A simple guide to understanding music symbols


This simple guide covers common and essential symbols used to read and write music. You can use this resource whenever you need helping understanding a specific symbol in a piece you are learning or are composing.

The guide is divided into several sections for you to find what you’re looking for. Simply click on any section to skip there.

Table of contents

Basics to reading sheet music
Clef symbols
Notes on the staff
Note lengths
Time signatures
Key signatures
Bar lines
Repeat and jump symbols
Guitar notation symbols
Dynamics symbols
Tempo markings
Other music symbols

Basics to reading sheet music

This section will help you understand the basic components that are used in sheet music.

You’ll get a clearer sense of a standard layout and what the symbols mean.

First, see the image below to know the terms used for different symbols on a piece of music and then I’ll give you a simple definition of each term.

staff symbols example

Staff: the staff is the set of 5 lines that are used to write notes. The notes are written on the lines or in the spaces between the lines. We’ll look at how to read all the notes on the staff later on.

Clef: This symbol is used to determine the note names on the staff lines. The note names change depending on the clef stated. The clef in the image above is called a treble clef (more on this in the next section).

Time signature: This symbol is used to determine the beats and length of a measure that repeats throughout a piece of music.

The following sections will go into more detail for these components used in sheet music.

Clef symbols

You can think of the clef symbol as a grid that defines the notes in the staff lines. This means that a note in the same location of the staff will have a different note name depending on the clef symbol used.

Treble clef (also known as G clef)

The most commonly used clef is called the treble clef, also known as the G clef. This is because the symbol wraps around the line for a G note as you’ll see in the following image:

note in G clef example

The treble clef is used for instruments that have a higher range of notes such as the guitar, violin, trumpet, and saxophone.

The following section of this post will show you all of the notes that belong to the staff lines using the treble clef.

Bass clef

The bass clef is used for instruments with a lower range of notes such as the bass guitar, double bass, cello, and trombone.

The bass clef symbol has two dots that go above and below the second line, which is the F note like this:

note in bass clef example

Alto clef, also known as C clef

This is a less commonly used clef which is primarily used for viola. The C clef has a sort of letter B shape which is centered on the staff and makes the middle line a C note like this:

note in C clef example

Combining clefs (used for piano)

Combining clefs is used for piano because the range of written notes is usually wider. This makes it easier for an instrumentalist to read notes in higher or lower ranges without having to use multiple ledger lines (short lines used to write notes past the staff lines).

The combined clefs usually have a bracket on the left to indicate that the two staff lines are joined for one instrument.

Double staff example

Now that we know what these clefs mean, we can start to learn the note names used in music.

Notes on the staff

Music notes are written either on the lines or spaces of the staff.

From bottom to top, the notes on the spaces are F, A, C, E. Think of the word “face” to remember these notes.

From bottom to top, the notes on the lines are E, G, B, D, F. You can think of this popularly used phrase “Every good boy does fine”.

notes on the staff lines example

Whenever you extend past these staff, you can use ledger lines which are short lines to write notes in higher or lower ranges. See how the ledger lines are used in the following image.

ledger lines on notation example

Here is a chart of all the music notes on the treble clef including additional notes on the ledger lines:

all the notes on the staff example

Accidentals (sharp, flat, natural)

In music notation, accidentals refer to the symbols used to alter a note such as indicating that a note moves a half step up or down.

sharp symbol

Sharp symbols are used to raise a note by a half step. For example, the note C# is a half step above C.

flat symbol

Flat symbols are used to lower notes by a half step. For example, the note Db is a half step below D.

natural symbol

The natural symbol is used to play a note without raising or lowering it when there were accidental symbols before it.

Here is an example in music notation of what these accidentals look like:

accidentals on staff example

Note lengths

This section covers the symbols for different types of music notes, how long they last, and their equivalents for silence, also known as rest in music terms.

Here is an overview of what these musical note symbols mean in 4/4 time (more on time signatures later).

