There are a few different ways for guitar players to approach sheet music. The primary method is to ignore it, which for many is a viable and sensible option.
For those in the more academic-heavy areas of music, perhaps classical guitar study or formal music classes, sheet music - and an understanding of how it correlates with tablature - is necessary.
Even outside of that context, there is a tremendous amount of usefulness and helpful side effects to learning these topics. If you don't plan to play music via sight reading, being able to understand pitch and read formal notation still makes you a better overall musician regardless of your instrument, musical style or skill level.
In this article, I'll take you through all the basics and fundamentals of sheet music that are most relevant to guitar players, while omitting the things that are less critical for that instrument.
For example, when we cover sheet music staffs, we'll go over the notes for the treble clef, but not the bass clef.
Because guitar music is almost always written in the treble clef.
This will allow you to focus on material that is most directly applicable to your instrument and your situation. I cover a much wider range of guitar-related theory topics in the first Chalkboard book.
In this article, I'll just stick to the basics of sight reading, and how to tie that into guitar tabs and symbols to identify notes and pitch using either or both notational methods.
To summarize, here are all the topics we'll hit on:
The primary goal of this piece is to illustrate the connection between pitch, sheet music and tablature, and to explain these topics so you're able to understand all three as a whole or as separate individual entities.
Sheet music is first up.
If you want a more simple, broad overview of beginner topics, checkout our guitar lesson basics page for some review.
Reading Sheet Music
We'll start with the grid on which sheet music is displayed; the staff. Here's what an empty single staff looks like:
A single staff is made up of the following components:
- Five lines
- Four spaces
- One treble or bass clef
In the example above we're using a treble clef, since it is only a single staff. A grand staff would have two groups of five lines and four spaces, with a treble clef on top and a bass clef on the bottom.
When music is specific to the guitar it's usually written with just the treble clef, which might also be called the "G clef" since it circles directly over the G line. To identify the note values of the other lines and spaces, you can use the following acronyms, cliche though they may be.
Notes on the Lines in the Treble Clef
Notes In the Spaces On the Treble Clef
Notes are graphically displayed on a staff, in either the lines or spaces, with one or more of the following three elements:
- Whole note head
For example, the following G note (which is displayed with corresponding tablature), has a head and a stem, but no flag.
Why is this note displayed the way it is? Why is their no flag?
The presence of different graphical elements tells us what kind of note we're working with. Each one indicates the timing of the note within a given bar of music.
- Whole note (one per measure)
- Half note (two per measure)
- Quarter note (four per measure)
- Eighth note (eight per measure)
- 16th note (16 per measure)
Here's how the heads, stems and flags are used to display those five different beats:
In the eighth and 16th note example, you would technically need to have seven more eighth notes and 15 more sixteenth notes to make the bar "correct." However, for the purposes of displaying them, I only added one per bar so it was easier to get a feel for how they look on their own.
Once you understand the notes on the staff and the different types of notes that can be placed on them, you can start to identify musical notes.
Take the following bar:
Based on the notes given for the lines and spaces we covered earlier, you should be able to identify the notes in this graphic with or without the tabs in the following manner:
Dividing Notation and Applying Tempo
In the sheet music I've been using, you may have noticed small numbers near vertical dividing lines. This is how you designate bars or "measures" in formal music notation, which is then used to properly display different types of notes, based on beat.
For example (and you may recall me mentioning this), a quarter note can occur four times in a measure. Or, you can have one half note (1/2) and two quarter notes 2/4) which when used together are equal to a full bar (1/2 + 2/4 = 4/4).
1/2 + 2/4 = 2/4 + 2/4 = 4/4 (a "complete" bar)
Understanding Time Signatures
Before we move on you need to understand the impact that time signatures have on how many - and what kind - of notes you might include in a give measure. Notice how at the beginning of each example I've shown, there are two numbers stacked one on top of another. In each case so far, those numbers have been two fours.
This is called 4/4 time or "common time," since it's the most typical time signature. It means that the bar contains four quarter note beats. You could also say there are four beats in the measure and the quarter note gets one beat.
