How to Read Music: The Basics

Like it or not, Percussionists have to learn how to read music if they want to play in an orchestra, concert band, wind ensemble etc.

First things First: What Do Music Notes Look Like?

Here are what whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes look like and how they are counted.
how to read music the basics exercise 1

Watch this video for a quick explanation of how rhythm is notated

What is a Time Signature and What Does it Do?

A time signature is the numbers at the beginning of a piece of music that tells us two important things that we need to know in order to read the music.

  1. How many beats in the bar — the bottom number tells us there are 4 beats in this example
  2. What kind of note gets the beat — the top number (4) tells us that the quarter note gets the beat.
  3. The example below is referred to as FOUR FOUR . There four beats in the bar and the quarter note gets the beat. This bar is counted 1 2 3 4

four four time signature example

Here are two more examples of Time Signatures

three four and two four time signatures


The first bar is three four

  • Three beats in the bar
  • The quarter note gets the beat

The second bar is two four

  • Two beats in the bar
  • The quarter note gets the beat

In the next example we see Common Time common time music annotation which is equal to four four time four four music annotation and Cut Time cut time music annotation which is equal to two two time two two music annotation.

how to read music basics exercises 2


In the next examples we see where the Eighth note gets the beat instead of the quarter note.

how to read music basics exercise 3

  • six eight music annotation tells you there are six eighth notes in the bar.
  • three eight music annotation tells you there are three eighth notes in the bar.
  • four eight music annotation tells you there are four eighth notes in the bar.
  • twelve eight music annotation tells you there are twelve eighth notes in the bar.


There are a few more time signatures but these are usually the most common ones.

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  1. Hi. I play xylophone in the high school band and sometimes I have trouble reading rhythms and counting out the rhythms while playing. I kinda get a little frustrated with my self easily if I don’t get it right away and I was wondering if you had in lessons on here to learn easily how to read rhythms and play them. Thank you for your time.

    • Thanks for your question and it’s a question that has plagued musicians and especially mallet percussionists for eons. The problem is when we’re learning how to play the xylophone we don’t know where the bars are so we have to look for them. This is a problem when we are trying to read music because it’s so difficult to see the notes and the bars of the instrument at the same time. One thing that helped me was to play a lot of scales and arpeggios which built up my familiarity with the instrument. You should practice 2 octaves of these and try not to look down too much. A fun exercise which is a great “party trick” too is to cover the bars with a cloth and play your scales or something that you know. You will learn the spacing between notes without having to always see them.
      If you encounter a rhythmic problem you just need to work it out carefully and then, starting slowly at first, practice it over and over again until you are comfortable with it. Unfortunately there’s no magic pill, but after a while you will recognize patterns in common rhythms that might seem difficult to read now, but will seem a lot easier with more practice. One thing that I get my students to do is to try to look at more than one note at a time and try to look at notes in groups just like you look at words. When you know how to read you don’t have to r-e-a-d e-a-c-h l-e-t-t-e-r s-p-a-r-a-t-e-l-y because you group the letters together into words. You can do the same with rhythms.
      I hope that some of these ideas help, but you just have to go through this learning curve. Don’t worry, because with practice you will improve.

  2. Do you guys have a video of someone playing all the 12 major scales and I’ve been having trouble with reading the music and playing it on the marimba

    • Janessa
      I’m sorry but I don’t have that video for you. But, you can figure it out with practice. Unfortunately there isn’t a short cut for learning scales except understanding the pattern and memorizing how many sharps or flats there are in each scale. If you practice in the order of flats that can help you become more familiar. For instance C major has no flats just the “white” notes from C to C . Then play F major : it has only one flat which is instead of playing all the “white noes” from F to F you play the Bb instead of the B. The next is two flats; Bb and zen and that’s the Bb scale. The order of flats is Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb , Fb. To figure out what scale to play you start on the second last flat. Don’t forget that the order of flats is cumulative so Db will have four flats b e a and d. Then see which is the second last which is Ab so that is where you start. Play Ab to Ab and make sure to play the Bb Eb and Db instead of the plain B E and D.
      It actually sounds more confusing I know but with practice you’ll get it I’m sure

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