Have you ever wondered, “what is sheet music?” It's an interesting question, and it may seem obvious to some musicians.
However, there's a lot more to sheet music than meets the eye. Before you make any assumptions, consider what goes into a piece of music and how the current notation system came to be.
What Is Sheet Music?
Sheet music refers to the music you read on a piece of paper. With the advancement of computers and tablets, some musicians even read digital files of sheet music. Either way, the files look the same and do the same thing.
Composers can write down the notes they want musicians to play. Good sheet music will also tell musicians when to play those notes. You may have a simple piece of sheet music with your voice or instrument part.
Conductors, music teachers, and accompanists usually have a score. A score is a type of sheet music that outlines all parts of a piece of music.
Sheet music comes in many forms, and it can be a single page or an entire book. It can also look different based on the instrumentation or even the era the piece is from. Keep that in mind when reviewing sheet music and learning how to read it.
Parts of Sheet Music
Even if you know the basic sheet music definition, you should understand what goes into it. A lot of elements make up good music notation.
Sheet music should tell you everything you need to know about how to play a piece. Some music is more detailed, but even a basic piece will cover the essential aspects.
Whether you're new to playing music or want to expand your skill, consider the following parts of sheet music, what they mean, and why they're important.
The most basic part of sheet music is the music staff. Modern staves feature five lines and four spaces, and each line or space matches up with a particular note.
In music, you'll only use the letters A through G to refer to notes. Other languages use words like do, re, and mi. Some languages, such as German, use letters. However, the German musical alphabet replaces Bb with B and B with H.
Most instrument parts use one staff since it's enough to cover most of the range. However, some instruments, such as the piano or harp, use two staves.
To help place the staff in the right range for an instrument, you'll use a clef.
Today, the most common clefs are the treble clef and bass clef. A treble clef sits in the staff, and it curls around the second line, which gives that line the pitch of G. Specifically, it assigns G4 (the G above middle C) to that line.
The bass clef is a lower clef, and it sits within the staff as well. However, it features two dots to the right of the main design. Those dots sit on either side of the fourth line and give that line the pitch of F3 (the F below middle C).
When you combine those clefs on two staves, you'll get the grand staff. Middle C sits right in between the two, so you can play more of the piano or harp's range.
Another somewhat common clef is called tenor clef. It has a completely different design, and it marks where middle C falls (on the fourth line). The tenor clef isn't a primary clef for any instrument, but the bassoon, cello, and trombone all use it occasionally when playing higher notes.
If you see a similar design but centered on the third line, that is the alto clef. The viola is the only instrument that currently uses the alto clef.
In the past, composers might have used these clefs but changed the placement. Moving the clef up or down also moves the notes of the staff. For example, a mezzo-soprano clef uses the same clef design as the alto or tenor, but it places the clef on the second line.
Even if you select the optimal clef for an instrument, the staff may not have a big enough range. You can use ledger lines, which are small lines that go above or below the staff. That way, you can play higher notes.
Ledger lines only pop up when necessary for a specific note. Almost any instrument, from the violin to the tuba, uses ledger lines at least a few times. Some instruments will use them more often depending on the piece and the instrument's range.
If a part would require a lot of ledger lines for a long phrase, composers may use ottava alta (8va) or ottava bassa (8vb) to move the entire staff an octave higher or lower. This can avoid the use of extensive ledger lines and make the music easier to read.
The key signature tells you which notes to play in a piece. Western music has a 12-note scale, but most songs only use seven of those notes. Composers use key signatures to indicate which of those 12 notes you should play.
If you don't see any key signature, the key of the piece is C major or A minor. You may see keys with one or more flats or one or more sharps. To read a key signature with flats, look for the second to last flat, and that's the name of the key if it's in major.
For sharp keys, look at the last sharp and move up one note for a major key. Minor keys that share the same key signature will always be a minor third below or a major sixth above the major key.
When you see a flat, that means you'll need to lower the pitch by a half step. On the other hand, a sharp means you have to raise the pitch that amount. You can find the key signature after the clef at the beginning of a piece.
In most cases, you'll be able to play the notes in the specific key. However, you might come across accidentals. These are when you see a flat, sharp, or a natural sign before a single note within a piece.
An accidental applies to that note only. If the same note happens in that bar, you'll also play the same accidental unless another one cancels it out.
After the key signature, you'll find the time signature, which is one number on top of another. The top number refers to the number of beats in a measure. Meanwhile, the bottom number tells you what type of note gets a beat.
