Learn to Read Music Fast
Are you looking for the fastest way to learn to read music notes? This article will share the most common teaching methods that actually slow down learning and tell you how to sidestep those issues to learn as quickly as possible.
Note: This is an in-depth article that will cover not only the fastest way to learn to read music, but also how these ideas can expand to help you read music on ledger lines, bass clef, alto clef, and tenor clef. If you’re looking for a simple introduction to reading music, especially if you’re looking to teach kids, please read this article.
To learn to read music notes fast, you’ll want to memorize the best Cardinal Notes and understand the basics of the musical alphabet. With that information and a little bit of insight, naming other notes comes quickly and easily.
The process of playing written music will require you to accurately recognize the symbols for both pitch and rhythm and convert those symbols to playing on your instrument. My experience has been that students learn best when these ideas are introduced separately. For that reason, this article will focus exclusively on developing your ability to name notes (i.e., pitch recognition) as quickly as possible.
I may teach students to play guitar, but I consider myself a music teacher. This article will give you all the info you need to read music like a musician, not just like an instrumentalist. There will be, at times, more information than you need to do simple note reading. However, the additional information is easy to understand and a bit of interesting trivia that many professional musicians don’t even know. I know that I didn’t learn this info until after I graduated. That was unfortunate, as knowing this would’ve saved me a lot of struggle in my upper-level courses!
Avoiding Every Good Boy and FACE
If you’ve ever tried reading notes before, you’ve likely been instructed to memorize
(hereafter referred to as “The FACE Method”). These are the note names of the lines and spaces on the staff.
Using this to learn to read notes only takes two steps; It seems simple enough!
1. Figure out if the note is on a line or a space.
2. Work through The FACE Method
And, tada! You have your answer.
However, I want you to entirely and permanently forget you ever heard that advice.
I’m personally convinced that this idea only sticks around because it is a legitimate and easy way to teach an entire classroom of middle-schoolers a bit of music notation. It does what middle-school music teachers need. It helps students understand the staff and is a straightforward tool to memorize. This helps kids score well on tests, where single notes are isolated into questions.
The problem is that music doesn’t work like that. Here’s a simple example; it’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I’ve traced the eye movements necessary to figure out the piece using different colors.
Here’s how this method ends up playing out in practice:
1. Figure out the first note is on a line (blue)
2. Go to the bottom line (green)
3. Go through EGBDF until you arrive at the correct note. Stop (red)
4. Figure out if the following note is on a line or a space. (blue)
5. Go to the bottom line, again (green)
6. Go through EGBDF until you arrive. (red)
7. Figure out if the following note is on a line or a space. (blue).
8. Go to the bottom line again.
9. Work all the way up through the entire staff again, using FACE
10. Do it all over again.
This is comically inefficient.
What Ends Up Happening
If you go down that route, what will happen is that you’ll eventually find your “most comfortable note .” One you can recognize in an instant, with no hesitation. I still remember that my first comfortable instant-recognition note was high E.
You’ll realize pretty quickly that, if you can get that note fast, the ones right next to it are quick, too. Since this note will be pretty significant, let’s give it a name. Let’s call it a “Cardinal note.” Like the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west, you’re using it to find your way around the musical staff.
Sooner or later, you’ll find a second “cardinal note .” It might be close by your first, but ideally, it’s a bit further away (so you can start to get comfortable with more of the staff). For most people, by the time they develop a third cardinal note, they have mastered one staff.
A Better Way
Imagine a world where, from the get-go, you’re taught the most efficient Cardinal Notes. Then, instead of memorizing the FACE method, you memorize musical concepts that will help you figure out notes more quickly. These concepts also lay the groundwork for understanding music theory if you ever decide to pursue it.
Below, the red-dotted notes are cardinal notes (EDIT: I made a mistake in this graphic. The second red dot shouldn’t be there). (It’s assumed that the reader has memorized the C major scale and understands movement up and down the scale and staff).
Here are the steps to read the same passage as above using the Cardinal Note method:
1. The first note is a cardinal note. You play it.
2. The following note is right above a cardinal note, so you play the note right above the cardinal note in the C-scale.
3. The following note goes up the scale one note. You play the next higher note on the scale.
4. All the rest of the notes just go down the scale. You simply play down the scale until arriving at the final note (coincidentally, a cardinal note).
Using the Cardinal Note Method takes 4 steps to place this musical phrase. By comparison, the fourth step of the FACE method will only get you to the second note.
