Sheet music is written on a staff as a series of notes and rests dictated by a time and key signature. The time signature tells how many beats there are per measure and the overall rhythm of the music. The staff and key signature show the pitch of the notes.
- Look at the time signature
The time signature is expressed as a ratio. The top number is the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number is the value of one beat; for example, 4/4. This means there are four beats per measure and that a quarter note has a value of one beat.
- Look at the key signature and clef
Before the time signature is the key signature, usually expressed as a series of sharps, denoted by the symbol #, and flats, denoted by the symbol b. Seeing one of these marks on the staff indicates raising or lowering the given note a half-step every time it occurs in the music. The clef mark at the start of the piece determines the scale that the staff corresponds to; most instruments are designed to play in a specific clef. Treble clef is higher than bass clef.
- Play the notes according to their duration and pitch
Musical notes vary in length. A whole note, lasting the whole measure, is written as a circle. Half notes add a stem, quarter notes fill in the note, and eighth and subsequent notes add tails to the stem. Notes written higher on the staff have a higher pitch.