If you want to learn how to read classical sheet music, you have a few options as described in this guide.
In this guide, you will learn the basics of how to read classical sheet music which is the formal way of writing music for many different instruments.
In almost all music books that you can buy for guitar, the musical notation will be used. Many guitar books will also include Guitar TABs as well as notes.
By the end of this article, you will know enough to read music for guitar and be able to play it on guitar.
It will take some practice to be able to read classical sheet music, but this guide will explain everything you need to know to get started.
If you do not like reading, here is a video that explains what is in this article, but I advise you to read the article and then watch the video:
How do you read the musical staff?
The first thing we need to understand to read classical sheet music for guitar is the staff.
Read Classical Sheet Music – Lines and Spaces
The staff consists of five horizontal lines:
The notes are placed on or between these lines to represent the notes on the guitar.
The stave is divided into bars using vertical lines called bar lines:
The position of these bar lines depends on the number of notes in the bar and the Time Signature (we will explain later). Each bar lasts the same length of time unless the time signature tells you otherwise.
Read Classical Sheet Music – The Clef
To the far left of the stave, a symbol called a clef is used to tell you what kind of stave you will be playing.
There are four types of clef symbols that you may see used in music as shown below: G Clef (Treble), F Clef (Bass), Alto Clef, and Tenor Clef.
Guitar music is usually written using treble clefs, and bass music is usually written using bass.
In the Treble Clef or G Clef, the end of the small curve is placed on the second line, which means that this line represents the G note.
Alto and Tenor clefs are used with other instruments, so we will not look at them in this article.
Notes location on the staff
With the Treble Clef in location, we can now take a look at the locations of the notes on the staff.
A tone (or note) can be placed on each of the five lines to represent a tone as shown below:
The bottom line is E, the second line is G, the third line is B, the fourth line is D, and the fifth line is F.
We can also put notes between lines which are called spaces.
The space below the bottom line is D, the bottom line is F, the second space is A, the third space is C, the fourth space is E, and the space above the top line is G.
Here are all the notes on the stave when we combine lines and spaces:
If you count all these points, you will end up with eleven tones.
Obviously, we can play much more than eleven notes on the guitar. To solve this problem, we use different symbols to scale the stave to cover the full extent of the fretboard.
The lowest note shown above is a D below the staff. What if we wanted to play a lower note than this one?
One way we can do this is by using ledger lines, which are short lines that you add to the staff to expand it above or below the five lines.
Here are some examples of ledger lines below the staff:
We know that the lowest space below the staff is D, so the next pitch from D is C.
The distance below this ledger line is B, followed by an A on the second ledger line.
Here are some examples of Ledger lines above the staff:
The first note is on the Ledger line above the staff. We know that the highest note above the staff is G, so the next note from G is A.
The distance above this ledger line is B, followed by C on the second Ledger line.
8va and 8vb
We can extend ledger lines as much space as we have, but it can become difficult to read when using a lot of lines!
If we need to play very low or high notes on the guitar, instead of using ledger lines, we can use the symbol to ‘move’ the staff up or down an octave.
In the example below, you can see that there is “8va” and a dotted line written above the staff.
This means that each note below the dotted line must play an octave higher than what is written.
The second bar shows exactly the same four tones without writing 8va. You can see that using 8va makes these tones easier to read.
8va means ‘a higher octave’ and 8vb means ‘a lower octave’.
Finding notes on the guitar
Now that you know how to read the staff and the locations of the notes on it, let’s take a look at how to find those notes on the guitar fretboard.
Let’s start by finding the notes of the open strings on the staff.
As you can see in the figure above, open-string notes cover a wide range of the staff.
Ledger lines are used for the low E and A strings, or the sixth and fifth strings, respectively.
The first string E corresponds to the upper space of the staff. This means that each note on the E string will be higher than the staff.
Here is an example of a C Major scale played from the E (sixth) string all the way to the E (first):
I’ve included Guitar TAB below the notes so you can use it to help you learn note positions. Just remember that everything lines up vertically, so each Guitar TAB number matches the note above it.
Sharps & Flats
Now that you’ve read all the tones on the staff, it’s time to look at the notes between the notes.
For example, here are the E, F, and G notes (open string, first and third frets) on the first E string:
What if we want to play the second fret?
To show these notes between notes, we use the Sharp/Flat symbols.
