Understanding Music Symbols

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Music symbols ...

If your are going to learn to read music you will surly encounter some or all of the music symbols explained in this lesson.

Once you get familiar with all the strange hieroglyphics on a sheet of music you will feel like you know a whole new language.

While you wont see all of them when learning to read treble clef speed music it is nice to know what they mean when you do encounter them.

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Lets get started..........

The Staff and Bar Lines.

A musical staff consists of five lines and the four spaces between the lines. On the music staff you will find various notes and rests and other music symbols.

Because all the available notes will not fit on the staff they will be placed on ledger lines either above or below the staff.

A staff will be divided into measures by bar lines. Each measure will contain a certain amount of beats determined by the time signature.

Some times you will see two bar lines very close to each other called a double bar line. A double bar line will sometimes mean a change in the time signature or key of the song.

At the end of a song you will generally see a bold double bare line. Song over!

The Grand Staff with Clef signs:

If you are reading music for both hands you will be using the Grand Staff which is two staffs tied together by the brace at the beginning.

On the top staff you will see the Treble clef or G clef sign. The notes written on this staff will generally be played by the right hand.

Many professional players and hobbyists will focus mostly on this clef and learn to read chord symbol, while classical pianist are required to be able to read and ply both clefs

On the bottom staff is the Bass Clef or F clef sign. The notes on this staff will generally be played by the left hand. More music symbols....

Music Notes and their lengths.

With music notes, the pitch is determined by where the notes are placed on the staff.

When a notes pitch is higher or lower than the staff will accommodate then the notes are placed on ledger lines.

The way the note looks in terms on its color and stems and flags will determine how long the note is held. There are also 32nd (3 flags) and 64th (4 flags) notes that are not pictured above and are not as common.

From left to right the notes above will decrease in duration by half. See the lesson on understanding rhythmic notation.

Music Rest Lengths

Rests are music symbols that make the the absence of note or a period of silence. If there were no rests, music would turn to noise.

The way a rest looks will determine how long the period of silence will be. A rest with the duration of a whole note is called a whole rest. A half rest will equal silence for the length of a half note etc.

Dotted rests are used in the same manner as dotted notes. A dotted quarter rest will indicate one and a half beats of silence.

In the event of notation overlap – such as a half-note chord written in a measure full of eighth-notes – rests and notes may appear simultaneously despite each other as in the above example.


The music symbols in front of the notes in the example above are called accidentals and turn a note into a sharp, a flat or a natural.

  • A sharp (♯): Makes a note higher in pitch by a half step.

  • A flat (♭): Makes a note lower in pitch by a half step.

  • A natural (♮): Returns a note to its original pitch after having been sharpened or flattened. Naturals also cancel out sharps or flats implied by a key signature

Key Signatures

A group of sharps or flats at the beginning of a staff just after the clef sign is called the key signature.

The key signature will tell you what key the song is in and what music scale the song will be based around.

It allows us to write music with out having to put individual sharps or flats in front of the notes on the page which can get pretty messy especially in keys with 5 or 6 or even 7 sharps or flats.

For more on key signatures see the lessons on and key signaturesthe circle of fifths.

Because the sharps or flats are at the beginning of the song it saves us from having to write individual accidental in front of the notes which can get pretty messy and hard to read. Especially in keys with 5, 6, ore even 7 sharps or flats.

For more on this subject see the lesson on Circle of Fifths.

Time Signatures

A time signature looks like a fraction and is found at the beginning of a piece after the clef sign and the key signature if any.

The top number will tell us how many beats are in each measure and the bottom number will tell us how which type of note will get one beat or count.

Therefore a 4/4 time signature will have 4 beats in each measure and a quarter note will have one beat.

4/4 time is them most common time signature you will see and because of hat it is often called "common time".

For more on this group of music symbols see the lesson on time signatures.

Repeat marks and other road signs....

Music between to Repeat Signs (a bold double bar with two dots) will be played at least tow times. After the repeats are played the wong will continue on.

If there is just one repeat sign at the end of a song, the whole song will be played again from the beginning.

1st and 2nd ending marks ( or volta brackets) are used when there are two different endings. The first time around the first ending is played and the second time, the first ending is skipped and the second ending is played.

Chord Symbols.

Chord symbols appear above the staff are found in professional Fake Books and e-z play music alike. They will tell you what chord to use to harmonize along with the melody.

For a more thorough lesson on these symbols and how to learn all your chords see the lesson on chord formulas.

Best Home Study for "Ear Players"

After checking out dozens of home study courses that teach you to play by ear and focus on chord progressions I am convinced that the folks at Hear and Play have the best, most well rounded program available for just about all styles of music from Gospel to Jazz. Read my review or visit Hear and Play for more information.

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If you have any questions, suggestions, or ideas for future lessons feel free to Contact Me.

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