Very, VERY Basic Notation

(...or sheet music for people who have never seen sheet music in their lives)

So you’ve never taken a music lesson. That’s okay; I know plenty of people who appreciate music—and even perform it!—and who cannot read music. (I know, horrifying, right?) That doesn’t mean it isn’t something you shouldn’t invest time into learning, but if you’ve made it this far in your life without knowing treble from bass clef, you probably won’t find yourself performing in a concert hall any time soon.

For my purposes, all you really need is a basic crash course in sheet music. I won’t even make you learn scales! What you’ll find on this page is a simple, illustrated guide to what-the-heck-are-those-black-dots, and maybe a few Italian words.


Treble clef, or G clef, is my favorite. When I was in grammar school, I used to doodle it in my notebook instead of taking notes. Most wind instruments play on treble clef, as do most sections of a four part choir. (Soprano and Alto always sing treble, Bass sings… well, bass… and tenor either sings high notes on bass clef, or treble an octave lower.) It’s also your right hand when you play piano.

Back in the day, clefs used to float around, but you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You can find G on the second line from the bottom… the one that the big curly part is circling around… or the only line that is crossed four times.

Reading music on this line is easy when you know the acronyms. The lines, from the bottom, are EGBDF (“Every Good Boy Does Fine”), and the spaces are FACE (or… well, face).

If you see an eight on top of the treble clef, you go an octave higher, and if you see one on bottom, you go an octave lower. Two clefs also means that you go an octave lower.

Bass clef, or F clef, has a very similar description to Treble clef. The reason it's called "F clef" is because depending on where it sits, it assigns where F is... this is basically a non-issue now, since the vast majority of music written now has it sitting on the fourth line (F is always found between the dots). The same is actually true for Treble, but it's easier to find and explain here.

For the sake of being consistent, or if you want an alternative method to figuring out notes than finding F and counting up and down, bass has a set of acronyms too! The lines are GBDFA, or "Good Boys Deserve Fun Always," and the spaces are ACEG, or, "All Cars Eat Gas.

Percussion, or Neutral clef, requires very little explanation. There are variations of it (I have seen a version with two lines rather than a rectangle, for example), but it doesn't really matter for our purposes here. You'll really only see this in an organized large band setting, like in a marching band, orchestra, or concert band. All you really have to know is that when you see this, there are no notes to speak of. Any percussion instrument that actually uses notes will use either F or G (or both, in case of piano, marimba etc).

Another important thing to remember with this clef is that it usually will not have five lines... most of it will only have the center line. When it has multiple, as far as I know, it means that the different lines are assigned to different instruments. The notes on percussion music, instead of the black dots, will be made of small "x's."

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