Here’s what I will do in the rest of this article. Rather than tell you to use the un-musical EGBDF and FACE system and let you develop random cardinal notes of your own, I’m going to tell you the best Cardinal Notes to memorize.
I’m also going to tell you why these are the best cardinal notes (that’s going to take a shockingly long time, because there are so many reasons why they are the best cardinal notes) and how, once you memorize them, you’ll understand not just one musical staff, not just the ledger lines, but every staff used in all music for the past 400+ years.
The 3 Cardinal Notes
The First Cardinal Note: C
The first cardinal note, regardless of what instrument you play, is C. C is considered by many people to be one of the most important notes. Many teachers say that for two primary reasons.
- It’s the only note that forms a major scale using only the letters of the alphabet (and none of those pesky sharps and flats)
- Middle C is in the center of the Grand Staff. In fact, it’s so in-the-center that they have to give it its own line, called a ledger line, since it’s not on either staff.
Are you saying “Wait a second! The Grand Staff?? I don’t need that, I only play on Treble or bass clef!” Just hold on for the ride. It’s worth it.
Is Middle C Really in the Middle of The Grand Staff?
There is one small problem with point #2 above: C is in the middle of the Grand Staff, or Piano Staff, in terms of pitch. However, publishers usually separate Grand Staff staves so each staff can have its “own” middle C.
These middle C’s are exactly the same note, played in the same place. This separation of the staves is done so that a piano player can quickly and easily tell if they need to play a note with their right or left hand.
Below, you can see the Grand Staff as it is usually written. It is then “smushed” into the idealized version we’ll use today. This version will make music notation more easily understood.
The Symetricality Principal of C.
Middle C is in precisely the middle of the staff. That’s so significant and has so many ramifications that I’ve given it a name: The Symetricality Principal of C. There are as many lines (and spaces) above middle C as below it. And, notably for the other cardinal notes, each note above middle C has a matching pair below (and visa versa).
Of course, memorizing just one C is not incredibly useful. But we can use the The Symetricality Principal of C to memorize 5 notes for the price of 3!
3Cs (for the price of 2)
The C above middle C is on the second space from the top of the Grand Staff. We could call this C “Treble C” since it’s on the treble clef (more on clefs below). Due to the Symetricality Principal of C, we know there is a C precisely the same distance
below middle C. So we can confidently put a C on the the second space from the bottom. We’ll call this “Bass C” since it is on the bass clef. Bass C and Treble C are symmetrical to one another.
If you need help visualizing how this is symmetrical, try folding a piece of paper in half across the C ledger line; you’ll see that the notes line up perfectly! Alternatively, you could spin the paper around and around, like in the image below:
Two more notes, and we’ll be done with C. By now, you may realize that we really only need to memorize notes on one staff, then place symmetrical notes on the other.
For our final Cs, draw two horizontal dashes above the staff. Those will be your ledger lines. Now, place a note on the top ledger line.
Next, repeat the process using The Symetricality Principal of C; place two ledger lines below the staff and place a note on the bottom ledger line.
And, of course, you can still fold and spin your grand staff to see the symmetrical principle of C in action.
Music Notation: What’s on a line and what’s in a space
Musicians are strange in many unique ways, but all musicians are strange in how they talk about lines and spaces.
Think about the times you’ve written your name on the line at the top of a test. Technically speaking, you write your name on the blank space above the line. However, it’s usually referred to as “writing your name on the line.”
Take a second to do a little thought experiment: If I place a piece of string on the floor and ask you to put a quarter on the string line, where would you put it?
Most people would put it so that the quarter covers the line. They wouldn’t put it in the space above or below the line.
This is how musicians use the phrase “on the line .”The line pierces through the middle of the note when it is on the line.
Alternatively, the note can also be “in a space .”This is shorthand for “in a space between two lines” or “in the space above (or below) a line.”
Completing the Cardinal Notes: F & G
To complete the cardinal notes, we need to learn 4 new notes: two each of F & G. We’ll learn two and use the symmetrically principal of C to expand to all four. Before that, though, a quick historical aside that will inform you but, more importantly, give you a super-easy memory trick for the following cardinal notes.
The Clefs of the Grand Staff
Today, musicians talk about the treble and bass clef (and, sometimes, the alto and tenor, too). What are they, and how did they come to be?
I present to you a staff and notes without a clef. How are you to know which note to sing? Do you think you would pick the same note as someone with a higher or lower voice? How would this work out if two parts, for two singers, were on the staff? How could you ensure that you’re both singing the proper notes?
