Learn to Play the Guitar: Learn to Read Music Notation and Understand How to Read Music.

Learn To Play The Guitar - Music Notation Definitions

Find out how to read musical notation, easy explanations for notes, timing, rests and theory

Georgia Luthier Supply

Bookmark and Share Subscribe
Learn To Play The Guitar - Notation Definitions

In this edition of learn to play the guitar, we will discuss notation, or how to read conventional music. This is an important discussion for any aspiring student as it widens your horizons and gives you access to much more materials that is available either free, online or in music books.

It is not imperative to have complete knowledge of everything there is know about with reading music, but a basic understanding is quite important. So, that is what we will discuss in this series of Online Beginner Guitar Lessons.


Classical Guitar

Learn to Play The Guitar

The Staff, Clef & Accidentals:

Musical Staff: The Musical Staff consists of 5 parallel lines that are drawn horizontally across the paper on which the notation is placed. There are also 4 spaces between each set of lines.

Clef Sign: There are 3 Clef Signs and for guitar we only word with the G Clef or Treble Clef as it is more commonly known. The Clef Sign looks like a big & or ampersand sign and is placed at the beginning of each line of music. The other Clef you will see, but do not really have to deal with is the Bass Clef. If is for Bass Instruments and looks like a big "comma sign".

Note: This is a sign used to represent the relative duration and pitch of a sound from your guitar. Each note is assigned a vertical position on the staff.


Accidentals: These are modifiers to standard notes. There are 3 types of accidentals. Sharps, Flats, and Naturals, each represented by a different identifier.

Sharp # raises a note 1/2 tone. The sharp is placed adjacent to the note head and after the note.

Flat: b - lowers a note 1/2 tone. The flat is placed adjacent to the note head and after the note.

Natural: Changes either a sharp or flat back to it's original tone. 

Notation Definitions

Notation Definitions

Key Signature

Key Signature: The purpose of the key signature is to minimize the amount of accidentals used in the musical score. The key signature is placed directly after the Treble Clef and is in one of 12 keys, or one for each 1/2 tone of music. Refer to this diagram for a listing of all keys and accidentals used for each key.

Examples Key of "C" means no accidentals because it is written in all naturals

Key of "D" would have (2) accidentals, both sharp and they are F# and C#.

Key of "F" would have (1) accidental, it is a Bb.

Note that as a general rule, the guitar is an instrument that is more easily played in the "sharp keys", which would include the key of C(natural), G (1 sharp), D (2 sharps), A (3 sharps) and E (4 sharps). Also to a lesser degree you will see songs written in F (1 flat), Bb (2 flats) and Eb (3 flats)

To play in the remaining keys, most often a guitarist uses a capo. There are of course exceptions to this, but 80-90% of the time you will see keys mentioned above.

Time Signature and Measures

Time Signature: This is a series of (2) numbers, one about the other and it is place directly after the Treble Clef. The lower number indicates the Note Value which represents one "beat". The upper value indicates how many such beats are in a bar or measure. For instance 2/4 time means (2) quarter note beats. 3/8 means (3) eighth note beats.

The most common simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4.

If you see a big "C" symbol after the treble clef it means "common" time or standard 4/4 timing. If the "C" has a vertical line through it, it indicates "cut time" or 2/2 time and is typically played twice as fast.

Measure (or bar): is a segment of time that consists of a certain number of "beats" or beats per measure. In 4/4 time we would have (4) beats/measure with 1/4 notes receiving that beat or (4) quarter notes in a measure.

Bar Types

Bar Types

Bar: This is a vertical line that typically divides the score up into measures. There are variations of bars:

Double Bar, End Bar, Begin Repeat Bar, End Repeat Bar an Begin and Repeat Bars.

Accidentals, Rests & Note Timing

Accidentals, Rests & Note Timing

Rests: Rests are periods of silence when no note is either picked or left ringing. Rests have the same time periods as notes:

  • Whole Rest = 4 Beats
  • Half Rest = 2 Beats
  • Quarter Rest = 1 Beat
  • Eighth Rest = 1/2 Beat
  • Sixteenth Rest = 1/4 Beat
  • Dotted Notes

    Accidentals, Rests & Note Timing

    Dotted Notes

    Dotted Notes: Dotted notes add 50% to the time value of the note preceding the dot.

  • Dotted Whole Note = 6 Beats
  • Dotted Half Note = 3 Beats
  • Dotted Quarter Note = 1-1/2 Beats
  • Dotted Eighth Note = 3/4 Beat
  • Dotted Sixteenth Note = 3/8 Beat
  • Ledger Lines

    Ledger Lines: These are the small lines drawn through the notes and parallel to the staff lines. The lines are slightly longer than the note head and can be placed either above or below the staff.

    Look at the diagram at the left and you will see ledger lines used for the first 6 notes of the staff.

    Go To: Learn To Play The Guitar - Basic Note Reading