Learn How to Read Sheet Music: A Quick, Fun, Tongue-in-Cheek Introduction

You’re prob­a­bly famil­iar with the scene in Milos Foreman’s Amadeus (or its bril­liant 30 Rock par­o­dy). Thomas Hulce as the irrev­er­ent musi­cal prodi­gy fever­ish­ly dic­tates the “Dies Irae” sec­tion of his final, unfin­ished Requiem Mass in D minor, con­jur­ing it out of thin air. Mozart’s envi­ous rival Salieri puts pen to paper, strug­gling to keep up (“You go too fast!”). The two com­posers hear exact­ly the same thing, the same piece of music the view­er hears play­ing. The Requiem flows through Mozart as though he were a divine avatar; we’re all sup­posed to hear it—the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of music, celes­tial and mag­nif­i­cent.

The cru­el irony of the scene lies in its abil­i­ty to con­vince us of just that, while show­ing us some­thing far dif­fer­ent. As his many per­plexed moments demon­strate, Salieri doesn’t hear the music, he only sees Mozart’s ges­tures and hears him speak­ing a lan­guage most of us don’t know well, if at all. (It prob­a­bly did not hap­pen this way.) The sheet music in the film rep­re­sents the music’s world­ly medi­a­tion, through a lan­guage alien to the unini­ti­at­ed, a col­lec­tion of hiero­glyph­ics as baf­fling as Cyril­lic to the Telagu speak­er and so on. But the unini­ti­at­ed are rare. Most of us have had some musi­cal edu­ca­tion, how­ev­er fleet­ing, whether at church, school, or home.  

So none of us are Mozart—few of us are even Salieri—but we can all learn or relearn to decode and deci­pher the writ­ten lan­guage of music, even if we can’t hear it play­ing while we read it. As always, Youtube hosts its share of instruc­tion­al videos of vary­ing degrees of qual­i­ty. The ani­mat­ed video at the top of the post might make the list of most enter­tain­ing, but bear in mind, it’s a tongue-in-cheek exer­cise, “a help­ful guide cre­at­ed by an unqual­i­fied indi­vid­ual” (who ini­tial­ly declares him­self a 12-year-old). Nev­er had I seen an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor in an instruc­tion­al video before, but here you have it. On the whole, how­ev­er, the video’s frus­trat­ed ama­teur cre­ator Julian Cian­ci­o­lo gets it right, and when he doesn’t, the few hun­dred musi­cians and teach­ers watch­ing let him know. (Cian­ci­o­lo promis­es to cor­rect the bass clef in a fol­low-up.)

While Cian­ci­o­lo gets to work on anoth­er video, you may want to check out some more straight­for­ward resources. The playlist fur­ther up, from youcanplayit.com, offers a very thor­ough expla­na­tion of the staff, clefs, notes, time sig­na­tures, etc. It does not do so in the most excit­ing of ways, and many of its oth­er lessons apply specif­i­cal­ly to the piano or recorder. Just above, we have a les­son on the bass clef from the Music The­o­ry Guy, who makes videos on, you guessed it, music the­o­ry, from begin­ner to advanced. His style is a bit more ellip­ti­cal than that of you­can­play­it, but his deliv­ery more than makes up for it. 

In a cheer­ful British accent, the Music The­o­ry Guy gen­tly coax­es us into a con­cept, like the bass clef, with sim­ple but effec­tive descrip­tions of the things around the bass clef. Anoth­er video, “The Impor­tance of Mid­dle C,” just above, does the same thing. These resources—even the fast-paced, dead­pan “How to Read Sheet Music” at the top—all offer at the very least a refresh­er course on musi­cal lan­guage com­pre­hen­sion. For many, they serve equal­ly well as qual­i­ty first intro­duc­tions to musi­cal sym­bols and some basic com­po­si­tion­al the­o­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Hum­ming­bird,” A New Form of Music Nota­tion That’s Eas­i­er to Learn and Faster to Read

Learn to Play Gui­tar for Free: Intro Cours­es Take You From The Very Basics to Play­ing Songs In No Time

Paul McCart­ney Offers a Short Tuto­r­i­al on How to Play the Bass Gui­tar

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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