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Today I’m going to teach you the important parts of reading music. Do I think reading music is important for saxophonists?
Every musician should learn to read music—at least the basics that’ll show you in this article. I know quite a few musicians friends who never learnt to read music and I can just see that it’s a source of insecurity for them.
And it always comes up in conversation with other musicians, when you are talking about music.
Reading music doesn’t have to take long to learn, in fact, I’d you can do most of the grasping of it in just 15 minutes—which the goal of this article.
Obviously, after that, you have to practice, but really, the important concepts that everyone needs to know are fairly simple.
So let’s get started.
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How to Read Saxophone Sheet Music in 15 Minutes
So, first of all, reading music tells you two things:
- It tells you pitch, and;
- It tells you rythmn
Now, pitch basically means which notes to play and rythmn means when to play those notes.
Pitch is the really important part, for a complete beginner to music theory, as far as I’m concerned and the good news is pitch the easy pary to learn.
Rythmn, however, is the hard part to learn—it’s definately takes a lot longer than 15 minutes to learn all these different rythmns, note lengths, rest lengths, and is not as important very early on.
What I mean by this is, you can just listen to the piece of music and learn the rythmn just by listening to it, and then just play it by ear.
You can also sort of see the rought idea of how the rythm should sound, just by looking at the music and how the notes are spaced.
So, in my opinion, if you are just interested in learning the basics of reading music, don’t worry about rythmn. Rythmn is what takes a lot of time leanrn. That is what intimidates most poeple from learning to read music.
And in my opinion, it’s not that important, especially early on.
The Treble and Bass Clefs
There are different types of clefs but there are two main types of clefs, that is, the treble and the bass clef.
You can think of the treble clef as the right hand on the piano and bass cless as the left hand on the piano.
The way music works with any staff is that the lines and the spaces are each their own note.
So to move up a note you go from a line to a space. To move down a note you go from a space to a line, and so on and so forth.
Space here means the space between any two lines on the staff. Music is drawn on a staff, the five parallel lines.
The Treble Clef
With the treble clef, the bottom line is an E and then the bottom space is an F, and then it just goes up from there. The easy way to identify notes quickly is to use an acronym to remember the five lines.
The common acronym for the lines of treble clef is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge/Food.
Some people like to do the same for the spaces and they’ll use the word FACE, but if you like, you can just use the lines to remember the spaces.
Really catchy, I know!
It stuck, and that’s what I’ve always used. It’s okay if you have your own acronym that you use. The idea is to identify the notes correctly.
The other thing to mention, is that these aren’t just any notes—it’s not just any E, or F, or G, and so on, and so forth. These are specific notes within a specific octave. With the treble clef the bottom E is specifically the E above middle C on the piano.
As you can see with middle C above, it’s also possible for these lines to go above and below the staff. So there’s just five lines, but obviously these notes can go above those notes, and when these happens we use what’s called ledger lines.
In this case, ledger lines are just lines that get added to measure up above the top F of the treble clef, or to measure down below the bottom E.
It get’s a bit tricky to read these ledger lines, because theu are not complete lines, but you just have to practice counting up, literally every single note. And that’s fine. That’s natural.
The Bass Clef
With the bass clef, we have to learn a new acronym. Most people use Grizzly Bears Don’t Fear Anything.
Some people use Good Boys Deserve Fine Apples but I prefer the one without “good boys deserve” because you can get easily confused with the treble and bass clef that way.
Again, it’s also important to know, on the keyboard where these notes are. The way to remember the register is that middle c is one ledge line above the top line of the base clef.
So the position of middle C is a good way that you can use to remember both the treble clef and the bass clef.
The two clefs are actually sort of like a mirror of each other because on the treble clef, middle C is one ledger line below the bottom line, and then wit th base clef, middle C is one ledger line above the top line.
So, if you take nothing else from this article, just remember where middle C is. Then from that you can either count up, or cound down and figure out any note.
Sharps, Flats and Naturals
In music, any of these notes we’ve looked at can be sharp—which means raised a half-step, and any of these notes can be flat—which means they’re lowered a half-step.
Now, the way that we write a sharp is with the # looking sign just in front of the note that is to be sharpened.
Now, to flatten a note, we have the b looking sign, whic is again placed before the note to be flattened.
