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by Michael Lane

Chapter 8 - Reading Notes, Timing and Dynamics

Written music shows you what to play (notes), when to play (timing) and how to play (dynamics). In this chapter we cover these three areas, building on the basics of reading music introduced in Chapter 5. There, you will also find an introduction on what musical notation is and what advantages being able to read notes brings.

Note that this chapter will overlap heavily with any lessons or tutorials you are taking. It cannot replace learning with a teacher, online tutorials or an app. Instead, we hope it can serve as an introduction and a memory aid to help you as you learn.

The notes (what to play)

Flats and sharps

Up to now, we only mentioned the white keys, for simplicity. The black keys are flat and sharp notes. They use the same series of letters (A to G) but add “flat” or “sharp” to identify if they are the black key below or above the white key. For clarity, we refer to the white keys, those that are not flat or sharp, as natural notes.

  • Flats(♭) are the black keys below the named note
    • e.g. B♭ ”B flat” is the black key below B
  • Sharps(♯) are the black keys above the named note
    • e.g. C♯ “C sharp” is the black key above C
  • Naturals(♮) are the white keys, the named note.
    • e.g. D♮ ”D natural” is simply D
notes flat symbols
Notes with flat/sharp/natural symbols

Key Signatures

Starting at C and playing only the white keys, you are limited to the “key signature” of C major. This is only one of countless key signatures, one that uses no black keys. When playing in F major, for example, every B drops to B♭, while D major raises F to F♯ and C to C♯. Other keys use far more black keys, and B major uses all five.

Unless you want to go deep into music theory, don’t worry about learning which key signature uses which flats and sharps for now. It is always marked in the sheet music. To save space, notes that are consistently flat or sharp are marked with ♭ or ♯ after the clef symbol at the beginning of each staff.

Grand staff with key signature
Grand staff with key signature

Accidentals and Naturals

Most music will not stick entirely to a key signature, adding extra flats or sharps throughout. These are called “accidentals”. If an accidental is marked, we carry it forward to the next vertical line (this marks the end of a “measure” - more detail on this in the “Timing” section). A B♭ marked at the start of a measure lowers all following B notes in that measure down to B♭. The next measure will revert to whatever is marked in the key signature at the beginning of the staff.

The natural (♮) symbol tells the reader to play the white key, ignoring the flats or sharps in the key signature, or earlier in the measure. This symbol is only valid for one measure.

Notes accidentals
Use of accidentals

The bass clef

So far we have concentrated on the top half of the grand staff, the treble clef. This contains notes above middle C, and is usually played by the right hand. The bottom half is the bass clef, which contains notes below middle C and is usually played by the left hand.

Notes accidentals
Middle C on the bass staff

Just like the treble clef, you don’t need to count down from middle C to work out the notes. You can use memory aids. Use any of these, or make up your own!

  • The four spaces of the bass clef from bottom to top are ACEG - All Cows Eat Grass, or All Cars Eat Gas.
  • Notes all cows eat grass
    Notes in the spaces
  • The five lines of the bass clef are GBDFA - Good Boys Do Fine Always, or Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart.
  • Notes good boys do fine always
    Notes on the lines
  • The dots of the bass clef symbol surround the F (thus it is also called the “F clef”).

Timing (when to play)

Written music is split into “measures” (or “bars”), represented by thin vertical lines that cross the staff. Within each measure, different symbols represent different note lengths. A whole note is the longest, with a certain duration depending on the speed of the song. The other note lengths are subdivisions of this whole note. Half notes are half this length, quarters a quarter, eighths an eighth… and so on. You will use these later when we start counting.

