Standard Music Notation for Guitar

There’s somewhat of a debate in the guitar world as to whether or not it is necessary to know how to read music in order to play the guitar.  Much has been said about the fact that Eddie Van Halen did not know how to read music when he was developing his mastery of the guitar.  But in my opinion, unless you have the musical ears, finger dexterity and relentless dedication of EVH, learning how to read music can only help to make your guitar journey a little easier and more enjoyable.  Fortunately for guitar players, there are actually two different ways to read music: standard music notation and guitar tablature notation.

This article will focus on standard music notation, and you’ll learn along the way why my recommendation is that a combination of using both methods is the best choice for beginning, intermediate and expert guitar players alike.

The traditional method of using standard music notation to play guitar offers the guitarist everything he or she needs to know to make music properly.  That’s because standard music notation communicates all three vital pieces of information required:

  • Pitch (what to play)
  • Duration/Rhythm (when to play)
  • Expression/Articulation (how to play)

All three of these bits of information are required if you want to be able to look a piece of sheet music and play it exactly as the composer intended without ever having to hear the piece of music beforehand.

Standard Music Notation – Pitch

These elements define the notes that are to be played.  Like other instruments, this might include single notes to be played one at a time, or multiple notes to be played together in the form of a chord.

standard music notation pitch

1StaffA musical staff is made up of five horizontal lines. Notes can be shown to intersect a line or in the space between lines. Every line or space on a musical staff represents a white key on a piano. The musical distance between a note intersecting a line and the next adjacent space (or vice-versa) is one letter of the musical alphabet, for example A to B. The higher up on the musical staff a note is placed, the higher its pitch.
2ClefA clef is required to assign individual notes to certain lines and spaces. For guitar players the Treble Clef is used, but other instruments such as piano also use a Bass Clef. The clefs work by defining a note to be assigned to a particular line of the staff, which then defines all other notes on the staff.
3G NoteDue to the shape of the Treble Clef, it is also called the G Clef. In addition, the staff line that intersects the center of the curly-q of the Treble Clef is defined to be the G note. All other note names are based on this G note, with the A note occupying the space above second staff line and the F note occupying the space between the first and second staff lines.
4Ledger LinesOnce individual notes are assigned to the 5 staff lines and the 4 spaces between the lines, you might be wondering what happens next? Are you limited to only playing 9 different notes on a guitar? Definitely not. So how does the musical staff communicate notes to be played that are higher in pitch than the upper most staff line or lower in pitch than the lowest staff line? The answer is ledger lines. A ledger line is a short horizontal line that extends the normal 5-line music staff up or down when additional notes are to be played.
5AccidentalsAs explained in my article on music theory, an accidental is a symbol that when placed in front of a note, tells the musician to raise or lower the pitch of the note by a half-step. The two most common accidentals are sharps and flats. A sharp raises the pitch of a note by a half-step and a flat lowers the pitch of a note by a half-step. The # symbol is used to represent sharps and the letter b is used to represent flats. On a piano, all of the black keys represent sharp and flat notes and they always exist between adjacent natural notes of the musical alphabet. For example, on a guitar you would play a C# note one fret higher than you would to play a natural C note.
6Key SignatureA key signature tells a musician to play certain notes as sharp or flat throughout an entire song. This method simplifies the music notation because the flat sign that is sitting on the B staff line does not have to be repeated each time a B note is called out in the rest of the song. The note(s) assigned to play either sharp or flat in the key signature are based on the accidentals found in musical scales. In the info-graphic above, the flat symbol assigned to the B line of the musical staff aligns with the F Major scale. If this last bit is confusing to you, don’t be alarmed……the full explanation is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but not fully understanding scales and key signatures right now is perfectly OK.

Standard Music Notation – Note Names of the Music Staff

standard music notation note names on staff

A couple of classic pneumonics are used by new musicians to remember which notes fall on which lines and spaces of the musical staff.  For the five lines, remember:  Every Good Boy Does Fine.  For the four spaces, just remember the word FACE.

Standard Music Notation – Duration/Rhythm, Part 1

These elements define how long each note or chord should be played relative to the beat of the song.  It is very common for a quarter note to be associated with one beat, such as a song whose beats go “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, …”.