Symbol

Duration

Note name

Rest symbol

whole note symbol example
Whole note symbol

4 beats

Whole note

Whole note rest symbol example
whole note rest symbol
Half note symbol example
Half note symbol

2 beats

Half note

Half note rest symbol example
Half note rest symbol
Quarter note symbol example
Quarter note symbol

1 beat

Quarter note

Quarter note rest symbol example
Quarter note rest symbol
8th note symbol example
8th note symbol

1/2 beat

8th note

8th note rest symbol example
8th note rest symbol
16th note symbol example
16th note symbol

1/4 beat

16th note

16th note rest symbol example
16th note rest symbol
32nd note example
32nd note symbol

1/8 beat

32nd note

32nd rest note example
32nd note rest symbol

Dotted notes

Any time you see a dot added to a note, it adds half of its value to the length of the note. For example, a dotted quarter note means you add 1 beat plus 1/2 which equals 1 1/2 beats. Here are some other examples of dotted notes below.

Symbol

Duration

Note name

Rest symbol

Dotted half note symbol example
Dotted half note symbol

3 beats

Dotted half note

Dotted half note rest symbol example
Dotted half note rest symbol
Dotted quarter note symbol example
Dotted quarter note symbol

1 1/2 beats

Dotted quarter note

Dotted quarter note rest symbol example
Dotted quarter note rest symbol
Dotted 8th note symbol example
Dotted 8th note symbol

3/4 beat

Dotted 8th note

Dotted 8th note symbol example
Dotted 8th note symbol

Note ties

Another symbol used to extend the length of notes, especially between measures is to use note tie symbols. This means you don’t play the note twice but continue playing a note for the combined duration where you see a connecting line. See the note tie example below.

note ties example


Time Signatures

A time signature tells you how long each measure lasts in a piece of music. The top number of a time signature refers to how many beats will go into a measure while the bottom number refers to the note value (for example, 4 for quarter notes, 8 for eight notes).

In other words, 4/4 time means that there are 4 beats in a measure, each having the value or length of a quarter note.

4/4 time signature symbol:

4/4 time signature

3/4 time means that there are 3 beats in a measure, each having the value or length of a quarter note.

3/4 time signature symbol:

3/4 time signature

6/8 time means that there are 6 beats in a measure, each having the value or length of an eighth note.

6/8 time signature symbol:

6/8 time signature


For a more in depth explanation, see the post: A simple guide to understanding time signatures.

Key Signatures

Key signatures define the tonality of a piece of music. By changing the accidentals in the notes, you can play in different keys. Instead of having to change one specific note every time, you can do this by including it in the key signature to make the change apply every time.

Every key signature has a Major and minor key that are related. This is because the related keys share all the same notes except their starting point is different.

The image below shows you what all the different time signatures look like on the staff.

key signatures examples

For more details, check out this simple guide to understanding key signatures.

Bar lines

Here is a brief explanation of bar lines used in sheet music.

  • Single bar lines are used to separate measures (see end of measure 1 in the bar line symbols chart below).
  • Double bar lines are used to separate sections in a piece of music. (See the end of measure 2 below).
  • Final bar lines are used to indicate the ending of a piece of music.

The chart below shows you what these bar lines look like on sheet music.

bar line symbol examples chart

Repeat and jump symbols

Repeat signs have a double bar line with two dots to indicate which measure to repeat. See the symbols below.

Music symbol to indicate the start of a repeated section

Repeat section symbol. Dots facing to the right indicate the beginning of a section that is to be repeated.

Music symbol to indicate the end of a repeated section

Repeat section symbol. Dots facing to the left indicate the ending of a section that is to be repeated.

For example, the chart below indicates to repeat measures 1 and 2.

repeat symbols example

Numbers for section endings – brackets with numbers are used to indicate where a section ends and repeats. When a section is repeated you would continue with the next number. For example, in the chart below, you would play measures 1, 2, and 3 then play measures 1, 2 and 4 the second time. These numbers can simply be referred to as “1st or 2nd endings”.

section endings example

D.C. – these abbreviated letters stand for Da Capo (in Italian), meaning to go back to the top or beginning of the piece.

