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The Ultimate Guide to Reading Music 

 March 16, 2022

By  Kale Good

Are you looking for the fastest way to learn to read music notes? This article will share why the most common teaching method slows you down and the fastest method to use instead.

To learn to read music fast, you need to want to memorize the best Landmark Notes and understand the basics of the musical alphabet. With that information, naming other notes in 4+ octaves comes quickly and easily.

This article will give you all the information you need to read music like a musician, not just a guitarist, pianist, or violist. It will prepare you to read any notes for any instrument you encounter. Throughout the article, there will be quizzes you can use to solidify your knowledge and understanding

Throughout this article are multiple Sidebars that include useful, but not essential, information and trivia that will enrich your understanding and experience. 

Avoid Good Boys and FACEs. 

If you've ever tried learning to read notes before, you've likely been instructed to memorize the acronyms EGBDF and FACE. FACE is easy enough. EGBDF? "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" is common, but you can make up your own. I like "Elmo Gifts Big Dinosaur Feet."

These acronyms, EGBDF and FACE, are the names of the lines and spaces, respectively. We're going to call this method the EGBDF method. Avoid it at all costs.  Even if it seems simple at first.

It's just a two-step process, right?:

  1. Determine if the note is on a line or a space.
  2. Work through The EGBDF Method. 

I believe that this idea only sticks around because it is a (legitimate and) easy way to teach the basics of reading music notation to an entire classroom of middle schoolers. 

But you're not an entire classroom of middle-schoolers, and you're not here to try to pass a test. You actually want to play an instrument. And this method is terrible for that. 

Here's an example of eye movements and thought processes using this reading method. The song is simple; it's Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I've traced the eye movements necessary to figure out the piece using different colors. 


Only two steps, right? Here's how this method ends up playing out in practice:

  1.  Figure out the first note is on a line
  2. Go to the bottom line
  3. Go through **EGBDF**; stop at the correct note.
  4. Next note; line or space?
  5. Go to the bottom line, again
  6. Go up through **EGBDF**; stop at the correct note.
  7. Figure out the first note is on a line
  8. Go to the bottom line again 
  9. Work all the way up through the entire staff, *again*, using **FACE**
  10. Keep going, down and up and up and down

Wouldn't it be better to have a few notes that you know really well and just figure out what's nearby from that? Figuring out how notes relate to each other, rather than to a couple of acronyms. Doing that would get you thinking like a musician by having you think about relationships between notes and flowing lines of music. 

Even when people use the EGBDF method, many end up memorizing the location of a few notes first; soon they realize that it's faster to figure out the neighbor notes than it is to use the acronyms.

Unfortunately, the notes students often memorize and use to orient themselves are random. This slows them down.

Plus, the EGBDF method only works on the staff and doesn't extend to ledger lines above and below the staff. It only covers 1 octave.

Using the simple Landmark Notes system, you will unlock 4+ octaves at once and you'll learn to read treble clef, bass, clef, grand staff, alto, and tenor clefs all at the same time. (as long as you understand that notes are symmetrical, in their way). 

By Memorizing Only 2 notes (in multiple octaves)

Don't believe me? Read on.

Looking to teach kids how to read music? Check out this article.

Learning To Read Music the Fast Way

Next we're going to look at playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again. This time, we will assume you've memorized the following items.

  • The Musical Alphabet
  • The Landmark Notes
  • C or G major scale (and what up and down mean when playing the scale)

We'll learn more about these things in a minute.

In the example below, the red dots are Landmark notes. They're memorized. 

(editing years later, for music teachers and observant readers: For some reason, I put this in G and transposed the Landmark Notes. I don't know why. The principals still hold, and the rest of this article teaches the proper Landmark Notes).

Here are the steps to read the same passage of music as above using the Landmark Note method:

  1. You memorized this note. Just play it.
  2. You also memorized this note. Just play it, too.
  3. This note just goes up the scale one note, so just do that.
  4. Hey, look, all these notes just go down the scale. So just play down the scale.

4 steps to play all of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star using the Cardinal Note Method. With the EGBDF method, 4 steps only gets you to the second note.

What You'll Learn Next

The Landmark Notes. 

Easy Tricks to Memorize Them.