The most common key signature is a 4/4, and that means each measure has four quarter notes. Another way to write this is with the letter “C” to stand for “common time.”
Other popular time signatures include 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, and 2/2. If you want to write a piece in 2/2, another way to write it is with the letter “C” with a vertical line through it. That means the song is in “cut time” so it has a different feel from common time despite looking the same.
Sometimes, a piece may change time signatures in the middle. If that happens, you'll see a new time signature along the staff. Some time signature changes occur for only a bar or two, or they might apply to the rest of the piece.
When looking at the time signature, you may see a marking above the staff. If the mark has a number next to a note and an equal sign, that's the tempo marking. That tells you how many beats you should play per minute.
While not all pieces have this, a lot of sheet music features measures. These are vertical lines that separate the music into equal sections. Also called bar lines, measures help you keep track of where you are in the piece.
In some ensemble works, composers may add measure numbers. They might also have letters in big boxes above specific measures. That helps notate the beginning or end of sections so that groups can find the same spot to start at.
You can also find different types of measures within a piece. Most measures will feature a thin line, which tells you to keep going to the next bar. Some sheet music will have bars with two thin lines after, and that indicates the end of a section of the piece.
When you reach the end of a piece, you'll see a thin line followed by a thick line. You might also see this but with two dots in front of it. That signals a repeat, so you'll return to the beginning of the piece or the bar with the same mark but reversed and play that section again.
In each measure, you'll usually find notes. The notes tell you what pitch to play, when to play it, and how long you should play that specific pitch. Common note durations include the whole note, half note, quarter note, and eighth note.
The whole note has a round shape and is open on the inside. A half note looks similar, but it has a stem that extends up or down depending on where the note is on the staff.
Quarter notes look like half notes but aren't open on the inside. Eighth notes are like quarter notes but feature a tail at the end of the stem.
If a piece is in 4/4, that means each measure has four quarter notes. But it could also have two half notes, one whole note, or eight eighth notes. The bar may also have any combination of those notes as long as they add up to four beats of quarter notes.
Another option is to use dotted notes, which are the same as the note but have a dot after. The dot tells you to add half of the original note value. So a dotted quarter note lasts for one and a half beats.
Along with different note durations, you'll see the notes appear higher or lower on the staff. The placement depends on the clef and the pitch in question. For example, a G above middle C may appear on the second line of the treble clef or on the third ledger line above the bass clef.
You may have a piece of sheet music where you don't play the whole time. To note this, you'll see rests in your music. Rests have the same lengths as notes, so you can swap them out depending on the piece or the beat.
Whole and half rests sit on a specific line in the staff. A whole rest looks like a hole beneath the fourth line of the music, and it tells you not to play for four beats. Meanwhile, a half rest looks like a hat sitting on top of the third line.
Quarter notes don't look like anything, but they're squiggly lines that sit vertically in the middle of a staff. An eight rest looks like an inverted comma combined with a slash. Sometimes, you may see a backward eighth rest, but that means you need to rest for a quarter note.
Depending on the music, you may see a multi-measure rest. It looks like a thick black horizontal line on the middle line of the staff. Above the clef, you'll see a number that refers to how many measures the rest lasts.
When writing music, you should use the rest that makes the most sense. That makes it easier for performers to read, and it can help save you time when notating sheet music.
The one exception is when there's a fermata. A fermata indicates you should hold that note for longer than its value. In an ensemble, there may be some players who play a fermata while others rest, so making that rest separate helps everyone stay together.
Slurs and Ties
If you want to avoid gaps between notes, you can use a slur. A slur is a curved line that connects one note to the next. You can use a slur over two pitches or shape an entire phrase to show players how you want them to play the music.
Ties look like slurs, but they're specifically for connecting notes of the same pitch. You can use a tie when you want to extend the length of a sound but don't want to use a dotted note. Maybe you want the pitch to be a different duration from a dotted note.
Another way to use a tie is to connect notes from one bar to the next. Maybe you want a player to hold a note for two bars, so you use a tie between two whole notes. That tells the performer not to release the note or take a breath in the middle.
Along with slurs, you may see other types of articulation marks. A staccato looks like a dot below or above the note (opposite the direction of the note stem). This tells you to play that note short and detach it from neighboring notes.
The opposite of a staccato is a tenuto, which is a horizontal line. You'll see this in the same place as a staccato, but it means you should hold the note for the entire note value.
Accents are another type of articulation, and they tell you to emphasize that note. You may see accents on downbeats, but some pieces use them on beats you wouldn't expect to get extra attention. An accent looks like a > symbol, and it appears at the same place as a tenuto or staccato.