Now, here is the important bit, once a sharp or a flat sign is used, it doesn’t just affect that one note. It also affects any repeats of that note for the rest of that bar.
That means that if there’s another F, for instance, or another two or three F’s played after that F-sharp, they will all be made F-sharps.
Or, if there’s another B after that B-flat, that would also be played as a B-flat as well.
And, then once you get to the next bar (you’ll get a bar line, which is a vertical line), both sharps and flats reset—sharps and flats end at the barline.
Any Bs or Fs will be B naturals or F naturals after that.
Now, there is also a natural sign, which looks like this:
The natural sign or symbol, basically, undoes the effect of the sharp or the flat from either in that same bar.
So, say, you have the F-sharp, but then on the repeat of the F-sharp, you have the natural sign before it, that would mean it’s back to F-natural again.
Subsequent repeats of F after the natural symbol would be played at natural.
So, this natural gets used as a way to undo the effect of the sharp or the flat within a bar.
One final point to make about sharps and flats is that at the very beginning of the piece, before the music even starts, you might have what’s called a key signature.
A key signature is basically a display of sharps, or flats at the very beginning. This basically means that the sharp or flat will be valid throughout the piece.
That means, every you see an F, it’s going to be an F-sharp, and every time you see a C, it’s going to be a C-sharp.
Now, at the beginning of this article, I said I wasn’t going to cover rythmn. But, there is one thing I just want to say on rythmn, and that’s about time signatures.
If you look at the beginning of a piece of music, just like I said there is a key signature, there is also a time signature.
If you see a couple of numbers on top of each other at the beginning of a piece of music, this is what is called a time signature.
These two numbers tell you what type of time signature the piece of music is in.
There are various time signatures, 4/4 time is the most common, but there are others such as 2/4 time, 3/4 time, 5/4 time, 6/4 time, 3/8 time, 6/8 time, 9/8 time, 12/8 time and so on and so forth.
The important number is the top number.
The top number tells you how many beats are in a bar.
So, if you see 4/4 time, that means that there are four beats in a bar—four quarter-notes per bar, if you see 3/4 time, that means there are 3 beats in a bar—three quarter-notes per bar.
Something with 6/8 time, for instance, will have a swing type of feel to it.
The bottom number tells you what type of beat that is.
It’s not too important, whether it a four or it’s an eight. Usually it’s one of those two.
So, the next time you wonder what those two numbers at the beginning of a time signature are, well, remember it’s a time signature.
So finally, I’m just going to go over a few remaining notation markings which you’ll also encounter in music.
What are Dynamics in Music?
Well, dynamics, mean how loud, or soft you want to play music. Generally, you have p and you have f.
So you’ll see this ps and fs scattered about the music.
p stands for Piano and it means play it Quiet.
f stands for Fortissimo and it means play it Loud.
Now, sometimes, composers will stack-up these symbols. The more fs the louder and the ps the quieter. Generally, these go up to about triple-f or down triple-p, it’s pretty rare to see anything beyond that.
ff means play it Very Loud.
fff means play it Very Very Loud.
pp means play it Very Quiet.
ppp means play it Very Very Quiet.
You’ll also get mf and mp. m stands for Mezzo which basically means moderately or medium.
mf stands for Mezzoforte and it means play it Moderately Loud.
mp stands for Mezzopiano and it means play it Moderately Loud.
So, all these arranged in a sequence from quietest to loudest would be, ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and finally fff.
Got all that?
Another dynamic marking you’ll also see is this sort of hairpin notation.
Let me show you what I’m talking about.
When hairpin expands to the right, this is called a crescendo it means Get Louder.
And, when hairpin contracts to the right, this is called a diminuendo and that means Get Quieter.
Finally, you want to practice this. It will take a couple of weeks, at least, to ingraine everything I have just shown you.
Now, there are two ways to practice reading music:
- The first way is to find some sheet music and practice sight-reading.
- The second way is to write your own music and practice notating your own compositions.
I really hope his article has boosted your confidence at reading music.
I hope that you can now look at a piece of music and find your way around it—be able to work out the pitches, the dynamics, key and time signatures and so on.
Reading music shouldn’t be something that holds you back from sharing and exploring the beautiful music out there.