standard music notation duration

1Whole NoteA whole note, which has a hollow oval head with no stem, is the longest held note in music.
2Half NoteA half note has a hollow oval head, along with a stem, and has half of the duration of a whole note. Two half notes have the same musical duration as one whole note.
3Quarter NoteA quarter note has a solid oval head with a stem and has half of the duration of a half note, or a quarter of the duration of a whole note. Four quarter notes have the same musical duration as two half notes or one whole note.
4Eighth NoteAn eighth note has a solid oval head with a stem and a flag or beam included. It is half of the duration of a quarter note, a fourth of the duration of a half note and an eighth of the duration of a whole note. Eight eighth notes have the same musical duration as four quarter notes, two half notes or one whole note.
5Time SignatureTime signatures define the quantity and type of notes that are grouped by their beats. The number shown on the top tells you how many beats are contained in one grouping. The bottom number tells you which type of note gets one beat. In the info-graphic above, the time signature is 4/4, which means that a quantity of 4 notes are contained in each grouping (top number) and that a quarter note is used for one beat (bottom number). While 4/4 time is the most common, other time signatures are used. When Frank Sinatra sang, “…and this song of mine, in three-quarter time…” in his classic song “The Christmas Waltz”, he was saying that a quantity of 3 quarter notes makes up one grouping.
6Bar LineA bar line is simply a vertical line in the music staff that is used to separate notes into groups, which are known musically as a measure or bar. So in the 4/4 time signature example above, you will notice that each measure contains a total of 4 beats, each equivalent to 4 quarter notes. Of course, a mixture of notes of different durations can be combined in the same measure. The example above kept it nice and simple so you could understand the concept of time signatures a little more easily. A measure in 4/4 time could also be made up of 1 quarter note, 1 half note and 2 eighth notes because their durations all add up to 4 beats (1+2+0.5+0.5).

Standard Music Notation – Duration/Rhythm, Part 2

These additional elements tell the musician more details about when to play notes, or when to take a pause from playing altogether.

standard music notation duration

1RestsMusical rests are periods of silence in a measure or bar. Just how different notes have different durations of how many beats they are played for, different rests have different durations of silence. Each note type has a corresponding rest type, meaning there are whole rests, half rests, quarter rests, eighth rests, etc. The time signature includes rests in determining how many beats have been played out loud and those “played” in silence. In the example above, each measure totals 4 beats as required by the time signature.
2Tempo HeadingThe tempo heading communicates how fast or slow the beat of a song is. Whenever you hear a song and you tap your foot to the beat, the rate at which you tap is the tempo. Tempo is usually measured in the number of beats per minute, or BPM. A BPM of 60 would mean that there are 60 beats per minute, or one beat per second. Sheet music differs in how tempo headings are defined, with words and/or numbers being used. Naturally, words are more subjective, such as ‘Moderate’ compared to numbers which will simply tell you the number of beats per minute for a quarter note. This is where a metronome can be extremely handy to help you keep a consistent beat.
3TieThe musical notation tie is a short curved line used to merge multiple notes of the same pitch. The musician is instructed to let the duration of the first note continue through the duration of the second note. In other words, you aren’t supposed to actually play the second note separately, just let the first note ring out for the length of time defined by the tied note.
4Augmentation DotAn augmentation dot increases the duration of the affected note by one-half. So if a half note, which is played for two beats, has an augmentation dot applied (referred to as a dotted half note), then the note should be played for 3 beats. Just use basic arithmetic to figure these out. Always multiply the number of beats of the note times 1.5. So again, for a half note it would be 2 x 1.5 which equals three. If a dot is applied to a quarter note, then the note would be played for 1.5 beats, which can be “balanced” by playing an eighth note to provide the other 0.5 beats needed within a measure.
5Double BarA double bar line indicates the end of the song.
6RepeatThe two small dots next to a double bar indicate that you are to repeat certain measures. Dots shown on the right side of a double bar tell you where the repeating measures start and the dots on the left side of a double bar tell you where the repeating measures end.

Standard Music Notation – Expression and Articulation

This element defines how to play the notes, and the variables to be adjusted include loudness, softness and smoothness.  Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument, these musical instructions are especially critical in giving your guitar a unique playing character and emotion.

standard music notation bb king emotions

standard music notation expression articulation

1Dynamic MarkingA dynamic marking tells the musician how loud or soft to play. In classical music notation, the initials you will see are abbreviations for Italian words that describe different levels of loudness. Common examples include: pp (pianissimo = very soft), mf (mezzo-forte = half loud) and ff (fortissimo = very loud).
2Crescendo RitardandoBoth crescendo and ritardando are more Italian words that tell the musician to either increase or decrease the loudness as they’re playing through the marked notes. If the marks start open and gradually close as you move from left to right, it is telling you to gradually play more softly. If the marks start closed and gradually open, you should gradually play more loudly.
3SlurA slur is a curved line that connects two notes of different pitches. It tells the musician to play the two connected notes smoothly without allowing any break in sound between the notes. On a guitar, this effect is either created by “bending” the string to raise or lower the pitch of a note without plucking the string again, or by using a slide to gradually move from one fret to the next. In my opinion, the technique of sluring or bending notes is what makes a guitar take on pleasing vocal qualities and communicates true emotion and “feel”.
4Stoccato DotKind of the opposite of the purpose of a slur, a staccato dot tells a musician to play the marked notes short and detached from any other notes.
5AccentThe accent is used to communicate that the marked notes are to be played louder than normal for additional emphasis.

Like I stated at the beginning of this article, knowing every single one of these musical notations is not absolutely critical to being able to start learning and loving the guitar. What’s even more difficult is to be able to quickly read the notes and chords themselves and know how they translate to particular string and fret positions on the guitar.

That’s where guitar tablature notation, or tab as it is more commonly known, comes in to save the day! Check out my article on guitar tab to see how it drastically simplifies the task of reading the actual notes and how combining tab and standard music notation is the perfect combination to get you rocking and rolling before you know it!