How to Properly Read Music Scores

How to Properly Read Music Scores!

In this article, you'll find all you need to know in order to understand how to read sheet music!

We will learn about all these weird symbols and musical terms you see on music charts every once in a while.

If you aspire to be a professional musician, you definitely need to know all of this and after you will, you’ll find out that it was VERY simple and in fact, very useful!

How to read sheet music

Why do we use these symbols and markings?

Simply because it shortens the sheet music and saves paper! instead of writing (or typing) endless charts, you can squeeze more information in less space.

In order to fully understand how to read sheet music, we need to divide this article into 3 chapters:

1. The musical bar - there are few types of bar endings and each one tells the musician what to do, play, stop, or repeat.

2. Types of repetitions in music - There are a few ways we can repeat segments of sheet music: chord repetition symbol, bar repeat, and Volta brackets. 

3. The Latin music commands - Da Capo, Dal Segno, Coda, and more related terms.

In order to fully be able to read sheet music, you need to first understand the concept of rhythm in music (article will be available soon) and how it is built, check this article if you lack some information about this topic.

Let’s begin!

So… What is a bar in music?

A Bar (also called measure) is a musical segment with two borders on each side, one border marks the beginning of the bar, and the other marks its end.

An easy way to understand what is a bar is to think of it as some kind of a box. This box can come in many sizes, each size gives a different feel to the musical piece. 

What determines the size of a bar?

The thing that determines how many notes we can fit inside one bar is the time signature.

The time signature is built out of two numbers:

  • The upper number tells us how many notes in a bar.
  • The lower number tells us which type of note we need to count

time signature examples

There are many more time signatures, some are more complex and some are simple and mainstream. For more information on this subject, check out this article about Rhythm (will be up soon).

Different Types of Bar Lines

Now, after we understand the bar and the time signature, let’s see what information lies between the lines (wink wink) of the bars.

The borderlines of a bar can mean different things, you might have come across a few of them already.

Single Bar Line - a single bar line defines the start and end of each bar. When you see this line, you don’t need to stop playing, it just marks the end of the count (and the beginning of the next bar).

Double Bar Line - a double bar line will mark the end of a section of a musical piece (like a verse, chorus, or C part). After seeing this mark, you don’t need to stop playing. You only need to keep on playing through to the next section of the song (just like playing a verse into a bridge or a chorus… you don't stop!).

Repetition Bar - the repetition bars are a little different because they usually appear on both sides of a musical segment - one at the beginning (at the left side of a bar) and one at the end (at the right side of the bar). The purpose of the repetition bars is to mark a segment to repeat in the sheet music.

The repetition mark also looks a little different, it has one thick line and two dots, easily recognizable!

These markings tell the player to repeat the segment between the two borders!

Wait, but what if there is no starting repetition mark? If you see only one repetition mark, it will be an ending repetition mark and it means that you need to start the repetition from the beginning of the musical piece.

End Bar Line - The end bar is one thin line followed by a thick line. This type of bar will signal the end of a musical piece. When you see this line it means STOP PLAYING, next song!

bar types in music

Ok, now that we know how to read bars, let’s look at other types of repetition:

3 Types of repetition marks in music

In a musical chart, you're going to find all sorts of repetition markings, each one has a different use.

Segment repetition bar

These are the regular repetition bars we already talked about. These repetition marks tell us to repeat the content between the borders ONCE!

musical repetition bars

Bar Repetition Mark

When writing sheet music, we often use chord or line repetitions, and instead of writing the same chord or line over and over, we can just use this repetition mark!

There are two bar repetition marks: 
  • The first marks a repetition of one bar and has one diagonal line.
  • The second symbol will mark a repetition of 2 bars and will be drawn with 2 diagonal lines, and will be placed ON the borderline of the bar.

two bar repeat, two measure repeat

Volta Brackets

Have you ever wondered what these 1st and 2nd endings mean??
Well… these are called Volta Brackets and they mark two different endings to a repetition of a certain musical segment. The first time is played with the ending marked number 1 and the second time is played with the ending marked number 2.

Volta brackets examples, 1 and 2 bar markings

The Latin Score Terms and Markings

The last step of understanding how to read sheet music is getting familiar with the Latin music terms and marking found in almost every written music.

There are a few different types of them, each one has a different function. They look pretty intimidating at the beginning but once you get the hang of it, it is super-easy!

This type of repetition gives a lot more freedom to the composer when dissecting the exact parts of the sheet music he needs repeating.

First, let’s understand the concept of these symbols.

Each one of these terms and symbols is either a starting point or an ending point of some repetition in the chart.

🏃‍♂️ Starting Symbols and Terms

Da Capo (also called D.C)

The meaning of Da Capo in Latin is “from the beginning”. It is an order for the player to go back to the beginning of a musical piece.

Dal Segno (also called D.S)

Dal Segno symbol

In order to understand what a Dal Segno is and how it works, we need to look at it like a pin on a map, a place we know how to get back to.

The Dal Segno is very useful, it enables the composer to mark any segment he wishes to repeat. 

The actual meaning of Dal Segno is “from the sign”, meaning it is only one part of the instruction.

How to differentiate between D.C and D.S - many people get confused between these two terms. The best way to remember which one you are looking at is to just remember that the letter "S" symbolizes Segno.

🧍‍♂️ Ending Symbols and Terms

Coda

Coda symbol in music

The meaning of this Latin word is “tail” and like its name, so is its function. It is an added segment to the piece that is written separately.

fine

The meaning of fine in Latin is “end”. This function enables the writer to end the repetition in a specific bar to his choosing.

Ok, now after we know what every symbol and term mean, we can understand the format:

Repeat from D.C / D.S - until Coda / fine

Now let’s see how everything works together in a few examples:

D.C al Coda

D.C al coda example

D.S al Coda

D.S al Coda example

D.C al fine

D.C al fine example

D.S al fine

D.S al Fine example

That's all for now fellas! If you found that article useful, you might be interested in "Musical Intervals" lesson and "the Major Scale" article!

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