Why They're The Landmark Notes

What Neighbor Notes are, And Why They're Easy

How to Read Music on the Entire Grand Staff 

How To Read every staff of music used in the past 400+ years

How To Read Ledger Lines

The 3 Landmark Notes

The First Landmark Note: C

The first Landmark Note is C. C is considered by many people to be one of the most important notes for two 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 middle of the typical range of human hearing; it's also in the middle of the piano. 

Middle C

Are you only looking to read music in the treble clef? Or maybe you're a bassist and want to read music in the bass clef. Alto and tenor clef? Stay with me. We're going to learn to read the Treble, Bass, Alto, and Tenor clefs simultaneously. The fun news? It's not any harder than just learning 1 (as long as you understand what symmetrical means).

Sidebar: That Grand Staff Doesn't Look Right, though!

If you play piano, you might've noticed that I squished the Grand Staff together. Normally, there's extra room added so that each staff has room for some ledger lines; this extra space also helps make it clear which hand plays which notes.

For pedagogical purposes, I squished the Grand Staff together to make it clear that C is in the middle of it all.

The Symmetry of C

Middle C is in precisely the middle of the staff. We'll refer to it often, so get used to the phrase "Symmetry of C." Here's the first of many spinny-roundy staffs that will help you double the number of notes you read. This one is mostly for fun; the rest will help you learn to read music faster.

Here, you can see the C is in the middle of the staff. There's five lines, four spaces above it. And five lines, four spaces below it. Above and below it, the staves are symmetrical.

So you've got C memorized, and we're well on our way to memorizing 3 more notes and immediately doubling that 6 (with no extra work), for a grand total of 7 notes memorized.

Since those notes are the Landmark Notes, it means that you'll be able to read the entire Grand Staff with ease (and alto and tenor clef, but don't freak out. It's not that hard).

Sidebar: On a Line or In a Space?

Name: ______________

We've all been trained from an early age to write our name on the line at the top of school assignments. And, believe it or not, that training can lead to confusion when learning to read music. 

When you write your name on the line, it's actually sitting on top of the line, hanging out in the free space above the line. 

When a music note is "on a line", the line goes through it. Basically, we're imagining the music notation is in 3 dimensions; the note sits on top of the line of it like a plate is on top of a table.

A note "in the space" is nestled in between two lines (except in the case of ledger lines, in which case there's only one).

Cs for Free

Now, here's the fun part. Whether you're learning to read music using Landmark Notes, each note you learn gets you two notes (because they're symmetrical) Why? Because of the Symmetry of C!

The following Landmark Note the second space in from the top of the treble clef, or G clef. Now, witness the power of the Symmetry of C.

There is a C in the bass clef that is on the the second space in from the bottom of the bass clef. 

Count however you want; lines or spaces, from middle C to the notes, or in from the top and bottom of the staff. Do it and you'll see that these notes are symmetrical.

Clefs

Above you see 5 lines and 4 spaces; the standard musical staff. If someone where to write music on it, you could play it. But how would you know which note to start on?

This problem is very easy to solve; just draw a letter somewhere on the staff as a reference point

 F G

That seems easier! The F note is between the horizontal lines of the F, and the G note centers around the G. Why don't we do that today?

Well, I've got news for you. That is what we're doing today. It's just that, over 400 years or so, people stylized the letter names until they were unrecognizable to the uninformed. Fortunately, you are now informed.

I recommend you memorize the names G and F clef. They're typically called the Treble and Bass Clef (not quite true, see sidebar below for more). However, remembering the Landmark Notes is much easier if we use the names G and F clef. 

Transformation of Bass, Treble, C, G, and F clefs through history

The evolution of the Clef Symbols, with the first appearance of the dreaded C clef (which you will easily master). 

Sidebar: More on Clefs

Clef symbols are stylized letters that give you a reference note so you know which notes to play. What most people don't know is that clefs can be placed on any line or space in the staff, indicating which note is the reference note.

Of course, this changes the arrangements of notes on the staff. This sounds and is very confusing!

Fortunately, clef placement has been standardized. G clef symbols are always placed on the second line from the bottom; this placement is called the Treble Clef. The F clef symbols are placed on the second line from the top, making the Bass Clef.