The Sharp sign (looks like #) means a higher half-tone (or one fret) is played.
So to play the second note on the first E string, we use a sharp to the left of the F note to say we want to play a halftone higher than the F:
This tone is called ‘F Sharp’. It is half a tone higher than an F.
Alternatively, we can use the Flat sign (similar to b), which means playing a half tone lower.
So instead of calling the second tone F sharp, we can call it G flat because it’s half a tone lower than the G.
Whenever you see a note with a flat sign next to it, remember that you need to go down one fret to play it.
You may notice that the G-tone suddenly appears as a new symbol, this is called a Natural Sign and will be explained later.
Repeating Sharp and Flat Signs
What happens if you want to play four C# (C Sharp) notes in a row?
On the sheet music, we don’t write the sharp sign four times in a row. Instead, we write the sign the first time and assume the same note is played over the next three iterations.
In the example above, it might look like you need to play C# followed by three C notes, but it’s actually four C# notes. The sharp sign continues until the end of the bar.
If you want to continue playing C# on the next bar, you’ll see the sharp sign appear the first time C# is played again in the second bar.
Everything mentioned above also applies to flat signs. If you want to repeat a flat note, you do not need to type the sign again if it is in the same bar.
Natural note symbol
What happens if you play F#, and then want to play F after it in the same bar?
To do this, we use a Natural Sign as shown below:
The natural sign tells us to cancel the sharp or flat symbol that was used before the natural note was played (example: playing F instead of F#).
Natural is simply a way of saying ‘play the regular note without a sharp or flat’.
To understand how these work, let’s play the following notes:
You can see from the above example that the natural symbol is only used when changing from F# to F.
The natural symbol is not used in the first tone of the bar because the bar does not start with the sharp symbol (something that can happen as explained later during the section on the Key Signature).
Read Classical Sheet Music – How to read rhythm?
So far, you’ve learned how to read the notes on the staff and how to find those on the fretboard.
Now, let’s look at how long each note should be played.
Rhythm notation is the symbol used to tell us how long each note is played. Rhythm notation is so important that even the modern Guitar TAB uses it.
The shape of the points on the stave represents different lengths of tones.
Our first shape is an ellipse:
This note is called a whole note (American terms) and lasts for four counts.
Note: There are two terms for each type of note – an American term and a British term. It doesn’t matter where you live, I recommend learning both names so that you can understand all the musicians.
If there are four beats in a bar (known as 4/4 time), then the whole note will last the entire bar.
If you see a note that looks like a whole note but has a (vertical line) attached to it, this is called a Half Note.
Half-notes last two counts. The stems (the vertical line) can either point up or down to make the music appear easier to read on the paper (eg: high notes will go down and low notes will go up).
If the half-note circle is filled with black, this is a Quarter Note and lasts a single count.
Most of the time when you count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 in your head to the beat of the music, you’re counting a quart note.
If you see a black note that has stems and a tail, this is the Eighth Note and it lasts for half a count.
As you can see above, an Eighth Note can have a tail at the top of the staves, or it can be connected to another note by a small horizontal line called a beam (it can be connected to all the notes below as well).
The black note with two attached tails or beams is the Sixteenth Note and lasts for a quarter count.
By simple calculation, you can see that each type of rhythm is equal to half the length of the previous rhythm.
We can keep adding tails or beams to the beats to continue halving the length of time.
So if you see a rhythm with three tails or beams, it’s a Thirty Second rhythm and it lasts for an eighth count.
This can go on to the sixty-fourth beat and more, but you’re unlikely to see anything beyond the thirty-second beat.
Read Classical Sheet Music – Rests
All of the above symbols are used to tell you how long a note is playing. But what about when you don’t want to play a note for a certain amount of time?
Rests are used to tell you how long you are playing nothing but silence.
For each of the above rhythm symbols, there is a corresponding rest symbol.
Here are the symbols for the rests up to the sixteenth note:
When comparing previous rest symbols, look at how the symbol connects to the lines. The whole-note symbol touches the second line from the top, and the half-note symbol sits on the third line.
As you can see, the sixteenth-note rest symbol doubles the rest of the eighth note which is similar to how beams use two lines instead of one.
Any combination of the above symbols can be used in a bar as long as the total length of rests and tones is the correct number of counts (we’ll explain this later).