Note lengths
Note lengths

Note that eighth notes have a "flag“, cutting the length of the quarter note in half. Sixteenth notes have a double flag, cutting it in half again. To clean up the stave, eighth or sixteenth notes played consecutively are grouped together by joining up the flags. This is called “beaming”.

eighth and sixteenth notes
Beaming of eighth and sixteenth notes

Rests

Gaps between notes, where you play nothing, are rests. This is different to holding a note, so a series of half notes will sound different to a series of quarter notes separated by quarter rests. Just like their note counterparts, whole, half, quarter and eighth rests have their own symbol. To mark shorter rests we add a flag. Each rest symbol has the same number of flags as the note symbol (eighth has one, sixteenth has two, thirty-second has three etc).

notes rests
Rests

Time signatures (aka meter)

This tells us how each measure is divided. The most common is 4/4 or “common time”, which has four quarter beats per measure. If you are mathematical, it may help to see it as a fraction. The top figure tells us how many beats are in a measure (in this case four). The bottom figure tells us what time value each beat has (in this case a quarter). By the same logic, 3/4 has three quarter beats to a measure, while 6/8 has six eighth beats to a measure.

Time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8
Time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8

This is easier to grasp if you listen to, learn, and play along with examples of different time signatures. Swan Lake (4/4) and Für Elise (3/4) are a good place to start (both available in the beginner section on flowkey).

Dotted and tied notes

Note lengths don’t always come in multiples of two, so we need to depict everything in between. We do this by adding a dot to the note, indicating it has the normal length of that note plus an extra half. So a dotted whole note is worth one-and-a-half, while a dotted half note is three quarters. We can also tie two notes together to show that you hold for the length of both notes, mostly used when the extended note crosses over two measures.

dotted tied notes
Dotted and tied notes

Counting

Knowing when to play involves counting. If you have ever heard musicians calling out numbers before music begins, then you can get an idea. Counting out loud to yourself is fine at first, but over time you will develop the ability to count in your head. Eventually it will come naturally, allowing you to sight read music and stay in time without having to concentrate.

Look at the time signature to work out how many counts are in a measure and how long each will be. In 4/4 this will be four quarters, so you count “one, two, three, four”. You can split these counts in half by adding “and” between them, to make “one and two and three and four and”. This allows us to count measures with shorter subdivisions, dotted or tied notes.

Tempo

To count properly, you need to know the speed intended for the piece, known as tempo. Traditionally, this is written in Italian terms like Lento (“slowly”), Moderato (“moderately”) or Allegro (“fast and bright”). In modern pieces, this is often marked in beats per minute (bpm), referring to the number of quarter counts per minute e.g. ♩= 120 bpm.

There is a long list of Italian terms, along with their respective bpm ranges that can easily be found online.

dotted tied notes
Tempo markings

Interpretation of tempo and rhythm

Don’t think of tempo markings too strictly. They represent a range, not an exact figure. Part of the joy of playing a solo instrument like piano is that you can pull and push the time to make it more expressive. The Italian term for this type of free playing is Tempo Rubato or “stolen time”. Keep in mind though that this approach to timing is not common in all styles of music. So use it with caution and only after you can play the rhythm correctly with a steady tempo.

Dynamics (how to play it)

Previous chapters have mentioned dynamic range a lot. Like everything else, the intended dynamics are marked on the music. Again, don’t be too strict with them. There is no strict “correct” volume, so you have space to express yourself and make the music your own.

Volume is marked as letters to represent Italian terms. “Piano” (p) is quiet while “Forte” (f) is loud. “Mezzo” (m), meaning medium, can be added to either Piano or Forte to bring it towards the middle. To exaggerate either marking, you simply multiply it. So pianissimo (very soft) is pp, while fortissimo (very loud) is ff. And fff is “neighbours complaining”.

An accent (>) on a note tells you to play it with more emphasis. Increasing volume (crescendo) is marked with a symbol like a stretched < sign, while the opposite (decreasing volume, or decrescendo) is marked with a stretched > sign.

dynamics notes
Dynamics in sheet music

Getting better at sight reading

When you start learning to read as a child, you have to concentrate on the meaning of each word, then put it into the context of a sentence. Eventually, you understand each sentence without thinking. Music is the same. It just takes practice.

Find a song that suits your skill level and practice playing it using the sheet music alone. Even if it looks confusing at first, all black marks and symbols on a page, systematically work out what they mean and play them. Then move onto another piece. You will find that you get used to making mental shortcuts, you stop needing to work it out and start to “sight read”.

Stick to it and eventually you won’t see a page of black marks and symbols. You will hear chords, melodies, harmonies, and know what to play without even thinking about it.