Alto Tenor Bass Treble

There is one other pesky clef symbol, the C clef. It's not used by many instruments today, but when it is, it's used in two different clefs: the alto clef and the tenor. It's infrequent use, and the fact that it moves makes it the bane of undergraduate music students.

I will teach you right now how to remember the difference between Alto Clef and Tenor Clef. It's so easy.

Think of who sings on Treble and Alto clefs. Sopranos and Altos, right? They sing many high notes, and, as the arrows show, there's plenty of room for high notes above their clef lines.

Similarly, tenors and basses sing low notes, so plenty of room is below their clef-lines.

It's that simple. We'll learn how to read C clef later on; it's simple when using the Landmark Note System.

Landmark Notes G and F

Now you now know that the G and F clefs show you where G and F are, respectively. Next, we move on to the Clef Notes (which are also Landmark Notes). They're G and F, and they're easy because the clefs tell you where they are. 

But here's the exciting bit; due to the Symmetry of C, Gs and Fs are the same distance away from Middle CIn fact, this pattern continues, no matter how far away from middle C you get.

That means if you memorize a G on the Treble Clef, you know the position of an F on the bass clef. And visa versa; an F on the Bass Clef will give you the position of a G on the treble clef (note that a G on the bass clef will not give you an F on the treble clef. The Symmetry only works when you start with a clef note of the clef you're on: G for G clef, F for F clef).

Let's take a minute to pause and go over what you've learned about reading music so far:

  • Middle C is in the Middle. 
  • There's another C on the first space from the staff's top and bottom. 
  • There is a G and an F on the second line in from the middle of the staff, respectively. 

Now, that doesn't seem like much. But let's stop spinning for a second and see what you know. Below, you'll see all the Landmark notes. The grey notes next to the LandMark Notes are called Neighbor Notes. These notes are super-easy to figure out (hint: use the Musical Alphabet; that's coming up next). 

Notice that there's only 1 space and and 1 line in each clef that isn't  colored in. You'll learn those notes soon, too. First, you need to learn the rules of the Musical Alphabet. 

The LandMark Notes and Neighbor Notes

Sidebar: Why Are These Notes the Landmark Notes?

  • By memorizing only 3 notes (Middle C, High or Low C, and G or F)  and the musical alphabet, you will develop the ability to quickly read and play 15 notes across the entire Grand Staff.
  • By understanding that the Landmark notes are symmetrical around C, you only need to memorize LandMark notes on 1 staff, then use symmetry to find them on the other staff.
  • 2 of the 3 notes are easy to remember: Middle C is in the middle, while you can find either of the Clef Notes (G or F) by using the Clef as a guide.
  • The Landmark Notes are perfectly spaced so that they do not share any neighbor notes.

The Rules of the Musical Alphabet

To learn the rest of the music notes on the staff, you need to know the 3 Rules of the Musical Alphabet:

  • The musical alphabet is the 7 letters of the alphabet: ABCDEFG.
  • The Musical Alphabet is an infinitely repeating cycle: ABCDEFGABCDEFG... Therefor: 
    • The Musical Alphabet has neither beginning nor end.
    • The musical Alphabet can start on any letter.
  • The musical alphabet is a vertical alphabet. It goes up and down, not side-to-side. Like this:

GFEDCBA

Now ask yourself; on what note does the musical alphabet above start? (trick question: the musical alphabet has neither beginning nor end).

The Musical Alphabet (Landmark Notes Circled in White)

Sidebar: Why is C so important? Why not A?

A Non-Answer

Everyone asks "Why is C the center, and not A?" I'll be honest with you. I am trying to remember and cannot. Honestly, this is trivia and not relevant to learning to read music. In the end, the notes are just names. I got two music degrees, one in music theory, and I only heard why once. On Reddit. A decade after I was out of school. Clearly, it's not that important. 

To emphasize my point, here's a chart of different note names in different (admittedly Euro-centric) parts of the world:

English

German

Romance Languages

Post-Tonal Theory

C

C

Do

0

D

D

Re

2

E

E

Mi

4

F

F

Fa

5

G

G

So/Sol

7

A

A

La

9

B

H

Ti

11

Yes, many Americans are familiar with their ABCs and 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. We adjust which notes are Do, Re, and Mi to help us understand the tonlity of a particular peice of music.

Other parts of the world use Fixed Do, which means that "Do" is the name given to the note we call C. "Do" is affixed to C and can not change.

