How to read sheet music

Music SheetMany guitar teachers believe it’s old fashioned to teach students to read sheet music, but that isn’t the case. While it’s true many musicians are successful despite never learning to sight read – Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Rich, and Tony Williams to name a few – it’s an invaluable skill that we believe all musicians should have.

Here are 5 great benefits of learning to read music:

How To Read Music: Getting started

When you start to learn music theory it’s usually because you are learning an instrument. This is the best way to begin, as you learn to read the notes as you play. In the early lessons you’ll learn the note values and note names. You do this by practicing simple repetitive exercises that allow you to absorb the new information as you go.

Even if you are learning to play a different instrument, it is never a waste to learn the notes on a keyboard. The keyboard provides a visual way to link the theory to a real sound, and to see the intervals (steps between the notes) as you play them.

When you first try to read a piece of music, you should approach it in a systematic way. Look out for the visual clues before attempting to play. With young children, I always say they are being detectives, trying to solve a mystery.

Like learning any new skill, practice is key. Practice is always best ‘little and often’. Learning to read music should be approached in the same way as learning to read words, with a clear strategy and gradual progression of level.

Let's Play Music : How to Read Music Made Easy - Exercises for Kids (& adults too!)

How To Read Music: First Steps

  1. Learning the note time values. Depending on the age of the pupil this can be taught through rhythm games or with The Clock Song. Both explain the basic music notation in an accessible way. It’s also a bonus that these games are such fun that children are very happy to play many times over! Check out My Note Family Stories  eBook which is an effective way to teach note values that kids love.
  2. Learning the names of the notes – I use an animal themed memory game to help my pupils remember the order of the notes. This is the best way for children to learn as it gives them a good visual trigger and is very easy to memorise. Older pupils also find this method really helpful!Let's Play Music : Introducing Do Re Mi
  3. Do – Re – Mi or Solfege. This very old method of learning to read music has lasted so long for the simple reason that it works! It also encourages the pupil to sing and therefore develop an ability to ‘hear’ the music in your head. This helps by anticipating how the music sounds before you actually play it. The Solfege method uses songs and games so it’s a great way for younger children to start their musical training. It can also be practiced alongside the conventional names of the notes to teach sight singing, build aural awareness and strengthen the musical ‘ear’.
  4. Understanding the Stave and the Clefs The stave and clefs can look a bit scary at first! It’s important to explain it in a visual way, and if possible in front of a keyboard. Just as words are written on lines, so are music notes. You just need more lines than with reading, because the notes go up and down. This is why we have the five lines of the stave.  Clefs are needed to tell you whether they are high notes (treble clef) or low notes (bass clef). For more practice and printable resources check out my eBook which covers the basics of music theory.
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Let's Play Music : Understanding the Clefs - Easy Music Theory

15-Minutes-a-Day Sight Reading Exercise

Here are the four steps for our sight reading exercise. Don’t skip any of them. When you are practicing any skill for music, remember that quality is much more important and quantity. Slow and highly focused practice will get you faster results in your musical development that any other method.

1. Use a practice journal. Download a copy of the One Minute Music Lesson practice journal here. Use it to track your 15-minutes-a-day sight reading exercise.

2. Get your materials ready. Find a page of excerpts in the “Music for Sight Singing” book to read. Our examples below are from pages 156-157 of the 7th edition of the book. If you don’t have this book, here are 10 sites to find free sheet music for sight reading.

3. Stay focused. Focus on one aspect of music reading, either pitch or rhythm until you are comfortable with both.

  • If you need to practice reading the notes, write in the pitches for each note before you play. The more you write in the names of the notes, the faster you will get at reading them. This is a vital step in the learning process that too many teachers discourage their students from doing. Here is a sample of what this would look like:


  • If you need to practice reading rhythm, write in the Eastman counting system above the music before you play the excerpt. Then verbally speak the names of the notes in the rhythm. Then move on to playing the excerpt on your instrument. Here is a sample of what this would look like:
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4. Use a timer. Use an online timer or the timer on your cell phone and set it to 15-minutes. By setting a timer you are consciously creating a goal for developing your skills. This is the key to your progress over time. By using the timer you will practice this skill until the timer goes off without think about how long this task will take. Also you will not be focused on how much time is remaining to your sight reading practice thus keeping you goal-oriented during the session.

Need More Help? Email Leon any questions you have about reading music, music theory or anything else music-related, and get the answers you’ve been searching for.

About the author:

Hi, I’m Leon Harrell and I teach people how music really works by explaining the basic fundamentals so they can learn how to read and write music and play better, one minute at a time. The One Minute Music Lesson with Leon Harrell is dedicated to teaching music step by step to anyone who wants to truly understand how music works from the ground up.

You can contact Leon the following ways:

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