Musicians solved this problem quite elegantly many, many years ago by simply writing the name of a note on the staff at whatever place they wanted a particular note to be. So, for example, an upper-case G was written centered around the note G.
Unfortunately for modern learners, the letters became more and more stylized over the years until they were no longer recognizable.
Here is the historical progression from a simple letter indication to the more complex symbols of today.
Now, you may have noticed that there are three clefs listed here: The F, C, and G clefs. Previously, I had mentioned four clefs: the Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass clefs. So that makes for 7 clefs, right? That’s too many!
Fortunately, that’s not the case.
Here’s how it works; you can actually move the F, C, and G clefs around and place them anywhere you want. While this sounds terrifying to someone trying to learn note-reading, have no fear. Unfortunately, history has made the F, G, and C clefs utterly unrecognizable to the unknowing modern eye. Fortunately, we have settled on the following arrangements of clefs as standard. While I’ve listed all the most common staves below, alto and tenor are almost never used and bass is used infrequently. Most people will be able to get by knowing only the treble clef.
Here’s a bit of trivia that will allow you to sound like a Snobby and Elitist Musician: Many people may tell you that the treble and G clef is the same thing. They’ll also claim the same about the F and bass clef. They are wrong. The treble clef is when the G clef is placed so that the second line up is G. The bass clef is when the F clef is placed on the second line down from the top.
Tenor or Alto Clef? A memory trick for Advanced Musicians
If you’re an advanced musician who struggles to remember the difference between alto and tenor clef, it’s actually easy. Here’s the trick.
You probably know that humans are generally categorized into 4 basic voice types. I’ll list them here from highest to lowest: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass.
Obviously, history has settled on clef names that coincide with these voice types, even though most modern choir music is printed on a grand staff. This is done to save ink, paper, and money. It also reduces page turns!
You’re probably pretty comfortable with the concepts of Bass and Treble Clef. Here’s the trick for alto and tenor: Each clef makes plenty of room for where its assigned voices need to go. For example, the treble clef has sopranos singing very, very high, so the G clef is placed very low on the staff. This gives plenty of room for the notes needed by the high soprano voices.
The bass clef has basses singing very low, so there’s plenty of room to go low.
Now we’ll compare the middle voices. The tenor clef will have tenors singing low (but not as low as the basses), so the C clef is placed slightly higher than the alto clef to give more room for that.
And the Alto Clef is placed a bit lower than the tenor clef, giving more room for the altos to sing there (but not as high as the sopranos).
Here’s a picture; arrows indicate the place where a stave’s assigned voice needs room to sing:
The Clefs and the Cardinal Notes
With that background, you have an easy memory trick to help you remember the final Cardinal Notes: F and G. There are two of each. We’ll use the symmetrical principle of C to expand that to four notes. We’re also going to use our newfound knowledge of clefs to aid our memory.
Once you know these additional four cardinal notes, all other notes will be very, very close to a note you’ve already learned.
First, let’s remember that our clefs indicate the position of one Cardinal Note note on each clef. Below you can see that. I’ve added the modern letters “G” and “F” to their respective clefs to remind you that the clef is simply a highly stylized version of these letters.
Here’s a little trick for you to remember how to use the clefs to locate these two cardinal notes:
G Clef: The “Bull’s Eye” formed by the G clef is centered on the line for G
F Clef: The two dots in the F clef are centered on either side (vertically) of the line for F notes. These dots are the remnants of the horizontal lines on the capital letter F.
You can also see that, once again, these notes obey the Symetricallity Principal of C. However, there is one change. C is symmetrical with itself. All other notes have a “note pair” that they are symmetrical with. G and F are one such pair. When flipped, folded, spun, or otherwise adjusted to use the Symmetrical Principal of C, these notes trade names. The Gs become Fs, and the Fs become Gs (this, unfortunately, isn’t shown very well in the animation below).
With this in mind, let’s add one more note and its symmetrical sibling. The note resting on the very top of the staff (in fact, in the space above the staff) is a high G. the last two symmetrical notes; one more F hanging off the bottom of the bass (F) clef. And one G sitting proudly on top of the G clef.
Again, you will see that the Gs and Fs are symmetrical to each other around the center point of middle C, with the trading of names as mentioned above.
Completing the Picture: The C Clef
We’ve covered the G clef and the F clef; what about the C clef? How does it fit into this picture, and why should I care?
Take a look at the C clef symbol below and notice the divot in the middle of it. That divot is always centered on Middle C.