You might also come across sheet music with marcato markings. These look like a ^ when the note points up or a downward symbol when below the note. Regardless of the placement, you should play it like you would if you combined an accent with a staccato.
Some instruments have unique articulation markings. Woodwind and brass instruments may have breath marks, which can look like commas or checkmarks. String instruments will use bowing marks, which look like a downward caret or a small table.
Pianists may see “Ped” in fancy script below the score. A horizontal line usually follows the word, and it tells you how long to press the sustain pedal. You might also see the term “una corda” to tell you to use the soft pedal.
Another major part of sheet music is dynamic markings. While early sheet music didn't include dynamics, they can tell you how loud you should play a note or section. Dynamic markings include:
- Pianissimo (very quiet; pp)
- Piano (quiet; p)
- Mezzo piano (somewhat soft; mp)
- Mezzo forte (decently loud; mf)
- Forte (loud; f)
- Fortissimo (very loud; ff)
Some musicians treat these dynamics on a numerical scale, where each level is the same distance away. However, different pieces call for a different mood for each dynamic. When playing a piece, it's best to treat dynamics on an exponential scale.
That means piano would be twice as soft as mezzo piano, and mezzo forte would be twice as loud. Depending on if you're playing a solo or are part of a group, dynamics can take on a different meaning.
Sometimes, composers will use other dynamics, such as pianississimo (ppp) or fortississimo (fff) to change the mood of the piece even more.
Along with immediate dynamic changes, you may see a crescendo (<) or decrescendo (>) in sheet music. These markings tell you to slowly increase or decrease the volume, respectively.
You might also see a sforzando before a piano or forte marking. This means you want to play that specific dynamic immediately on that note, but you'll go back to the prior dynamic right after.
If a composer wants performers to play a section again, they may use a repeat sign. As mentioned earlier, this looks like the end of a piece but with two dots to the left. You can go back in the sheet music to the beginning.
However, there may be a similar bar but with the reverse shape. You'll want to start at that measure, which is where the repeat starts.
Some repeats may only be a few bars, while others will cover entire sections. If a single bar repeats, a composer may write it as a / with a dot on either side.
In vocal music, repeats will usually have two lines of lyrics, especially if the same melody occurs during multiple verses. Instrumental parts will simply have the repeat without any words below.
First and Second Endings
When writing a repeat, a composer may not want to repeat the entire section. In that case, they can use first and second endings. A first ending will contain the repeat sign, and there will be a line above the measures that you'll play once.
You will go back to where the repeat starts and play up to the first ending. However, you skip to the second ending, which will have its own line above it. Then, you'll continue through the rest of the piece.
Da Capo and Dal Segno
Some songs have an even more complex structure. But to keep from rewriting the same music, you might use da capo (D.C.) or dal segno (D.S.) signs. Da capo means to go back to the beginning, while dal segno means to go to the sign (which looks like a big S with a line through it).
You'll usually see these along with a coda sign (a circle with a + through it). A coda is a section of music after the end of the piece. It may include some elements you've played before, but it helps end out the piece.
History of Sheet Music With Examples
Sheet music has a lengthier history than you may realize. While modern sheet music is somewhat new and available via sheet music websites, music notation has gone through a lot of changes.
Consider how sheet music has evolved over the centuries.
1. Ancient Notation
Sheet music goes as far back as Ancient Greece. While historians don't know much about the earliest sheet music examples, there's some evidence. The Ancient Greeks wrote notation on stone, and this method has the name Neume Notation.
People used this system as early as the first century, and it was the primary method for hundreds of years. A specific example of this is Seikilos Epitaph. We don't know who wrote this piece, but we've found it on a tombstone in what is now Turkey.
In the Byzantine Empire, people developed the sol-fa scale that western musicians use today. This system helped musicians notate pitches relative to each other.
2. Early Notation in the Church
The Church gave way to a lot of early developments of sheet music. Composers started notating pitches on what looks like a staff, but the notes look different. They'd include the lyrics below and match each syllable to the coordinating note.
This notation was popular for Gregorian Chants, such as Ave Maria. Composers weren't using exact pitches, but they did show when to sing higher or lower.
Eventually, musicians started using staves with four lines to help specify pitches. Guido of Arezzo, a monk, wrote a treatise on music notation. He also created a system to help define the different notes, and that turned into what we now call solfege.
3. Secular Music Notation
Around the same time as music developed in the Church, so did secular music. However, non-religious music didn't use written sheet music as often. At the time, very few people could read and write, so it made more sense to teach music orally.
