Reading standard notation

Most of the music over the last 100 years (and beyond that) That has been written down, has been written in a form referred to as Standard notation.

Standard notation is written on a staff. The staff has 5 horizontal lines and spaces between them.


At the beginning of the staff is placed the clef. The clef tells how to understand the lines, spaces, and the notes placed upon them.

In guitar music, we use the treble clef.

The lines and spaces on the staff represent various pitches in order of letter name. With the lowest pitches being represented lower on the staff and the higher pitches being represented higher on the staff.

The lines on the treble clef from bottom to top are EGBDF. Many people use a mnemonic such as Every Good Boy Does Fine to remember the letter/line relationship when starting out.


The spaces inbetween the lines spell out FACE.

|        E       
|      C         
|    A          
|  F     

Putting them together, you can see that from line to space to line to space, etc. the pitches ascend from bottom to top.

|                E       
|            C         
|        A          
|    F     

In standard notation the pitches are written with rhythmic durations. SO using a whole note for the pitches FACE in the spaces would have.

|  O             
|  O            
|  O           
|  O     

Other notes in the chromatic scale are written with accidentals in front of them on the line are in the space of the note they accompany.

C# = 
|  #O            

So far we've discussed the way "space" is portrayed in standard notation . Time is also portrayed.

Recall, that two note names that describe the ssame pitch are said to be enharmonic. in standard notation, each enharmonic name is associated with a different graph.
C# above, Db below (C#=Db)


If an accidental appears throughout the entire piece of music, it is usually placed instead in the key signature.
The key signature follows the treble clef in the staff and says that "unless otherwise stated, this note is affected thus..."
Key of G (1 sharp; F#; all F's are sharped)

More on keys at

Standard notation is read left to right, top to bottom (staff by staff). Time is measured in bars (or measures) seperated by barlines.


(3 bars of staff)

Notes are measured in durations of beats. A beat is the even pulse that the music is divided into (or analyzed against).

Durations (all durations relative to each other)
A = whole note = 4 beats
B = halfnote = 2 beats
C = quarter note = 1 beat
D = eighth note = half a beat
E = sixteenth note = one quarter of a beat
F = thirtysecond note = one sixteenth of a beat

Other divisions exist (breve @ = 8 beats, sixtyfourth note G = one sixteenth of a beat, etc.)


Silence can also be measured.
Rests have same durations and similar names.

b = whole rest = 4 beats
a = half rest = 2 beats
c = quarter rest = 1 beat
d = eighth rest = half a beat
e = sixteenth rest = one quarter of a beat
f = thirtysecond rest = one sixteenth of a beat

Time Signatures

How many beats there are in a measure and which duration gets the beat is represented by the time signature which is placed on the staff after the clef and the key signature before the start of the music.

Repeats and Endings

A double-bar line and two dots is used to enclose a section that is to be repeated.
||: starts the section,
and :|| ends the section.

Often along with repeats, there are multipleendings. A number will appear with measures to be played during that time through the music.

|1. |2.

Double bar lines are commonly placed at the end of a poece of music.

Four other terms describing how to play the measures are D.C. (da capo), D.S. (del segno), and al coda, fermata.

D.C. (da capo) means "from the head" - go back to the beginning and play from there.
D.S. (del segno) , it means "from the sign" - go back onlt to the sign.
al coda is also used,it means " to the tail" - proceed from here to the coda sign.
fermata means "pause".

D.C. al coda would mean go back to the beginning and play to the al coda, and proceed to the coda.

Other common instructions

Tempo instructions
The speed of the music is indicated by either placing a word or an equation at the beginning of the music (BPM stands for beats per minute).
Common tempo markings include:
Largo = 40-66 bpm
Adagio = 66-76 bpm
Andante = 76-108 bpm
Moderato = 108-120 bpm
Allegro = 120 - 168 bpm
Presto = 168-208 bpm

C =96 means the tempo is 96 bpm where C is equal to one beat.

Dynamic markings
The volume (relative volume) can be indicated using letters.
pp - pianissimo - very soft
p - piano - soft
mp - mezzo piano - moderately soft
mf - mezzo forte - moderately loud
f - forte - loud
ff - fortissimo - very loud

< crescendo - grow gradually louder
> decrescendo - grow gradually softer

Other instructions pertaining to melody, rhythm, and guitar specific instructions will be given later (such as fingering, finger picking, strumming instructions, other durations, articulations, barring instructions, ornamentation, etc.) at an appropriate lesson.

Next lesson is on standard notation applied to the fretboard.

Christopher Roberts

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Last updated July 4, 2002
Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.