Now, here’s a cool trick. The Alto Clef, which is the most common use of the C clef, fits right in the middle of the Grand Staff.
And, if we put our first pair of G and F notes on the Grand Staff, you’ll see that they perfectly line up with the top and bottom line of the C clef. Knowing this can make it very easy to read the C clef if ever the need should arise:
By now, you might be saying, “But I don’t need to know all these staves; I only read 1 staff!” To which I say, “Ahh, but ledger lines…”
But first, let’s master the staves themselves.
The Laws of the Musical Alphabet
Now that you know the Cardinal notes, the next step is a complete understanding of the musical alphabet’s laws and developing the ability to quickly apply them in any situation. These laws cannot be broken; they are how things are.
- The musical alphabet consists of the first 7 letters of the musical alphabet: ABCDEFG. (caveat: in English. Different parts of the world use different names).
- The musical alphabet is a vertical, not horizontal, alphabet. It goes up and down.
- The Musical Alphabet is an infinitely repeating cycle: ABCDEFG ABCDEFG.
* The Musical Alphabet has neither beginning nor end. However, it does have a center.
- C is the center of the musical alphabet.
* This is what creates the Symetricality Principle of C. See below.
Here’s a rough outline of the steps you can take to master the application of the laws of the musical alphabet:
- Know and be able to say the musical alphabet up without hesitation: ABCDEFG.
* Since the musical alphabet has no beginning or end, we’ll start on A for familiarity’s sake.
* The musical alphabet is a vertical alphabet and therefore has no forwards or backward, only up or down.
- Know and be able to say the musical alphabet down without hesitation: GFEDCBA.
- Know and be able to say the musical alphabet upwards in a repeating cycle with ease: ABCDEFGABCDEFG
- Know and be able to say the musical alphabet downwards as a repeating cycle with ease: GFEDCBAGFEDCBA
- Repeat the above steps with the following notes as the center point:
4. Other Notes
Why is C the Center of the Musical Alphabet: A Non-Answer
Of course, every student wants to know, “Why is C the center, and not A?”
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t remember. Honestly, this is trivia and not relevant to reading music. In the end, the notes are just names. I managed to get two degrees in music, one of them in music theory, without committing this trivia to memory.
Just to emphasize my point, here’s a chart of different note names in different parts of the world:
|English||German||Romance Languages||Numbers (Post-Tonal Theory)|
|G||G||Sol (or So)||7|
|B||H||Ti (or Si)||11|
(Yes, many Americans are familiar with both their ABCs and their Do-Re-Mis. However, in America, we use Movable Do, which has nothing to do with note names and everything to do with note functions. Other parts of the world use Fixed Do, which means that “Do” is fixed to the note C and never changes. As you may have guessed, Movable Do means that Do may be moved and assigned to any note).
So, as you can see, just like the different words for cat (German, French, etc.) are only the name for a thing and not the actual thing, the names for the notes are exactly that, just names.
Putting it Together: The Cardinal Notes and the Laws of the Musical Alphabet
Let’s actually take a look at what the Musical Alphabet looks like in practice, or the laws of the musical alphabet are applied. To help legibility, I’ve applied red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet to the notes, starting with C.
You can see the Sympetricallity Principal of C at work in the numbered musical alphabet below. One cool thing about this Symetricallity Principal is that you can work from the outer Cs (number 8) inwards. You will still get the same matching pairs; their numbers will just be inverted. In fact, this idea comes up again in some upper-beginner level music theory.
(note that these numbers do not correspond to the numbers assigned to notes when doing post-tonal analysis, shown in the table above; they’re here simply to show the Symetricallity Principle. However, they accurately show the scale degrees when playing in the key of C).
In fact, if you think hard enough about the musical alphabet, you’ll realize that every note has a symmetrical partner, just like G and F. This leads to a few questions:
Why not memorize all the Musical Note Pairs?
It’s too complicated; there are too many pairs. You need to remember which is above and below middle C, or you’ll get everything backward. Memorizing Gs on the G clef and Fs on the F clef just makes sense, though.
Also, it’s unmusical. Music moves in flowing lines, not in opposite pairs. We want to learn to read music in flowing lines, too. Not opposite pairs.
In the end, if you memorized all the note pairs, you’d probably find your own “Cardinal Notes,” just like students do use the FACE method. And they probably wouldn’t be the most efficient ones.
Stick with C, F, and G and figure everything else out from there. After all, they are the best Cardinal notes.
