Reading music – the notes

Written music is a system that allows us to share music without using recordings – it’s a system that looks more complicated than it is in reality. In its most basic form, it allows us to understand which notes to play and how long each note should be played for.

While traditional music is an aural culture where tunes are generally learnt by ear, reading music is a useful additional skill to learn. It allows you to learn tunes from books, or remind yourself how a particular tunes starts, or find specific notes in a tune that you’ve struggled to work out from recordings or other people’s playing.

To be able read written music we need to understand the conventions that are used to convey the pitch of the note and the length of the note. I’ll look at each of these separately below.

Note pitch

The musical notes are written on a stave – 5 horizontal lines like this:

Blank manuscript - the stave

The lines of the stave (from the bottom to the top) are the notes E, G, B, D, F, and the spaces (from bottom to top) are the notes F, A, C, E

Notes on a stave

In written music each note is indicated by a round dot, and it’s position on the stave shows you which note to play. So the dot of every note you see on a stave will either be on a line or in the space between lines. As well as the notes shown above, we can also add a note below the first line (this is the open D string on the fiddle), and a note above the top line. So these are the notes we have on the written stave, showing the notes on the lines, and then the notes in the spaces

Notes on a stave - the lines and spaces.mus

So if we position these in order, we have this:

Notes on a stave - D to G

If you were to play these notes on your fiddle, starting on the open D string, you’ll play D, E (1st finger) F (2nd finger) G (3rd finger) then the open A string, B (1st finger) C (2nd finger) D (3rd finger) Open E string, F (1st finger) and G (2nd finger).

You’ll notice from this pattern that the all notes on the lines are played with either a first or third finger, and all the notes in the spaces are either open strings, or played with the 2nd finger.

So how do we show the notes on the G string, and the note played with the 3rd finger on the E string in written music? We can add what are called ledger lines which are extra lines above or below the stave. If you wanted to write down all the notes on the fiddle it would look like this:

Fiddle notes, strings and fingerings

Note length

When you listen to music you will often hear a ‘pulse’ or ‘beat’ – think about the points where you would want to clap if you’re clapping along or tapping your foot.

The following information relates to reels, which are tunes that have 4 beats in each bar. In written music, you will find the music is divided up into bars by vertical lines on the stave like this:

Bar lines on manuscript

In the above examples, I have written the notes as crotchets. Each crotchet is one beat in length. So if we were to write our crotchets on the music in 4 beat bars, there will be 4 crotchets in each bar, like this:

Music written in crotchetsThe crotchet rhythm sounds like this:


A quaver is half a beat. There are 2 quavers in a single beat. The convention of musical notation shows quavers written down with a line at the top of their ‘stem’. Where there is more than one quaver, these lines join adjacent quavers together in pairs or groups of four.

So the notes on the stave above, written in a rhythm of quavers, will look like this:

Rhythm in quavers


The quaver rhythm sounds like this:

One more rhythmic option is triplets, where there are three notes in a single beat. These are written in groups of 3, with a horizontal line joining their stems, and the number 3 written above, like this:

Triplets in written musicThe triplet rhythm sounds like this: