Learn to Read Music, Part 2

A helpful tutorial for those just getting started with reading music.
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Welcome back, music readers. I hope you felt a surge of pride and a great sense of accomplishment when you made it through last month’s introductory column. You are keeping a valuable and age-old tradition alive, and for that, I thank you.

Now, the real work begins, though, and some of it will be painful. Just like if you wanted to get in drastically better physical shape, you’re going to need to hunker down. We’re learning a new language here, and you’re not going to be super fluent in it right away, n’estce pas? That’s okay, though. Hang with me here. This is going to be worth it. I guarantee it.

Last month we learned the notes on the lines of the staff (Every Good Boy Does Fine, low to high), and the notes in the spaces (FACE). We also met the quarter-note (solid head with a stem, one note per beat). This month, we’re going to learn about sharps and flats—which give us the notes in between the notes we read last month—as well as notes above and below the staff. We’re also going to introduce eighth-notes (solid heads with stems that are connected by a beam, two notes per beat).

First off we’ll stay within the staff. Check out the chromatic scale in eighth-notes in Ex. 1. It starts on the 2nd fret of the D string for the E on the bottom line (Every) and goes up a half-step at a time, and a half beat at a time. We count eighth-notes “one-and-two-and-three-and-four- and.” We call the first two notes E and F like last time and then we encounter our first accidental—in this case an F#, or a half-step higher than F. As we progress up the scale we eventually get to our first flatted note: Bb at the 3rd fret of the G string, or a half-step lower than B. I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that an A#? Yes. Isn’t that confusing, to have two names for the same note? Yes again, but don’t worry about that for now. Just accept it and continue playing the scale, saying the notes as you do. (The weird parallelogram looking thing in front of the B natural is—you got it—a natural sign, meaning not sharp or flat.) The final note is a high F#, which you can play at the 2nd fret of the high E. That’s as high as you can go on the staff.

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Now take a look at Ex. 2. This takes us above the staff, starting on G. Do not let the ledger lines (those lines on the note stems that extend the staff) freak you out. You will come to recognize these notes just fine. (One thing that helped me initially was to use the FACE trick starting on the top line of the staff. The top line is F, so the first ledger line is A, the second is C, and the third is the high E that we all love at the 12th fret.) The good news is, the notes always go in the same order, so if you can identify one note, you can identify its neighbors.

All of this holds true for notes below the staff, like in Ex. 3. Starting with E (Every), we descend a half-step at a time until we land on an open low E. Get to know that note right now, because we all know that the open low E is the best friend a guitarist ever had. It’s in the space below the third ledger line, which means you can apply the Every Good Boy rule to these spaces if that helps you. Once you know low E, the next space is G, then B, then D and then you’re back to the comfort and security of the staff.

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Okay, it’s time to take off our tablature training wheels and do some reading. Find the notes in Ex. 4. The first two are quarter-notes, so they will land on beats one and two. The next four notes are eighth-notes, so they will land on three-and-four-and. Once you figure out what notes are notated, play them “One, two, three-and-four-and.” Although the timing has been simplified, you will recognize one of the greatest classic rock riffs of all time.

Ex. 5 is an approximation of the only riff that might be cooler than Ex. 4. There is obviously stuff in there that we haven’t talked about yet, like dotted notes and ties, but don’t sweat that. You’ve got a good reason to simply read and identify the notes and play them!

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