Read Classical Sheet Music – Dotted Note
You may notice that each new rhythm cuts the length of the previous rhythm in half. But what if we wanted to play a note of three times or a note of one and a half times?
There is a simple way to do this and it is called a Dotted Note:
By placing a dot on the side of a note or rest symbol, it means that the symbol lasts for one and a half as long as it usually lasts.
To find the length of the dotted note, you can multiply the length of the original note by 1.5.
So if the symbol is a single count (Quarter Note), the dot next to it means it plays one and a half beats (1 x 1.5 = 1.5).
If the dot is next to a half-note (2 beats), it now lasts for three beats (2 x 1.5 = 3). You can see the three-count note in the example above.
Any note or rest symbol can have a dot next to it to change its duration.
What happens if you have a 4/4 bar but you want to play three notes evenly throughout the bar?
A Tuplet is when you break down a beat into irregular values that don’t align with the normal pitch lengths.
Tuplets can get complex quickly, so I’ll keep the examples basic.
The example below shows how you can play three notes in the time of four counts:
Usually, each of the above tones lasts for two counts. This means that there will be six counts per bar – which doesn’t fit on a 4/4 time signature with only four counts per bar.
The bow and the ‘3’ under the notes tell us to play them as combos or Tuplets.
When there is a ‘3’ in the bow, this is called a Triplets, and it’s one of many different types of Tuplets and the most common you’ll see.
An easy way to think about this is that 3 tells us to play these three notes at the time of two notes. Two of these tones are 4 counts, so that’s why this bar is correct.
ِAnother example using quavers (1/8 notes):
Usually, you add three of these notes that are one and a half counts. If you count all the notes, you’ll notice that there are too many to fit in the bar (six counts and we want four).
But when Eighth Notes Triplets are played, they are played at a time of only two notes (one count).
Tuplets can get really confusing when they are grouped into numbers higher than 3, so for now, just be aware that they can exist.
How do we read the chords?
Now that you know how to read notes and rests, you can start learning music!
It’s easy to read chords in sheet music as you only need to remember one thing: when notes are stacked on top of each other, they are played at the same time.
A chord is simply a group of notes stacked on top of each other as shown below:
It will take some time to get used to reading the chords and it will be slow at first as you will need to know each note individually.
Over time, you will learn to identify the chords instantly without having to stop and learn each individual note.
Here are some popular guitar chords:
One of the drawbacks to the note is that it doesn’t tell you where to play these notes. So you need to know if these chords should be played open or bar chords.
Related article: Bar Chords For Beginners – 5 tips on how to make it easy
In sheet music, chord charts are usually placed on the first page of a song so you know what chords will be used.
In the example below, you can see that the chord charts for the song appear first (highlighted in yellow), and then the chord names are placed above the staff to help you quickly identify each chord.
Read Classical Sheet Music – Time Signature
It is important to know how many beats there are in the bar. Some songs follow a typical 4/4 beat pattern (example: 1 2 3 4 – 1 2 3 4), others use a 3-beat pattern (example: 1 2 3 – 1 2 3), while others are a little more complicated.
You can find out how many beats there are in the bar by reading the time signature at the beginning of the staff. As well as any time the rhythm changes.
In the example above, you can see that the song starts at 4/4 (we say it four four).
Take a look at the example below and what the time signature means:
The time signature tells us this time that there are three counts in the bar (the upper number) and also the time of the Whole Note is four counts. We call this time 3/4 (we say three four).
The bottom number isn’t always 4, but it’s the most common you’ll see. Here is an example of a 6/8 time:
Here the time signature tells us that there are 6 counts in the bar and that the time of the Whole Note is 8 counts. Accordingly, the half-note now takes 4 (not 2, as mentioned before), the Quarter note takes two (not one), and the Eighth-note takes one, not half count.
In the time signature, the bottom number determines the time value of the Whole Note. If the number is 4, the whole note takes 4 counts, and we measure the rest of the rhythms on that, and if the bottom number is 8, the whole note takes 8 counts, and we also measure the rest of the rhythms on that.
Changing The Time Signature In The Same Piece
The song can change the number of beats used in the bar at any time. Some styles of music (eg: jazz and heavy metal) are well known for using a lot of tempo variations.
Here’s an example from a Sonata by Paganini:
You can see that it starts with 2/4 for one bar, then goes to 4/4 for three bars, then switch again for 2/4, and then again to 4/4!