Writing sheet music also took a lot of time, but the Church did sometimes write down secular music. They would do this to engage the community or study folk music in the area.
An early example of secular sheet music comes from Sumer Is Icumen In. During this era, the staff slowly added the fifth line that notation uses today. Sharps, flats, and key signatures also got their start.
4. Use of the Printing Press
Early music took a lot of time to write because copyists had to use a quill and ink. The invention of the printing press made it a lot easier to print a lot of music. Composers would still write music by hand, but they would give their manuscript to a copyist.
That helped save time when writing music for large groups. Copyists could use the printing press to recreate the notation so that each performer could receive a copy.
5. Baroque Figured Bass
In the Baroque era (1600-1750), many composers used figured bass. This is a type of notation where the continuo part comprised a bass line and numbers below the staff.
At the time, keyboards couldn't sustain notes. Continuo players, such as cellists, use the bass line to fill out the sound. Meanwhile, the keyboardist would use the numbers to fill out the chords to play a fuller accompaniment for the soloist.
J.S. Bach used figured bass for some works, such as his Sonata in E Major for flute and continuo. Players in the Baroque era and today have to understand music theory to execute a continuo part well.
6. Instrument-Specific Notation
As instrumental music grew in popularity, so did the need for special notation. Many instruments can use the same staves as vocal parts.
However, percussion is a significant exception. Aside from timpani parts, most percussion instruments use a special percussion clef, which doesn't mark pitches but instead may mark specific drums to play.
A famous example to look at is the snare drum part in Ravel's Bolero. The sheet music has a staff with one line, so the player knows only to play the snare drum. But it still has note values to show the player when to strike the instrument.
7. TAB Notation
Another instrument that sometimes uses special notation is the guitar. Some classical guitar players can read the treble clef and play music from it.
However, a lot of players will read guitar TAB. This is a type of sheet music that uses six lines, one for each guitar string.
Instead of notes, the TAB will use numbers to show which notes to play. TAB usually features a sort of marking above to show the note lengths, such as in an arrangement of Canon in D.
Some TAB notation will feature a treble clef staff as well. That way, the performer can know when to play each note, but they don't have to read the treble clef proficiently.
8. Jazz Lead Sheets
If you want to play jazz music, you should know how to read a lead sheet. Many jazz musicians can read regular sheet music, but a lead sheet simplifies things.
All it contains is the melody with chord symbols above the staff. It's up to the rhythm section to put together their own parts for the bass line, guitar, and piano.
Lead sheets, like the one to Someone Else's Blues, help soloists as well. Knowing the chords helps a performer improvise a solo while staying with the group.
9. Music Notation Software
The invention and advancement of computers gave way for music notation software. Instead of writing music by hand and using a printing press, composers can write music on a computer. It's as simple as writing a word document.
Software makes it easy to produce clean scores. Some arrangers have used the software to make other pieces more legible, such as Bach's Prelude 1.
Music notation software is flexible, so composers can space out notes. They can also add everything from dynamics to articulations.
Even if a composer still writes on paper initially, they may still engrave the notes and edit the music in a computer program. That way, the final edition will be more professional and easy for performers to read.
10. Extended Technique Notation
Some composers have started using extended techniques for various instruments. These techniques are hard or impossible to notate with standard staves.
Fortunately, composers have been able to notate these techniques. An excellent example of this is George Crumb's Vox Balaenae, which is for flute, cello, and piano.
All three instruments have some electronic component, and Crumb uses multiple staves for each part. Now, different composers may have unique notation systems. Be sure to refer to the score for any specific performance notes.
11. Notating Parts With Electronics
Another advancement of music in the 20th century was the use of electronics. Instead of having a pianist accompany a soloist, some composers wrote for electronic instruments.
Performers will typically receive a copy of the electronic recording along with the sheet music. That way, they can perform the piece in its entirety. But they'll need to use the entire score since they have to keep in time with the electronics rather than the other way around.
In Milton Babbitt's Philomel, the singer must stay on track with the electronics. Instead of reading from a score with their vocal line, they have to read the notes the electronics play.
Now, this may not be as hard for a vocalist since they frequently read from complete scores. But it can be difficult for instrumentalists who play pieces such as Lipstick or Grab It! (both by Jacob Ter Veldhuis).
What Is Sheet Music? Final Thoughts
Whether you're a new musician or not, you may have wondered, what is sheet music? It's an incredible tool that musicians can use for many things.
Be sure to consider the elements of sheet music as well as its history. Then, you can enjoy reading new pieces of music and improving your overall skills.