You'd be forgiven for thinking that music looks like intimidating gibberish. This blog post will explain the basics of reading music, focussing in on notes: what they are, the different shapes and sizes, and why they move up and down the stave.
First and foremost, the important part of a note is the circle. This is called the note-head. You'll often see a line going up or down from the note. This is to do with the length of the note and isn't relevant to the pitch of the note. If the note is higher on the stave, it will be higher in pitch and vice versa when the note is lower on the stave.
The line that is normally attached to the note is called the "tail" or "stem". You'll see this tail go up or down from the note-head. The direction of the tail depends on where the note is positioned on the stave: when the note-head is high the tail goes down, and when the note is near the bottom the tail goes up. The dividing line is the middle line of the stave: if a note-head is on this line, you can decide to have the tail go up or down. You'll also sometimes see a flick at the end of the tail - this make the note a shorter length, discussed at length in another blog post.
The names we give notes follow the alphabet: A - B - C - D - E - F - G. As the notes go higher, we go forward in the alphabet (A - B - C) and when the notes go lower in the pitch, we go backwards in the alphabet (C - B - A). When we have reached either end of the alphabet snippet, we loop to the other end of these letters. For example, if we are going up in pitch, the notes would go D - E - F - G - A - B - C and so on. There is no note H!
A word you may come across is "octave". Like an octopus means eight tentacles, an octave means eight notes. This is significant because it means playing the same note higher or lower. For example, if you play an octave higher than C, you will go C - D - E - F - G - A - B and the eighth note will be C. Essentially, if someone asks you to play an octave higher/lower, it means playing the same note up or down.
The most important note in music is called middle C. Piano players in particular know this note because it is in the middle of the piano. It's a reference point for musicians across a wide range of instruments. The note has a line going through it below the stave in the treble clef (called a ledger line) and a line going through it above the stave in the bass clef.
This post was updated on 01 Aug, 2023.