There Need Not Be Two Camps

Posted on November 15, 2010


When it comes to reading music I see musicians being divided into 2 camps, readers and non-readers. I ask myself why? Music notation is one of the “constants” in life. How many things can you say are constant? Music notation is constant, a B quarter note will always be a B quarter note. This is good because it means you will only need to learn it once. Once, that’s it, it will not change.

How cool is it too that music notation can be the secret language between musicians. We need not even speak the same language to read a song together. We don’t need to speak the same language to play a song together either. Music is the universal language and I think the beauty of that is sometimes overlooked.

To start you on your way to relief from the bondage of notational nightmares we need to talk about the staff and how it is set up, pitch and rhythm. On a side note, I could not recieve my degree from Berklee without first being able to spell rhythm correctly.

Located below are five lines and within those lines, 4 spaces. We are going to turn these 5 lines and 4 spaces into notation paper. These alone are called the staff.

Reading music is like reading a map, you just need to know what the symbols stand for and you can find your way. One of the first symbols is the bass clef which is also known as the “F” clef. This is what you will see first on the staff. It is called the “F” clef because the dot sits on the F line and the 2 circles encircle the F line. This is a good anchor note. If you forget all other notes just count above or below from this point.

Next you will see the Time Signature, this is the 4 placed on top of the other 4. The time signature in music can change, I will be covering that in a later article but for now I just want to focus on what we call the “common time”, 4/4. This time signature can also be represented by the letter C at the beginning of the music. This C stands for “common time”.

The top number tells us there are 4 beats in every measure and the bottom number tells us, because it is a 4, that the quarter note gets 1 beat. When I start to talk about rhythm  this will make a lot more sense.

I mentioned above the word “measure”. A measure of music is what is contained between the horizontal lines drawn onto the staff. The 1st measure of music is located right at the beginning and starts after the key signature. These lines are called bar lines or measure lines. 

Let us look now at the staff with all these bells and whistles included.


We are on to the final preparation and what I consider the most important thing to remember when reading music. At any given time in your practice of reading music you only need to ask yourself 2 questions. What is the pitch and what is the rhythm?

Pitch = What note do I play?

Rhythm = How long do I play it?

That’s it! Remind yourself to just take one note at a time and ask yourself those 2 questions. That is all it takes to get started. Practice slowly at first. Do not forget that your fingers and eyes and brain are all trying to work together here to get this thing happening and you can only go as fast as the slowest part. I have seen so many times in my years of teaching, students trying to jump in and play something too fast at first. When they slow everything down though and let themselves increase at a comfortable tempo they end up improving at a faster pace. Speed always happens, just let it happen when it feels good.


The musical alphabet runs from A to G and then starts again at A. This gets repeated for several octaves depending on your instrument. The notes on the staff ascend up in alphabetical order. While in transition trying to memorize all the notes of the staff, you can pick a few “landmark” notes to count to and away from.

Having said this we are now able to further discuss. The Pitch is the note we are playing. A, B, C, D, etc. Where the pitch is located on the staff tells us where to find it on our bass. The low E string is located below the staff, it’s the one with a line, called a “ledger line”, running through it and looks similar to a space ship. The A string is the bottom space. Our open D string is the pitch located on the 3rd line and G is in the top space.

For now, memorize these and use them as your landmark notes. My next reading post will be about locating all the notes on each string up to the 5th fret.

Here are the 4 strings as they look in notation.

I left the tab for this first example but it won’t be in the next one.


Here is our 2nd question. How long do I play it? The rhythm used in the above example is called a Whole note. The whole note lasts for 4 beats, it also takes up the whole measure and in 4/4 time their would be no room for another note.

Below is an example using  Half notes. We can think the same way we did for whole notes, in that the half note takes up half of a measure. It lasts for 2 beats. They have an open circle just like the whole note but also have a stem.

I wrote the beats of the measure that each note falls on. Count these out loud at first and then switch to counting them in your head. Eventually you will just start to “feel” the beats and hear where you are in the measure and will probably not have to count.

The last rhythm to cover, for now, is the quarter note. There are other rhythms but typically on an intro lesson these 3 are learned first. The quarter note looks similar to the half note but has a colored in note head. Since there are 4 beats in a measure of 4/4 time, there can be 4 quarter notes in each with each note taking up 1 beat.

Below is an audio sample playing through all the examples.    

Listen in MP3 Format: Bass clef open string notation and rhythms

As with most things in music, feeling comfortable with the fundamentals makes what is presented next much easier to learn. Memorize these pitches and rhythms in preparation for the next lesson. Remember that when it comes to reading and playing, you are able to play any song note at a time!


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