors, and orchestras can give the music their own personal interpretation.


Even the same orchestra won’t sound exactly the same on any given night. It’s impossible; we’re human. And that’s part of the beauty of music. That’s why a drum machine sounds the way it does… like a machine. Variety helps make things sound fresh and new, providing us with interest every time. And interest is a big part of what makes music enjoyable to listen to.

All this is built right into our system of musical notation. It’s a basic set of musical instructions to follow, but it leaves lots of room for interpretation. The end result is a combination of an initial set of instructions, the musical choices and interpretations of the particular performer, and of course, how well the performance is actually executed.

Moving Ahead

Starting in the next lesson, we’re going to focus on the first category of musical instructions, which notes to play (Step 1). We’ll learn about clefs, ledger lines, and everything else you need to know about reading pitches on a musical staff. This will provide a rock-solid basis from which to get our music reading off the ground.

So if you’re ready to learn how to read music notes, come join me, and let’s get right to it!

Practice Quiz

Intro to Written Music Quiz

Test your knowledge of this lesson with the following quiz:

Image Attribution:
Clarinet Over Sheet Music by Timothy Swinson ©2010 CC BY-2.0
Para subir arriba by srgpicker ©2007 CC BY-2.0
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio by Jordan Fischer ©2005 CC BY-2.0