I don’t feel that knowing how to read music is necessary to becoming a good ukulele player, but a little time and effort in this area will open a lot of doors to resources that already exist in standard notation.
The Musical Staff
The staff is the framework that all music notation sits on. It is made up of 5 horizontal lines that run along the page.
At the beginning of every staff is the clef. The clef can be several things, but the most common type is the treble clef and bass clef, sometimes together (when shown together they are known as the “grand staff” and the treble clef is on the top5 lines and the bass clef is on its own 5 lines below).
The treble clef is used for ukulele music. Because the uke’s high range fits onto this staff easily, there’s no need to use an additional bass staff. A treble clef ends in a curl around the G note line so you can always find where you are.
To the very right of the clef is the key signature. This shows which notes in the music are modified to fit the key. There are 12 key signatures, each made up of different amounts of either sharp or flat signs. If it looks like there isn’t a key signature, the piece is in the key of C major which has no sharps or flats to display.
To the right of both the clef and key signature is the time signature. This shows how the song is counted and how many notes fit in each bar. This has several options too (see below).
Notes are represented on the staff as dots. A note can be on a line or a space.
The notes on the lines – starting with middle C on a ledger line below the staff – from bottom to top are: C E G B D F. If you added more ledger lines, the notes on the lines would continue with A and C (after C it all repeats, even with more ledger lines). The notes in spaces are (starting with D in between the C ledger line and staff): D F A C E G (above staff) B (above first ledger line). The names of the spaces repeat starting with the D above the second ledger line. As you can see, some notes have their stems pointing up and others, down. This helps fit everything on the staff easier.
If you add more ledger lines on the bottom, you start going into the bass clef range, but it’s still is easier to add a few ledger lines below then to work with the top 1/4 of the bass clef. Those extra lower ledgers are handy if you are notating a low-G tuned ukulele. The extra natural notes (more on that in a bit) would look like this:
Accidentals – Sharps, Flats, and Naturals:
So far we’ve only covered natural, or non-altered (the C major scale), notes. But by adding these special signs (accidentals) to the left of a note, we can reach all of the in between notes. A sharp sign looks like a pound sign: # and is instructions to raise the note a half step (one fret). A flat sign looks like a weirdly proportioned lower-case b and lowers the note a half step (one fret). There is also a natural sign that returns an altered note to it’s natural state. Here are the three accidentals in front of some notes (sharp, flat, natural):
It would be a pain to have to read those note-altering signs all of the time. So somebody clever came up with a key signature. A key signature goes at the beginning of a line (see “the staff” above) and is a preloaded amount of accidentals that tell you what notes are altered all the way through the song (or parts of). The keys notated with sharps are shown here:
The key of C has neither sharps or flats so don’t think of it as either. It just so happened that it landed in the sharps diagram. Anyways, here are the keys with flats:
So when reading key signatures apply the appropriate sharps or flats to the notes you play, unless they are:
Officially, an accidental is really a note that is out of the said key you are playing in (B natural would be an accidental if you are playing in the key of F). However, the sharp, flat, and natural signs need a common name, so they get called accidentals as well. The reason for this though is a close relationship between the two. A sharp, flat, or natural sign is used to designate the accidental notes (by raising or lowering them one step so that they are out of key). Once a note is designated accidental by the appropriate sign, it stays accidental throughout the measure the sign appears in. So you don’t need to add a sharp sign to five G#s in a row if you are in the key of C, just the first one. However, if you need that accidental note to return to its original state before the measure ends, you can add a natural sign in front of it:
The tab for Csardas is a good example of accidentals if you look for them (the 2nd, 6th, and 18th measures should give you a good idea how this concept works).