A lot of songs stick to only a one-time signature, so you will likely see only one at the beginning of the music.
But keep an eye out for any changes so you can continue to calculate the tempo correctly.
Reading the sheet music – how to read key signature?
If a song is written using the C Major scale (C D E F G A B), you are unlikely to see any sharps or flat signs.
But what if we were playing on a scale that used a lot of sharps or flat signs?
Having a lot of these notes can make it difficult to read the notes quickly. Take a look at the example below and how confusing the sharps signs are to read:
This can be hard to read because even notes without the sharps may be sharp if the sign has already been used in the bar! There are two notes above that don’t have shape signs but are still shape notes!
Fortunately, there is a different way to write music that makes it easier to read.
The Key Signature basically takes all the sharps or flat signs you use throughout the bar and places them at the start.
Here’s the example above again, but this time using the key signature:
Do you see all the sharps after the clef? This is the key signature.
What this means is that every time you see the sharp signs the key signature, it tells you to play these notes sharp from now on.
So the first sharp we see is on the top line, the F note, meaning that every time we see an F (in any octave), we need to play F# instead.
There are five sharp signs in this key signature, so there are five tones we need to remember to play them sharp instead of natural.
Here is a simpler example:
This key signature has one flat note on the middle line, which represents the B note. This tells us to play B-flat instead of B from now on.
All the other notes stay the same, but when we get to the B note, we need to remember to play B Flat.
The key signature is not always used. Sometimes the person writing the sheet music will use the shapes and flats throughout the piece, while other people will use the key signature.
Like the time signature, the key signature can change at any time, so keep an eye out for any changes.
Reading Sheet Music – How to Read Tempo
The tempo of the song is usually indicated at the beginning of any sheet of music as shown below:
This number tells us the number of beats per minute. So if the tempo mark shows 50, this means 50 beats per minute. If the tempo is 120 beats per minute, this means two counts per second.
If you want to know how fast any rhythm is, all you need is a metronome.
You can buy Metronom, but there are plenty of free apps you can use that do the same job.
The tempo of a song can change, so keep an eye on the tempo symbols throughout the music sheet.
How do you read musical symbols?
If you already know how to read the symbols used in Guitar TAB, you will find many of the symbols used in reading classical sheet music easier to read.
Below are the most common symbols you are likely to see and what they mean.
A curved line can mean two different things. If a curved line connects two notes together of the same pitch, it is called a Tie:
A Tie tells us that the second note is a continuation of the first. In other words, you keep holding that first note and you don’t play it again.
Ties can link notes together in the same bar and can also be moved to the next bar as shown below:
In the example above, the last note in the bar continues to ring two counts in the second bar.
To calculate the total length of a note, you can add the lengths of all the notes connected to the tie (more than two notes can be linked together).
If the curved line connects different tones together (two or more), then this is a legato symbol.
Legato is when you play the first note, but don’t play the next. Hammer-on, slide, and pull-off are all forms of legato.
Sometimes, an H or S is written along with a curved line to tell you to play a hammer-on or slide as shown below:
If you see a diagonal line connecting the notes as well as a curved line as shown below, this tells you that you are playing the slide:
When a part of the song is repeated over and over, instead of writing the bar multiple times, the repeat sign can be used.
There are two parts of the repeat sign: start and end as shown below:
Double vertical lines and colons are used at the beginning and end of the section to be repeated.
The example above tells us to play the four notes, then play them again before moving on to the next bar.
You can repeat a single bar or repeat a long section. The dots are always inside the bar lines in the section to be repeated.
If a bar is to be repeated more than twice, it will tell you a number above the repeat sign as shown below:
This example tells us to repeat the bar three times before we continue.
Oftentimes, something will be repeated many times, and then on the last time, there will be little change.
Instead of having to type the entire section, we can use alternate endings to repeat everything except the last bar.
What the above example means is that for the first two times, the first two bars are repeated. Then the third time, you play the first bar, then skip forward and play the third bar.
Alternate endings may seem confusing at first, but they make reading music much easier as you can seriously reduce the number of pages it takes to write a song.
There are plenty of other symbols used in music, but the examples above should give you enough to read classical sheet music.
Since most sheet music available today offers a combination of sheet music and Guitar TAB, you may find learning both methods useful.
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