The first step to understanding music theory and reading sheet music, is to understand what a score is, and how the the significance of all of the different symbols on the page.
At first glance, a piece of sheet music can seem extremely complex and intimidating. This is a natural reaction – after all, it really is a lot to take in at once. Just like trying to read a book in a different language, it takes time and experience to be able to decipher and understand the various elements of sheet music.
Let’s take a look at the following example (if it appears too small, click on the photo to make it larger.) You can also view the arrangement on Musescore by clicking here.
That’s a lot to take in at once, right?
At it’s core, sheet music can be thought of like a detailed set of instructions.
The above piece of sheet music tells us not only what notes we’re supposed to be playing, but also a bunch of other useful information as well. Some examples include…
How long different notes should be. (Rhythm)
When to stop playing, and for how long. (Rests)
How loud to play certain notes, or sections. (Dynamics)
How quickly to play certain sections. (Tempo)
When we should build up volume, or lower it. (Crescendos and decrescendos)
What notes will appear most commonly through the piece. (Key)
How many beats per bar, and what kind of note makes up a beat. (Time signature)
The style of each note, or phrase. Should the notes blend together, or sound very distinctly separate? (There are too many symbols to show a picture for this one!)
And of course, that’s not all. Some of these rules may remain constant throughout the entire piece, whereas others may change frequently as the song progresses.
Although you’re always welcome to deviate into your own style, most sheet music gets very specific not only with the notes being played, but exactly how the composer intends them to be played. This means that two performances of the same sheet music by two separate musicians should sound very close to each other – provided they are following all the cues and instructions that the sheet music provides.
Don’t worry if any of this sounds confusing – even the most talented musicians would have once looked at a piece of sheet music like this, and had absolutely no idea where to even begin. As we continue on through this instructional series, we’ll go into detail about exactly what each symbol means, and how they affect the way that the music should be played.
For now, I just want you to understand a few key points:
- A musical score is a series of instructions, detailing what notes to play, and how exactly to play them.
- Reading sheet music is so much more than just playing certain notes. There are a large number of different cues that affect how the piece should be played. Two melodies consisting of the exact same notes in the same exact order can sound drastically different.
- Knowing music theory will not only allow you to play the sheet music exactly how it’s intended to be played, it will also give you a sense of how to construct it for yourself – including the exact symbols and building blocks used in the example piece above.