The time signature (see “the staff” above), indicates two things:
- How many beats are in a measure (the top number) and
- What note counts as one beat (the bottom number)
By far the most common time signature is 4/4 time so we’ll use it as an example. The top number is 4 so that means there are 4 beats in a measure (1…2…3…4…1…2…3…4…etc….). The bottom number – 4 – shows that a quarter note is what’s used to count. Some other time signatures:
- 2/4 – two quarter notes to a measure
- 3/4 (waltz time) – three quarter notes to a measure
- 6/8 – six eighth notes to a measure (Journey’s “Lights” is in 6/8)
Sometimes 4/4 is shown with a “C” for common time and sometimes 2/4 is shown as “¢” for cut time.
Measures and Repeat Signs:
A piece of music is (usually) divided into measures. Each measure is represented as a vertical line that cuts through the rest of the staff. Here are two empty measures (the measure lines that divide them are highlighted):
Each measure is filled with the equivalent of total beats the time signature indicates (any combination of notes or rests that adds up to the correct number of beats).
Another symbol that functions as a measure is a repeat sign. A repeat sign is made up of a fat vertical line, a smaller vertical line, and two dots that straddle the middle line on the staff. There are two kinds: ones that face right and ones that face left. It tells you to go back and repeat a certain section. They look like this:
A right-facing repeat sign should be ignored when you pass it. A left-facing repeat sign tells you to go back to either the beginning of the piece or to the last right-facing repeat sign you past and repeat the part in between. Here you would play through the first three measures, then go back and play the two between the repeat signs again, then continue on:
Okay, now to fill the measures. When you see a piece of music, the notes tell you two things:
- What pitch to play (already covered)
- How long to play that pitch (read on…)
All of these note durations take up the same amount of space in any time signature, but it will be easiest to explain in 4/4. Notice that each additional note duration is half of the previous.
A whole note is the longest note duration. It takes the space of 4 counts, so in 4/4 time it fills a measure all by itself. A whole note is the only duration without a “stem” and it’s dot is hollow:
A half note is the next longest duration. It takes the space of 2 counts, so in 4/4 time it fills half a measure. It is hollow, but has a stem:
A quarter note is the next duration. It takes the space of 4 counts, so in 4/4 time it fills a quarter of a measure. When you count “1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4” you are counting in quarter notes. It is a solid dot with a stem:
An eighth note is the next duration and also the point where you have to start dividing counts into smaller pieces. It takes the space of 8 counts, but since there are only 4 beats in our 4/4 example, think of it as 4 counts divided in half. You are still counting “1,2,3,4”, but there is an added “and” in between each count to double things (the “and” is usually shown with a plus sign – +). So now you are counting “1and2and3and4and”. The numbers fall in the same place they would if you were counting quarter notes, but the “and”s fall in between. An eighth note looks like a quarter note, but with a little “flag” added to the top of it’s stem. Or, if there are eighth notes next to each other, the flags blend into a bar across the top of the stems:
A 16th note divides an eighth in half and is a 1/16 of a measure (if you are in 4/4). The counts need to be divided again, so you end up with “1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a”. A 16th note looks like an eighth note, but has two flags – or bars when linked:
There are also 32nd and 64th notes. These both continue to divide up the measure into more and more pieces (these are really hard to count). A 32nd note has three flags or bars on its stem and a 64th has four.
One more thing about note durations: dotted notes. You can add a little dot to the right side of any note to increase the note’s duration by half. So a dotted note is like a 1½ note. This idea can be used to swing the rhythm of a piece. Here is a dotted eighth note and a 16th note:
Together they add up to a quarter note. The dotted eighth can be thought of as eighth and a 16th (half of an eighth note is a 16th), plus the 16th equals two eighth notes, equals one quarter. Yay! Math can be applied to music too!
There are also double dotted notes. They aren’t very common, but work on the same principles and divide and add the duration of the dot. So with double dots it’s: add half and then half again.
A tie is a curved line that links two notes together. These two tied notes are always the same pitch (if they are of a different pitch it’s called a slur, which would be interpreted as an articulation of some kind). That’s because the tied notes are only played once, but last for the duration of both notes combined. This is how odd-ball durations are noted when a dotted note won’t fit. Or also, a tie can spread a note across multiple measures. You can also tie multiple notes together – as double stops and chords and as longer durations (so if you needed a note that sustained through two measures, you would tie two whole notes together across the two measures).