D.S – these abbreviated letters stand for Da Signo (Italian), meaning to jump to “the sign” which looks like this:

D.S. symbol

Coda – an ending section in a piece of music. This is indicated by “To Coda” along with the following symbol:

Coda symbol

Here is an example of these jump symbols below. In this example, you would first play measures 1 to 4, then repeat measures 1 and 2, then skip to measure 4.

jump symbols example

repeat measure symbol

Repeat measure symbol. This means you repeat what was indicated in the previous measure.

For example, this chart means you play a G Major chord for 4 measures.

repeat measure example

Fine – End (in Italian). Sometimes written as Fin (in French).

D.C. al fine – Go back to the beginning of the piece (D. C.) until the end (fine).

D.S. al fine – Go back to Da Signo “the sign” and play until the end (fine).

Guitar notation symbols

Guitar fingering symbols

These symbols are used for guitar music to indicate what fingers to use when playing notes. These symbols are for “righties”, meaning you hold the guitar like most people and use your right hand to pick or strum the strings (picking/strumming hand) and your left hand to press down notes (your fretting hand)

Fretting hand symbols:

1 = pointer finger

2 = middle finger

3 = ring finger

4 = pinky finger

(thumb goes behind the guitar)

Picking / strumming hand symbols:

p = thumb (pulgar in spanish)

i = pointer finger (indice “)

m = middle finger (medio “)

a = ring finger (anular “)

c = pinky finger (chico “)

Fretting hand picking and strumming hand symbols on guitar

How to read guitar tabs

Guitar tabs (short for tablature) simplify music notation to tell you which string and fret to play. Under the staff, you’ll see a connected set of 6 lines to represent each of the 6 guitar strings.

For TAB lines, the top line represents the thinnest string, while the lowest line represents the thickest string. The numbers on the tab lines represent which fret to play (0 means to play an open string).

Here is an example of guitar tabs below:

how guitar tabs work example

How to read chord charts

For the guitar chord charts on this site, the top horizontal line of the chord chart represents the high E string and the bottom horizontal line represents the low E string. The vertical lines separate each fret. The numbers in the blue dots tell you which fingers to use on the fretting hand. 

The letters on the right of the charts tell you what notes you are playing on each string. See the image below to understand the different parts of a chord chart.

Guide for reading guitar chord charts


Tab notation – example

Some sheet music notates string symbols in standard notation string instead of using guitar tabs. See examples 1 and 2 to compare different ways of notating music.

Here is an example of writing notes using tabs notation.

fingering notation on tabs example

String notation – example

Here are the same notes as the previous example but written in standard notation including string symbols. The numbers inside the circles indicate what string to play the note on.

guitar string notation example


These string symbols are just another way to help to find your way around the fretboard if you don’t have tabs for music you want to learn. For more information, this post on how to learn guitar with tabs covers some of the advantages and disadvantages of using tabs.

Common guitar symbols

hammer on symbol

: Hammer on symbol is used to indicate pressing down on the next note without picking the string again.

Here is an example of using a hammer on symbol. The numbers above the note on the staff represent which fingers to use on your fretting hand. As you can see the symbol is also mirrored in the TAB lines.

hammer symbol with tabs
Hammer on example
pull off symbol

: Pull off symbol is used to indicate releasing your finger to play the next note without picking the string again.

Here is an example using the pull of symbol:

pull off symbol with tabs example
Pull off symbol example
slide from below symbol

: The slide from below symbol is used to play a note then slide up to the next note without picking the string again.

Here is an example using the slide from below symbol. I generally recommend starting the slide one or two frets from below the indicated note.

slide from below symbol with tabs example
Slide from below symbol example
slide from above symbol

: The slide from above symbol is used to play a note then slide down to the next note without picking the string again.