As you may have guessed, Movable Do means that Do may be moved and assigned to any note.

Musical Alphabet Quiz

How Many Can You Guess in 30 seconds?

In this game, all but one of the musical notes will be hidden. One of it's neighbor notes will be highlighted in red.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to guess the red neighbor note. Input your answer by clicking on the letters to the right.

You'll then be given another note. See how many neighbor notes you can guess in 30 seconds. Each time you restart the quiz, the Musical Alphabet shifts and the answer buttons are rearranged. Good luck!

Timer: 30 seconds remaining

Correct Answers: 0

Next, let's put the musical alphabet onto the staff. Showing the Musical Alphabet on the Staff is crowded and visually confusing, even if it is a simple idea. 

To help alleviate that problem, I'm going to show it to you two ways. Take your time and look them over until they make sense.

First, look at the musical alphabet expanding from Middle C. I can't vertically stack the notes on each other; there isn't enough room. That's why they go to the right.

Notice that the notes go up the musical alphabet as you go up and down the musical alphabet as you go down.

D B E A B D C C C D B G G F A E A E F

The 5 Basic Landmark Notes and the Musical Alphabet expanding out from Middle C.

Next, I'll show the picture of Landmark Notes and Neighbor Notes from before, this time with note-names overlayed. This will help you understand how to use the Landmark notes to figure out how to read other nearby notes.

Notice how knowing every landmark note also lets you know the notes above and below it, if you apply the principles of the musical alphabet.

B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E A

The Landmark notes and Neighbor Notes, with Note Names.

That may look like a lot, but remember, you only need to memorize the location of the Landmark notes and the rules of the musical alphabet. Next, we'll put it all together. 

Reading Notes fast using the musical alphabet

To read music quickly and easily, all you have to do is figure out which Landmark note is closest to your target note and then move up or down the musical alphabet until you arrive at your note.

Here is our first example:

B E C G C F C E

Here's how easy it is to read music notes using the Landmark Note System:

  1. Find the Closest Landmark Note (C). 
  2. Go up the Musical Alphabet until you arrive at your target note. Our target note is literally touching C. It's the next note up the Musical Alphabet, so we go up the musical alphabet one step from C -> D
  3. That's it. You're Done. You figured it out. See how much faster this is than Every Good Boy Does Fine? It's worth it already, and we have yet to see all the benefits.

Practice Note Reading Exercises

Calculate your answer, then click "Answer" to reveal the answer.

B E C G C F C E

Answer

B

B E C G C F C E

Answer

F

B E C G C F C E

Answer

D

C G C F C

Answer

G

C G C F C

Answer

D

C G C F C

Answer

A

Reading Notes Musically

Another fantastic benefit of learning to read notes using the Landmark note system is that it teaches you to think musically immediately. This is because it teaches you from the very start to think about the relationship between notes.

Look at the following two examples:

C G C F C

Here, you figure out the first note (G). Since you're used to thinking about the musical alphabet, you know this goes up the musical alphabet: G A B C. This isn't that hard, and you don't need to think about the note names; you can start on G and play the following 3 notes up the scale.

Here's another example:

C G C F C

This example is similar; we start on C and play up 4 notes to arrive at G: C D E F G. 

Simple enough. But let's slow down and look at that. 

Maybe you noticed something strange in the image showing the Landmark Notes and Neighbor Notes. In the G clef, the letter E was by itself; there wasn't a note with it. And, in the F clef, the letter A was treated similarly. 

This scale run example demonstrates why: In the treble clef, C and G are our landmark notes. Here's the run with the landmark notes bolded:

C D E F G

In the G clef, E is not a neighbor note to either Landmark Note. In fact, it's exactly in the middle of the two landmark notes. The same thing happens in the F Clef. In The F Clef, Note A is not a neighbor note to either Landmark Notes.

This makes them a little more challenging to figure out, but not much. After all, it just means you go up (or down) two steps on the Musical Alphabet.

Now, let's expand the landmark notes to cover the entire staff. 

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Extending The Range

One remarkable feature of all of this symmetry is that it continues on... forever. You can keep expanding Landmark Notes forever and ever.