The first eighth note is tied to a 16th, half, and another 16th. This would add up to being a dotted half note (3 beats). The quarter note tied with the whole note will sustain through the end of the measure to equal a length of a whole note plus a quarter note. Sometimes ties are used when a bigger note duration would just be easier (for example, tying a half and a quarter note instead of just using a dotted half). I’m not sure what the thinking is behind this.
Same exact concept as note durations, except a rest doesn’t make any sound. A quarter rest lasts as long as a quarter note, but it’s silent. Here are the rests and their durations:
Again, there are 32nd and 64th rests. Just add extra “swoops” to a 16th rest.
A couple of tips to remember the big rests that look similar:
- Whole rests look like there is a “hole” dug out of the line it’s on.
- Half rests look like a top-hat sitting on the line (half, hat, get it?…)
Multiple Repeat Endings:
Sometimes a repeat sign can be used to play part of the repeat but have a different ending each time. These repeat endings are shown with a line over the measure that is the different ending. There is also a number nestled underneath the line showing what order the endings go in.
So with that example, you would play through the two measures inside the repeat signs (first repeat ending). Then go back to the first repeat sign like you normally would. Play the first measure, but then skip the 1st repeat ending and jump to the one marked “2”. This is your second repeat ending and from here you would carry on… There can be many different repeat endings stuck on the end of a repeat section.
Dynamic signs show you what volume to play the notes at. The dynamic signs are based off of Italian words and are “piano” (p), “forte” (f), and “mezzo” (m). Piano means to play soft, forte means to play loud, and mezzo mean moderately. Those dynamic directions can be arranged in a combination to fit whatever dynamic situation might be faced. So two pianos together mean “very soft”, two fortes together mean “very loud”, and adding mezzo to the mix can get results like mezzo-forte (moderately loud) and mezzo-piano (moderately soft), etc… So from soft to loud, here are the most commonly used dynamic symbols:
They are shown under the staff and change the volume level from the note they are under onward (until you reach the next dynamic marker).
There are lots of Italian terms for tempos and they can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempo#Basic_tempo_markings
However, nowadays the more common tempo marker looks like this:
The number tells how many beats per minute (BPM) and the little note shows where the click would land (in this case there would be 4 clicks a measure – quarter note). BPM is a metronome term. If you were to set a metronome for whatever BPM the tempo marker shows, you would end up with the same tempo as the song.
There are different note durations that can be shown and different groupings for different feels. I’m not to familiar with them yet, so refer to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempo#Beats_per_minute
Fermata (birds eye) – Tells you to hold the note longer than the duration states. It looks like a half circle with a dot in the middle. A fermata can face up or down depending on what way the note stem goes:
8va – Tells you to play the note one octave higher than written. This can be helpful when you have a lot of ledger lines that you would like to get rid of. Just put them all under “8va” and bring the note down an octave. With the 8va this C is played on the A string, 3rd fret.
Accents – Put extra emphasis (volume) on these notes. There are two kinds: normal and heavy. Play a normal accent louder than the rest of the notes and a heavy accent even louder. Normal accent on the left, heavy accent on the right:
Staccato – These kinds of notes have a little dot below them (or above if the stem is flipped). It means to stop the note as soon as it is played so that it has little or no sustain. Just a “pop” (staccato means “detached” in Italian).
Hopefully that makes sense. It’s just the basics, but should get you familiar with what’s going on in a piece of written music.
It’s one thing to understand sheet music, but quite another to be able to “read” it. When you hear someone talk about being able to read, most likely they mean being able to play the piece sight-unseen (or unheard) just from the sheet. Like everything else, you’ve got to practice this skill. I’ve have heard all over the place that the best way to practice is to get some flute music or violin music and just go at it.
There is obviously much more to music notation than I presented here, so a trip to the library might be in order. I found How to Read Music: Fundamentals of Music Notation Made Easy an insightful book. It’s got lots of visual examples and is explained in a simple format.