For the slide from above symbol, I generally recommend starting the slide one or two frets from above the indicated note. Here is an example:

slide from above symbol with tabs example
Slide from above symbol example

Let ring: This symbol is used to indicate that notes should continue to ring out rather than stopping them when playing the next note. Sometimes this is written on the top left at the beginning of a piece of music (see example 1 below). Other times it is specified within a section of music using dotted lines as shown in example 2 below.

let notes ring example



Treble clef 8va bassa (an octave lower): A treble with a small 8 under is used for guitar music to transpose the notes an octave lower.

This is because a middle C in notation is actually an octave above the middle C on the guitar. To make reading guitar music more comfortable within the staff lines, we can use the 8va bassa treble clef as shown in the chart below.

treble clef 8va bassa example

Barre chord symbols: Whenever barre chords are used within a part of a song, you might see symbols that say B.1, B.2, etc… Sometimes you will also C.1, C.2 which refers to the word “cejilla” or barre in Spanish.

Here is an example of using barre chord symbols from the song, Moonlight Sonata.

barre chord symbols example

Dynamics symbols

Dynamics symbols are used to indicate playing louder or softer. Here are some commonly used dynamics symbols which come from Italian words:

pp = pianissimo (very quiet)

p = piano (quiet, a bit louder than pp)

mp = mezzo piano (moderately quiet)

mf = mezzo forte (moderately loud)

f = forte (loud)

ff = fortissimo (very loud)

> = Decrescendo (gradually play softer). Also written above the music as “Descresc”

< = Crescendo (gradually play softer). Also written above the music as “Cresc”

dim = diminuendo (gradually play softer and slower).

rit = ritardando (gradually make the tempo slower).

As you’ll see in the example below, dotted lines are often used to specify which part of the music is affected by the dynamic symbol.

Dynamic symbol example

Tempo markings

Tempo markings are commonly written in Italian. See the following charts for their English meaning and their BPM (beats per minute).

Slower tempos

Tempo markingEnglish meaningBPM (Beats per minute)
LarghissimoExtremely slow24 bpm and under
Adagissimo / GraveVery slow24 – 40 bpm
LargoSlow and broad40 – 66 bpm
AdagioSlowly with great expression44 – 68 bpm
AdagiettoSlightly faster than Adagio46–80 bpm
LentoSlow52–108 bpm

Moderate tempos

Tempo markingEnglish meaningBPM (Beats per minute)
AndanteSlow moderate (walking pace)56–108 bpm
AndantinoTypically slightly faster than Andante78 – 108 bpm
ModeratoModerate86–126 bpm

Faster tempos

Tempo markingEnglish meaningBPM (Beats per minute)
AllegroLively100 –156 bpm
VivaceFaster than Allegro136 – 160 bpm
PrestoVery fast168 – 200 bpm

Other music symbols

Grace notes – small notes that are written besides notes for embellishment. The two types of grace notes are:

  • Acciacatura (grace note) : played before the beat (have a line through the stem)
  • Appogiatura (grace note): played on the beat (have a normal stem)

See the image below to see examples of these grace notes.

grace notes example

See this video to hear the difference between these grace notes.

/ : slashes in a measure are used when the music only indicates chords and not specific notes. For example:

slash symbols example

Rhythmic slash notation is used to indicate rhythm when using chords. This kind of rhythmic notation has a different look than regular notation which is slanted like this:

rhythmic slash notation example

fermata symbol

= fermata (sustain the note, longer than the length of the note indicated at the performer’s discretion)

Wrapping up

In this post, we covered many frequently used music symbols and their meanings to read sheet music. It may be overwhelming to try learning them all at once, but as you continue to review these symbols, you will get a better understanding with how they work.

You can save this post as a resource to come back to whenever you forget what certain music symbols mean.

If you want to practice learning songs that use many of the symbols covered here, I encourage you to check out the sheet music with guitar tabs resource on this site.

Get the free guitar practice guide here!

All the best,

JG Music Lessons

References:

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