(Now is a good time to mention that this symmetry idea is only intended for learning to read music. This idea does not apply to music theory in any way, shape, or form)

Memorizing 1 more landmark note on each staff puts the entire staff at your fingertips; you can read anything (unless it requires ledger lines; we'll introduce that later).

Here, we add G on the top space, sitting on top of the staff. F goes in the symmetrical place below, hanging off the bottom of the staff.

With these 7 notes covering the entire Grand Staff, it's time for you to test your understanding with the first Note Reading Quiz.

Note Reading Quiz

Hit "Go" and you'll have 30 seconds to see how many notes you can get. Increase the difficulty by hiding the visual aides.

Music Quiz

Score: 0 Correct Answers: 0 Percentage Correct: 0%

0:30

F E D B A F E D B A G E D B A G A G C G C F C F E

The final landmark note

The Last Landmark Note brings extends your note reading range to 4 full octaves and extends it beyond the music staff by 2 ledger lines. Just like I promised.

Of course, to read music notes outside the staff, we use the same method. Find your closest Landmark Note and move along the Musical Alphabet to figure out

Sidebar: Ledger Lines

What are they? Ledger Lines are just an extension of the staff. They're just little itsy-bitsy lines that we add on to the staff when we need them. We use them instead of using full-length lines and we only use them when the notes go far enough outside the staff. 

Why do we use them? Because this is incredibly confusing, so everybody agreed not to do it. 

Journey beyond the staff: Ledger 

We've been learning the Grand Staff because, well, why not? It's easy, and you learn so many notes so fast.

But the truth is that most instrumentalists don't use  the Grand Staff. They use the Bass or Treble clef.

And while we've covered some ledger lines above and below the grand staff, we still need to understand the hidden ledger lines inside the grand staff.

When reading a solitary bass or treble clef, you'll eventually run into ledger lines below the staff (Treble Clef) and above the staff (Bass Clef) that you have yet to learn.

Except you already learned them. They're just the notes on the "missing" part of the grand staff. The animation below removes 1 staff from the grand staff so you can see this relationship.

As you probably figured out by now, you can keep adding Landmark Notes forever and ever, extending ledger lines to infinity and beyond.

However, I don't recommend doing that. At least, not yet. There is a better way. 

C clef Reading Music on the Alto and Tenor Clef

If you've landed here because you're in music school and you have to learn how to read notes on the Tenor or Alto Clef, I have good news.

C clef is the easiest clef to read notes on. 

But, before we learn how to read music on the alto and tenor clef, let's take a look at how the C clef fits into the grand staff.

Obviously, the C clef is never placed here in written music. But , with this animation, you can see it's range and how it fits into the Grand Staff. 

Why do I say it's the easiest to read? Simple.

The C clef itself has simple-to-remember markers for each Landmark Note. Knowing this makes it easy to read both alto and tenor clef.

The middle, pointy-in bit of the clef shows where C is. The top edge of the clef symbol touches the G note. The bottom edge of the clef symbol touches the F note.

Now, while clefs can technically move, the C clef is the only one that does in modern practice. It can form both the alto and tenor clef. Here, you can see the shift happen.

C clef quiz (isn't here yet). 



The Far Reaches: Using the C clef to read Ledger Lines

As I said earlier, you can extend the Landmark notes forever to continue to read ledger lines. However, it's far easier to use an imaginary C clef to read the extended ledger lines.

By mentally moving a C clef over the High or Low C (on the ledger lines above and below the staff), you can easily visualize where the next highest (or lowest) ledger line is and, naturally, read notes all the notes over this extended, 6 octave range.

Octava Markings

Sometimes composers and/or music editors use an octava marking instead of using extended ledger lines. This simply transposes the music down by 1 octave.

Conclusion

Thus concludes my treatise on the best way to learn to read notes. Looking for apps to help you learn? These apps are silly, fun, and effective. Leave a comment below if you've gotten this far!

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

  • This article is really useful. I tried learning with face and egbdf and like you say it’s really annoying trying to count it on the staff. The landmarks are much more intuitive – thank you.

    • Cool! Glad you like it; I put a lot of effort into this.
      When I learned this method, I’d been playing for 20 yrs and I still found it incredibly useful (mainly for playing clefs which I don’t have much practice with).

  • This is awesome- thank you!!! And yes, anything you want to write about note reading (or anything else) is greatly appreciated!

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