Other time signatures would read out like this:
- 2/4 - Two quarter note beats (two beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat)
- 3/4 - three quarter note beats (three beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat)
- 6/8 - six eighth note beats (six beats in a measure and the eighth note gets one beat)
While there are other time signatures, 4/4 is the one you'll most typically see. Even the three others mentioned here are not commonly utilized in modern, western music. To continue on, just make sure you're able to understand what the two numbers mean and how to interpret them.
Filling a Bar with Notes Based on Beat and Time Signature
Let's take a look at how this works out on actual sheet music and tablature. Start with a single bar of four quarter notes, in 4/4 time.
This fits rather nicely. But, what if I were to add only three quarter notes into the bar, then try and move onto the next measure?
The software I use to build these tabs marks the bar red if I fail to add a fourth quarter note. This is because the bar should technically have four beats per measure, due to the 4/4 time signature. With only the three quarter notes, I needed one more to complete the measure. Now, this does not mean I must have only quarter notes, but it does mean that the notes should all add up to a total of four beats.
For example, I could do any of the following arrangements:
- Two half notes
- Two quarter notes and four eighth notes
- One half note and two quarter notes
- One half note and four eighth note
To fix the tab sheet with the red lines, I used the following arrangement of notes.
While it can be tricky to learn how to time all these correctly, it's not often the case that guitar players will need to compose this way. Being able to identify the different the time signature, the bar and the note types, are far more important things to recall.
Even if you can't totally sort out the timing of each bar, knowing how to identify notes and make sense of the different elements of formal notation has value, in and of itself.
Now that we've covered it, let's move onto tabs and look more closely at how the two types correspond to each other.
We've already seen some tablature in the examples I've used, but I'll start from the basics, assuming the concept is new to you and that you don't know how to read them.
Just like a staff, tablature has lines and spaces. However, in tablature, the lines represent the six physical strings of the guitar. We place numbers on those lines that represent frets on specific strings.
For most who don't already understand sheet music, this is a far easier - and some might say practical - way to read music on the guitar. Instead of a system of staffs and musical notes, you're tying the notation straight to the fretboard.
Chords in Guitar Tabs
To display chords or any notes in unison, you simply stack the numbers on top of one another, like this:
This is similar to the way chords are handled in sheet music, where the notes are also stacked on top of one another at the same spot in the bar.
Timing, Beat and Other Indicators in Guitar Tabs
One of the biggest problems with guitar tabs is that they've always been somewhat informal, meaning most folks who create them don't go through the trouble of displaying them properly. In other words, you have a lot of really low-quality tabs and tab sites that are little more than Courier font and numbers marking fretboard position.
Good quality guitar tabs should have many of the same elements as sheet music, namely the following:
- Bars and bar lines
- A time signature
- Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.
The guitar tabs we've been using in this article are good examples of high-quality tab sheets that include the aforementioned elements.
Recognizing Beat in Guitar Tabs
While the conventions are less established in guitar tabs than they are in standard notation, you still have ways to designate notes based on beat (whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc.).
Here's how they look in a tab sheet:
Connecting Guitar Tabs to Standard Notation
If you use a program like Guitar Pro 7, you can choose whether you want standard notation, guitar tabs or both. This makes it really easy to illustrate the correlation between tabs and standard notation, as we've already seen in this piece.
Here's another example that highlights two bars of half, quarter and eighth note beats:
If you know how to read both types of notation, being able to translate the two will be fairly intuitive and straightforward.
What do I do with this information?
It's important to mention that if you're more comfortable with guitar tabs, this isn't a call for you to force yourself into the labor of reading sheet music all the time. It's not more "noble" to do it that way or somehow more pure than the tab-focused method. The goal is to simply know both, so that if you find yourself in a situation where you need to use standard notation by itself, or perhaps along with tabs, you'll be able to hold your own.
Keep this information fresh in your mind and use this page as a quick reference to freshen up on the basics of sheet music and how it relates to guitar tabs.
At the least, it'll put you ahead of your guitar playing peers, those of whom typically do not know how to read standard notation.
What's your experience with standard notation and guitar tabs? Do you prefer one or the other? Is it important to know and/or use both?
Let us know in the comments section below.
Also, feel free to drop questions about the material there and I'll do my best to answer. Questions about the content are always best handled in the comments section, since readers who come along in the future can benefit there as well.
Flickr Commons Image courtesy of Arturo