Reading Bars: A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Sheet Music
If you’re a session singer, you’ll likely encounter sheet music at some point in your career. If you’re a songwriter, you might someday write sheet music. Either way, reading sheet music can be fun and rewarding, and doesn’t have to be scary! I’m going to focus on just one part of sheet music today: Bars.
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3 Tips to Learn to Read Sheet Music
This might be really basic for some, but I’m going into this assuming that you know nothing at all about reading music (which is totally okay). Consider it an intro! Let’s look at a photo of a bar:
The shape on the left is a Treble Clef (which tells us that this is for the right hand on the piano, the higher voice parts, or for certain instruments). There is also a Bass Clef, but I’m going to get into those in a later post.
The five horizontal lines are called a Staff. A bar is one chunk of the staff, also called a “measure”. It is notated by a vertical line going down the staff. So, let’s say a song is in 4/4 time. This means that each measure (or Bar) is four beats. So, anyone who sits down to read this sheet music will see that what they need to play within that Bar should add up to four counts.
If this is confusing, let’s look at a song you probably know:
Love it or hate it, I’m guessing you’ve heard this song. So let’s look at the left side. You’ll see there are three staffs. The top one is the singer, the bottom is for Accompaniment (see my other post for info on that!) We’ll say it’s a piano just to keep things easy. To the left of the clefs, you’ll see a little hashtag (a sharp); this tells us what key the song is in. I will get into that more in a different post. Next to that is the 4/4 time signature, which is common for a lot of songs.
So, for “I stay out too,” each of those is one count and there are four of them. That’s how they fit in the Bar! The next bar is just “late,” and it is a half note so it is held out for two counts, and then there is a rest for two counts. Still adding up to four! On the bottom, you have the right hand of the piano playing the melody notes (this is helpful in case there is no singer and the pianist wants to play the full song) and the left hand is providing the rhythm part.
If this all seems very stiff, the interpretation is left up to the performer. Do you HAVE to hold out “late” for exactly two beats? Not at all. Consider this a guide to help you interpret the song. The only time you’d need to do exactly what the sheet music says is if you’re hired by a client who instructs it, or if you’re being judged on a performance of a classical piece. Here are my best tips for understanding bars:
1). Start at the very left and gather all of the information
This includes the treble/bass clef, key signature, and time signature. You can look up what key it is by this helpful sheet. These will be your tools going forward to know how many counts are in each bar and what notes to expect.
2). Read each bar individually
It can be scary to look at a whole piece of music. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself! Just take each bar at a time.
3). If you aren’t sure of something, don’t be afraid to ask
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you see a symbol you don’t recognize or aren’t sure what the writer intended, they would much rather you ask (trust me)! You’ll be able to add to your learning bank and improve your reading by asking questions. If the composer is dead (as is often the case with classical music), your instructor or conductor will be more than happy to help. It’s always better to ask than to guess!
You can see from Taylor Swift’s sheet music, how important production is to a song. You can give just a piece of sheet music to 50 producers and I bet they would all interpret it completely differently (not that we all read sheet music, but we’d all hire people and produce it in a different way). That’s why it is so important to hire a producer you trust and who is on the same page as you! If you want to make sure the producer executes the song you’re envisioning, fill out my free sheets for your music and give them to your producer. They are available here and you can get the entire book here: https://payhip.com/b/9qjd
Will you try reading sheet music? If so, give me a tweet and let me know!I'm going to start learning to read sheet music! Click To Tweet
Do you have any tips on how to read sheet music? I’d love to know them! Shoot me a comment and let me know!
Also, I have to give a shoutout to Virtual Sheet Music, Inc. for supporting this post. If you need any sheet music to practice reading bars, you can click that link and if you buy any I’ll make a few cents! Wins all around.
This post was originally published on May 3, 2016.
Hello Mella; I do live community theater, mostly tech work. Thanks for answering my sheet music in your second paragraph of “reading bars” article.
Hi Dave and great meeting you! Thanks so much for reading!