In the first two parts of this series of pages on how to read guitar sheet music we looked at a couple of different aspects of sheet music.
- In part 1 we looked at staffs, clefs and the notes on the staff
- In part 2 we looked at sharps and flats and key signatures
In part 3 we will look at the time value of notes (the rhythm of the notes) and time signatures.
Why Learn How to Read Music When there’s Tab?
There are a couple of limitations to tab.
One of those is that it doesn’t notate rhythm. The notes are all there and it’s an easy way to tell you where to play those notes on the guitar but you have no idea of the timing of those notes without listening to the music.
And even if you are listening to the music it’s often easier, more accurate and faster to learn having the rhythm written out.
So how does sheet music notate rhythm?
The Value of Notes
Each note that you play has a time value. That note sounds for a certain length of time.
In sheet music, the length of every note is notated.
The first thing we will look at to make this easier to understand is bars.
Bars, beats and Time Signatures
Sheet music is broken down into bars. Bars are represented by a vertical line going through the staff.
Every bar has a certain number of beats.
How many beats the bar has depends on the time signature.
For example if we playing in 4:4 time (which is the most common, especially in popular music) then there are 4 beats in the bar. In particular there are 4 quarter notes in the bar.
We will be focusing on 4:4 time to explain things here as it is the most common and easiest to understand.
Now let’s take a look at the different note values.
I will try to use both the terms for music here. These are known by different names depending on where you are from. American music uses the terms whole note, half note etc. Whereas the British terms are semibreve, minim etc.
I prefer the American terms because the names of the notes explain what they are better. But if you are outside of America you may need to know the other terms so I have included them for completeness.
- This is a whole note. It is also known as a semibreve (British)
- This is a half note (minim)
- This is a quarter note (crotchet)
- This is an eighth note (quaver)
- This is a sixteenth note (semi-quaver)
O.k. now let’s take a look at each note and how much time they represent.
We will be looking at this from the perspective of 4:4 time because it is the easiest way to look at it.
Whole Note (semibreve)
The whole note lasts 4 beats in 4:4 time. In other words it lasts the whole bar in 4:4 time.
So if you were to play this note then you would play the second fret G string and hold the note for 4 beats. Tap your feet in a steady rhythm. Every 4 taps of your foot is bar. The whole note will last for 4 taps of your foot.
Half Note (minim)
Naturally a half note will last for half as long as the whole note. Makes sense right! This is why I like the American system.
So now imagine tapping your foot the note will play for 2 taps of your foot. After two taps you play the note again and that will last for another 2 taps.
Quarter Note (crotchet)
The quarter note represents 1 beat in 4:4 time. So there are 4 quarter notes in a bar.
This last for half the length of the half note and for a quarter of the length of a whole note.
Now when you are tapping your foot (or listening to a metronome) the note will last 1 tap of the foot. In the measure above you will play 4 A notes in the same time as you played 1 A note when you played the whole note earlier.
Eighth Note (quaver)
An eighth note lasts for half as long as a quarter note – for an eighth the time of a whole note.
There are 8 eighth notes in a bar.
When you are tapping your foot now there are 2 notes for every 1 tap of the foot.
Different Time Signatures
4:4 time is just one time signature but thankfully the length of the notes remains constant.
So if you have 3:4 time for example, then there are 3 quarter notes in a bar instead of 4 quarter notes in the bar. The quarter notes still last for the same amount of time as they would in 4:4 time.
In exact terms the length of any note depends on the speed the piece of music is in but I’ll cover more on speed (tempo) in the next lesson.
Over to You
Take a bit of time to understand this before moving onto the next part. This will take a bit of understanding if haven’t been introduced to this before.
In the next lesson we will be looking at different time signatures and different speeds (tempos).
If you haven’t already then check out part’s 1 & 2 at the links below and if you’ve got a good understanding of the first three parts then you can move onto part 4.
- How to Read Music for Guitar Part 1
- How to Read Music for Guitar Part 2
- How to Read Music for Guitar Part 4