Learn to Read Music, Part 6

A big part of what we’re trying to do with these reading lessons is get better at recognizing things we see on the page, and to do it quickly.
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A big part of what we’re trying to do with these reading lessons is get better at recognizing things we see on the page, and to do it quickly. There is a ton of info in each bar, but a lot of it is the same info. There are only 12 notes, lots of guitar songs are played in the same keys and use the same chords, etc. Remind yourself that you’ve seen most of this before and a new chart won’t seem so freaky.

Last time around we talked about key signatures—the sharps or flats at the beginning of a line that tell you what key a song is in. These are a huge time saver, because when you know what key you’re in, you can move to one of your comfy positions for that key and find your notes and chords much more easily. To do that, you need to be able to decipher the key signature. There are a lot of things that go into knowing what makes up a key signature: The sharps follow the cycle of fifths, the flats follow the cycle of fourths, etc. We’ll talk more about that later, but for now, here’s an excellent cheat: In sharp keys, your key is a half-step above your last sharp. If all you see is F#, go up a half-step and you’ll know you’re in the key of G. Two sharps, F# and C#, go up a half-step from your last sharp and bam! Key of D. A lot of guitar music is written in sharp keys, and we’re going to focus on those in this lesson. (Just so you know, though, your cheat for flat keys is look at your second-to-the-last flat and that’s your key. If you see one flat—Bb — that’s the key of F. After that, two flats—Bb and Eb—gives you the key of Bb. Bb, Eb, and Ab add up the key of Eb, and so on.)

So then, Ex. 1 is rocking three sharps. Go up a half-step from the last one…what note is that? A, right? Be thinking key of A and check out the rhythm. It’s a repeated series of an eighth-note followed by two sixteenths. How do we count that? Oneand- a, two-and-a, three-and-a, etc. This is what that galloping rhythm that we all know and love looks like. At the end of the phrase you can see that the line ascends a wholestep and then we see two accidentals that tell us we’re playing notes that are not in the key signature. This riff should remind you of a fish-themed tune from a cardiac-themed band, especially if you transpose it to the key of E.

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Ex. 2 is another motif that comes up all the time in guitar music. The key signature has four sharps, so go up a half-step from your last one to get your bearings. Now look at the intervals in the first beat. You probably think that’s a fifth, or a power chord, and you’re right. Then the top note rises but the bottom note stays the same. Sound familiar? It should. The top note rises a half-step higher in bar 2, to a D natural that’s technically out of the key but super common to guitar players. This is what a stereotypical blues pattern looks like. See that weird “two eighth-notes equals a quarter-note and an eighth under a triplet beam” thing above the staff? That’s a swing or shuffle designation, telling you to not play the rhythm straight up and down, but with that loping shuffle feel. Get it?

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Ex. 3 is another super-common rhythm that you should be able to grasp instantly. Figure out your key and then tell your self that you’re playing on upbeats and resting on downbeats. So one is silent and you hit your chord on the and of one (as well as the and of two, three, and four), or the upside of every toe tap. This is what a reggae rhythm looks like. What’s up with that 8va above the staff? That’s one of my favorite things for making charts easier to read. It stands for “all’ ottava,” which is Italian for “take it up an octave.” It saves us from having to deal with a ton of ledger lines, which are kind of a pain.

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What’s up with Ex. 4? The key signature tells us we’re back in the key of A, and there are no accidentals, so all of these chords are in key—no curveballs. You know how to count the rhythm: One, (two is a rest, or silent) and-a-three (four is a rest), and-a-one, so tap your foot and say “One, and-a-three, and-a-one.” You want to throw a cool pentatonic fill in that second bar, don’t you?

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Ex. 5 is in one of our favorite keys, and it approximates one of our favorite single-note lines of all time. We get another neat hieroglyphic above the last note. That's a vibrato sign, so add some.

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See how much information you can take in at a glance on a page of music? Isn’t that awesome? Cracking the code, people. Cracking the code.

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