Why use C, G, and F as our cardinal notes?
The first reason is relatively straightforward; we can use the clefs to help us remember the notes.
The second reason, however, is the deeper, more accurate reason. G and F are the notes closest to the midpoint between two Cs.
This means that these 3 notes are the best Cardinal Notes because most notes are directly adjacent to one of these cardinal notes. In fact, the only exceptions are the Es above middle C and the As below. And they’re only 2 notes away from one of these Cardinal notes. Here you can see it on the musical alphabet:
And here you can see it on the musical staff. I’ve put all of the Cs, Fs, and Gs together in the following image. For clarity, the first measure of music shows the Fs and Gs stacked on top of each other, followed by the Cs. The second measure shows them all stacked together. You can see that there isn’t much room between the cardinal notes.
Application of the Principals
Ok, now it’s finally time to put it all together. Take a look at the staff below. First, I stacked all the Cardinal Notes on top of each other to the left. Then, horizontally out to the side, I’ve put all the notes of the musical alphabet on the staff, complete with note names. (This has been done because stacking every note on top of each other is pretty difficult to read).
Note how the Musical Alphabet is placed on the staff; notes are placed on both lines and spaces. So the musical alphabet progresses from middle C to treble G by starting on a line (middle C), then moving to a space (D), line (E), space (F), and finally ending on a line (G). This alternation between spaces and lines is crucial to remember (whether you use this method or any other!).
Now, let’s look at a few examples, and I’ll walk you through the process. Through all of these, our target will be to figure out the name of the black note.
For the first exercise, I’m going to list every tiny little step. Then, in the later exercises, I’ll skip over or combine some of these steps.
- Find your position:
1. Find the black note.
2. Find the closest cardinal note.
The closest cardinal note is C.
- Orient yourself:
1. How far away is your target note from your Cardinal Note C?
2. In what direction does it go?
Your cardinal note is on the line above your Cardinal Note. There are no other spaces or lines in between them. This equals one musical step up the Musical Alphabet (remember, the musical alphabet is a vertical alphabet).
- Make your moves: Remembering your musical alphabet, move the appropriate number of steps in the correct direction from your Cardinal Note C. This determines the name of your target note.
* Moving one step up the musical alphabet from C gives you the correct answer: D.
D is the correct answer!
1. Find your position: What is the Cardinal Note closest to your target note? The closest cardinal note is again C.
2. Orient yourself: Figure out how many musical steps you are away from your cardinal note and in what direction.
Your target note is one musical step below your Cardinal Note.
3. Make your move on the musical alphabet
*The correct answer is B!
B is the correct answer!
1. Find your position: What is the Cardinal Note closest to your target note?
The closest cardinal note is… wait, this one is smack-dab in the middle of the C and G cardinal notes. So pick one target note to work with and stick with it throughout the exercise.
2. Orient yourself: Figure out how many musical steps you are away from your cardinal note and in what direction.
All of the notes in this example are on lines. To get from either of our cardinal notes to our target note requires two steps: the first from our cardinal note to the empty space. The second is from the empty space to our target note.
3. Make your move of two steps on the musical alphabet from your select Cardinal Note to find the target note. Ensure you move in the proper direction!
*The correct answer is E, regardless of which Cardinal Note you chose. Now go back and figure it out again using the other Cardinal Note.
E is the correct answer!
What About Ledger Lines?
Most instruments only use one staff, the treble, bass, or (rarely) alto or tenor clef. However, most instruments and singers can play more notes than fit a single staff.
Ledger lines can be written above and below the staff to extend the staff’s range. We’ve already done this in the first step when we wrote out all our Cs.
But what about when the treble clef is by itself, and there are notes below? Likewise, the bass clef and ledger lines above? Or ledger lines even further away.
All of these situations can be covered by things you already know.
Notes below the treble clef are actually just bass clef notes. We just don’t write out the entire bass clef because usually, we only need part of it. It saves ink, paper, and page-turns.
The same goes for notes above the bass clef. They’re just treble clef notes.
As for notes above the treble clef and below the bass clef? They’re just an invisible (and 2-octave transposed) alto clef (oh, yeah. Did I mention that the Alto clef just fits in-between the treble and bass clef? And that it’s top line is G (the same one marked by the G clef symbol) and bottom line is F (the same one marked by the F clef symbol)?
Put It To Practice
Now that you know the usefulness of the Cardinal Note method, test yourself to help lock-in your reading and turn your new-found knowledge into Knew-Found knowledge!