Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Learn Musical Notes on the Staff

Practical tips to learn the basics of music reading

In this video, Robert gives you practical tips to start reading music notes on the music staff.

Released on September 2, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi and welcome to VirtualSheetMusic.com and LivingPianos.com. I'm Robert Estrin with the viewer question, "How do you learn the notes on the staff?" This is a really important thing when you're starting out in music to have any way of being able to read the music.

Well, you know there's a lot of different ways that people approach this, but one of the most popular is based upon acronyms. You've probably heard it before for the lines on the treble clef, from bottom to top, Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the E, G, B, D, F notes. And then the space is even easier. It spells the word "face" F, A, C, E. What about the bass clef? Well, there's an acronym for that; Good Boys Do Fine Always for the lines G, B, D, F, A. And then for the spaces, All Cows Eat Grass.

Well, what about ledger lines where they go above and below the staff? You could see that this system breaks down pretty quickly, gets very complicated being able to quickly ascertain a note. Well, fortunately there's a better way and it's much simpler, and it just has to do with the alphabet. In fact, this is simpler than that. It's just the first seven letters of the alphabet; A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

If you can learn to say those letters, frontwards and backwards, quickly, you will be on your way to mastering reading notes on the staff, on the grand staff, in both the treble and the bass clef. Here's how it works. Start with middle C because it is in the middle between the treble and bass clef notes. From there you go up to the alphabet, space to line, line to space; C, D, because A, B, C, D, E, F, G. There that's very easy, isn't it? But what do you do after you get to G? Remember, those are only seven letters you use. Start over the A and continue on, A, B, C, D, E, F, and it goes on and on even through ledger lines.

What about the bass clef? A lot of people complain the bass clef is difficult to read. It's not any harder than the treble clef, except you're going backwards, you're going down through the alphabet. So start again from the middle C between the two stabs, and what comes before C, well, A, B, C. So C, B, A, and before A well, nothing comes. What do you do? Start with the last letter of the musical alphabet, which is again G, and go down G, F, E, D, C, B, A.

I recommend, by the way, memorizing that low space A in the bass clef because it's much easier to count up through the alphabet than down. Throw in a couple of other key notes in the staff, and you'll be never more than a few notes, a few letter names, away from figuring out the notes. And the good news is, the more you do this, the better reader you will become. Never resort to writing in the notes because you won't learn them. Figure them out each and every time, and before you know it, you will be fluent in reading music on the grand staff. Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin at VirtualSheetMusic.com and LivingPianos.com.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2020 @10:57 am PST
I learned by using small flash cards, picking a couple of favorite notes and slowly adding more over a few weeks. I carried the flash cards with my everywhere and any time I have a few moments, I would pull them out and go through them in random order. The notes on one side and the letter on the other side. Started with middle C, G, and A on the treble cleft, then added the rhyming or harmonic notes C and A on treble cleft for violin. Best to memorize in random order and play the notes as there will never be time to try to figure a note based on another note. Think of them as objects that have a unique identity and a name. When adding a note, pick a spot or tone that appeals to you in some way. I think every kid should learn the 7 basic notes, one at at time at age 2 when they are learning to talk, by name and unique tone, as a game. Get them to name and recognize that tone, no matter what the octave it is in. There are only 7 notes, 12 counting flats/sharps and everything else is a harmonic of those twelve.
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Robert - host, on December 30, 2020 @2:05 pm PST
One handy trick is to become fluent saying the 1st 7 letters of the alphabet frontwards and backwards!
William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2020 @6:42 pm PST
Interesting exercise I can't do very well. On piano, when you go up or down an octave, the notes map the same. But I play violin which makes it very difficult to play an octave higher as the next string is 7 half steps (5th) different in pitch than the current string. Only way I know how to do this is translate to note name and play the higher pitch version of that note name, since I do know where all of the notes for at least an entire octave on each string and can access any randomly. It is much easier for me to say the notes from G down to A while playing or imagine playing than without my instrument in my hands. Also easier for me to rapidly read the notes from G at the top of the staff down than to just say the notes without some visual reference. Perhaps doing that exercise will help me play notes at a faster tempo. I have never been able to play 1/8 notes faster than a tempo of 110 on a quarter note.
ANTHONY ARRIGO on December 30, 2020 @8:49 am PST
I always used the 4th line in the bass clef as the "F' note - - then go up or down
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Robert - host, on December 30, 2020 @9:44 am PST
That's a great key! G-clef in the treble and F-clef in the bass are great guide notes. Add middle C to that, and you are never too far away from a note you know!
Elizabeth * VSM MEMBER * on April 26, 2018 @9:30 pm PST
This is a good explanation. Most beginners to note reading need a guide note to recognize quickly, such as 2nd line G in treble clef or 4th line F in bass clef, and of course Middle C. Then your idea of alphabetic sequence works very well for nearby notes. A nice way to read leger lines above treble clef is to use the same mnemonic used for bass clef spaces: All Cows Eat Grass. Bass clef leger lines below the staff (going in descending order) spell ECAF, "FACE" backwards (i.e. the mnemonic for treble clef spaces). So there is no need to learn extra mnemonics for the leger lines. I also encourage my students to come up with their own mnemonic for EGBDF and GBDFA which seems to help them connect the note image on the staff and note name more quickly.
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Robert Estrin - host, on April 27, 2018 @11:51 am PST
Mnemonic devices can be helpful for instruments that utilize one clef. But when dealing with treble and bass clefs, it can become confusing to have too many guide notes. The trick is to have just a few key notes from which to count up or down through the alphabet. This technique is invaluable since no matter how long you study music, you will undoubtedly encounter notes which are unfamiliar such as reading music in clefs other than treble and bass, or dealing with ledger lines far above and below the staff.
Kathryn A Bowman * VSM MEMBER * on April 25, 2018 @10:15 am PST
This is basically the method I use teaching little people. I also use the every good boy deserves fudge, etc. It’s a combination of the two methods. They do learn the notes that way. I also have a little board with the grand staff on it. By turning a little knob, a plastic note moves up and down the staff. They have to play and name the notes. They think it’s fun like playing a game. Thank you for all your helpful information!
Rick * VSM MEMBER * on April 25, 2018 @8:15 am PST
thank you for this.

