Music theory basics part 1

how to read notation

Recommended Prior Knowledge:

  • Learning The Note Values & Counting


Welcome to the 1st instalment of Music Theory Basics - Learning How To Read Notation, where I’m going to walk you through the basics of music notation and get you reading. Being able to read music notation is a powerful asset for any musician and will not only strengthen and ground your playing, but will open the door to any piece of music or method written for the guitar. 

First, I highly recommend looking at Learning The Note Values & Counting as it will give you a good foundation on time and duration, which will set you up to understand the concepts in this lesson.

The first concepts we will look at are the table clef, pitch and how notes representing pitch appear on the music staff. The treble clef indicates that the pitches shown on the staff will be relatively high sounding, its counterpart the bass clef, takes care of low sounding instruments like the bass guitar. As guitarists we read our notation in the treble clef, which means that the majority of our range is relatively high. It is pictured below and will be at the start of every line of music; it is important to make sure you are reading music in the treble clef because the pitched references are different depending on your clef. 

The Treble Clef

The Treble Clef

Notes on the staff represent pitch; the lower down on the staff the notes are, the lower they sound, the higher up on the staff, the higher they sound. From the bottom of the staff to the top, the sound will be low to high. We will only deal with the natural notes in this lesson, the other notes that aren’t featured here live in between some of the natural notes and are called accidentals. For the natural notes we have a musical letter for each pitch, which brings me to the musical alphabet:


Thats it! all you have to remember is that it doesn’t stop there, the higher and lower you go the letters are repeated which represent different pitches. 


Musical Alphabet

Musical Alphabet

Now in order for us to understand which letter corresponds to which dot on the staff we need to memorise some mnemonic devices. Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit. Say it out loud and get used to it, these are the notes on the lines of the staff, bottom to top, E, G, B, D, F. For the notes in the spaces we use FACE, literally F, A, C, E. I’ve added the tablature below each note to show you where that pitch is referenced on the guitar, this way you can play along and get an idea of how the notes sound. 

Lines and Spaces.jpg

When we put them together we can see that it is just the musical alphabet.

Lines and Spaces together.jpg

You’re ready to read some music!! Here are some reading exercises, one with tablature and another without, which means you’ll be on your own. Set your metronome to quarter note = 60bpm and make sure you count as you play. You might recognise these famous melodies.

Exercise 1.jpg
Exercise 2.jpg

That’s the basics of reading down, well done. For the next instalment head to Music Theory Basics Part 2 - Time Signatures & Bars.


You don’t need to know how to read to play music.

This is true however, being able to read can not only enhance your playing and understanding of music but also open the door to centuries of amazing music written for the guitar. Being able to understand the language of music is an asset to any player, it is never too late, just dive on in. It is easy to get overwhelmed with written notation, makes sure you take it slow and learn in chunks.