i also have been studying how to count .
i get the time signatures and note values,
BUT im trying to remember from jazz band long ago in school,
simple 4/4
ex. 1, 2, 3, 4
ex 1e 2e 3e 4e
ex 1e and ah, 2e and ah, 3e and ah, 4e and ah

When more complicated rhythms occur, i'm confused with my counting.

Could you please do a video on how to say and count note time values in written music?
.
thank you!
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Robert - host, on April 25, 2018 @3:55 pm PST
Rick * VSM MEMBER * on April 26, 2018 @8:27 am PST
Thanks Robert for the explanation, of simple counting rhythms,
but I am learning some classical music with all sorts of combinations of note values AND different time signatures.

Ex. How would this apply to a song in 4/4 with the first measure being 2barred 16ths, and the next group of notes (in the same measure) as
a bar of 2 16ths, one eighth note and a tie?
Tony Lockwood * VSM MEMBER * on April 25, 2018 @5:32 am PST
Robert,
as ever , a good lesson, precisely and clearly given. Well done.
The do-re-mi example is like learning to read using phonetics - eventually you will have to move to the adult books.
Marge Shery * VSM MEMBER * on September 2, 2015 @11:07 am PST
keep up the good work! Lot of students studying music are not being told this.
paul plak * VSM MEMBER * on September 2, 2015 @10:32 am PST
Hi Robert, lots of comments from me today ... French speaking people have a tremendous advantage, being allowed to name the notes do-ré-mi-fa-sol-la-si. Just singing do-ré-mi is very easy, and indeed, the first thing the music teacher teaches you is to memorize the whole series upwards and downwards.
Now I even can't hear a single music note without hearing the corresponding do-ré-mi word in my head at the same time.
Another advantage is that "do" is the starting point, while "C" is the third note of the most simple major scale, quite awkward actually, but we're not going to get that changed by now ...
And you'll of course know do-ré-mi has made its way into some world famous songs as well.
Take care, and please go on with your interesting and fun videos. You're really very good at this.
christopher slevin * VSM MEMBER * on September 2, 2015 @7:56 am PST
Very, very helpful. Those ledger notes drive me nuts. I'll try your system. Thank you!
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