How to read music (scores)

Basic exercises


Interpreting sheet music to the guitar could be more difficult than you might think; it is not just about 'decoding' the music sheet, but also about seeing the whole reference system behind, and translating it to the guitar's reference system. Whereas a single note can be played at many fret positions and strings on the guitar, in the case of the piano you've only got one linear set of keys, leaving you no other option to play that particular note than play it where you are supposed to.



The fact that there is plenty of options for playing a certain note of scale does not really matter if you are a beginner. But as you make progress to the advanced level, you are more likely to get stuck with wrong scale choices. This means that picking out the right scales to play and practice is crucial. My methodology aims exactly at this; showing you the right scales and patterns, explaining them and teaching them. Let's take a look at this simple scale that has already been mentioned before; the 1-octave C major scale:



The first note of the scale is a C note. It is the note that is on the ledger line below the staff. You could also call it C4, according to the MIDI notation standard. Still, this C major scale sheet music is not really guitar-specific. That's why you need to look at the same scale on a guitar tablature below the sheet music. And here comes my way of visualizing the scale, which is the Pénzes mirror image:



There are many ways to play this particular C major scale on the guitar. Here are some examples (not all the options are listed here, only the ones that have a trichord structure):



You can see that how many options there are to play a scale on the guitar. That's why it is crucial to pick the right one and stick to it. The first version of the above 1-octave structures (highlighted in red in the below mirror image) can be extended so it becomes an F Lydian scale. The whole thing could work vice versa; extending the 1-octave F Lydian scale you will get the full C major scale.



Here are the notes of this extended scale:




Although there is a huge load of scales to choose from, beginners might feel a little lost in all these scales. Only when they have learned and look at the system globally will they see the opportunity in this variety of scales, and not find it burdensome anymore.


My suggestion is that you start exercising with the mentioned C major - F Lydian scale combination:



Let's take a look at the white keys of the piano, as guidance:



...and now let's see the sheet music. I have indicated the string name with yellow highlight, and split up the notes to groups, 4 in each group, to make it easier for identification.


E6-F-G-A5 * B-C-D4-E * F-G3-A-B2 * C-D-E1-F * G-A-B-C * D-E


The first starting note is played on the lowest, E6 string of the guitar; the last note is the 12th fret on the highest, E1 string. It is obvious that this kind of music notation can't reflect the scale structures specific to the guitar; that is why we need the mirror images.


Here's the first exercise to complete: given the simple melody line below. Try to play it, staying in that C major - F Lydian scale combination. Rhythmically, it is a very simple song; only consists of quarter notes (1/4) and eighth notes (1/8). The rhythm pattern is as follows:


1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/4 note - 1/4 note

1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/4 note - 1/4 note

1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/4 note - 1/4 note

1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/8 note - 1/4 note - 1/4 note



Check out the video to see how I played it:

Now let's try to put the notes of the same song, which is a Hungarian children's song, into other scales. Some versions of mine:






Transposing the same melody to other frets could also be a useful thing to practice. The above versions of a C major scale define a whole lot of melodies or even musical pieces that have a basic tonality of C major (or A minor, or E Locrian); music involving no altered notes. The first row of the below table shows the basic scales that are parallel to the C major (and the A minor):



What about musical pieces with different tonalities (from a piano point of view: what if the musical piece involves playing black keys)?


There are 2 possible options:

  1. There are altered notes with the notes of the standard C major / A minor tonality.

  2. The musical piece has a different tonality. In this case the scales have to be transposed.

The tonality of the musical piece is indicated by the key signatures, placed at the beginning of the ledger.


2 kinds of key signatures are used:


Sharp - alters the note 1 semitone up


Flat - alters the note 1 semitone down


Multiple sharps and flats can be used at the same time. When placed at the beginning of a ledger, the key signatures not only define the tonality of the musical piece, but are also applicable to all the notes of that particular ledger, altering the notes either 1 semitone up or 1 semitone down.

For example, the key signature of the sheet music below is 1 flat (placed on the beginning of the third ledger):



This means that the tonality is either F major or D minor, and every B note is altered by a semitone down (all the B notes are on the 3th ledger), making it a B flat.


E6-F-G-A5 * B-C-D4-E * F-G3-A-B2 * C-D-E1-F * G-A-B-C * D-E


Unfortunately, classical music theory is not the most systematic thing in the world. So if you did not feel uncomfortable enough with all these irregular rules, here's more for you to take in. Let's try to identify the following altered notes:



  1. E# - F# - G# - A#

  2. B# - C# - D# - E#

  3. F# - G# - A# - B#

  4. C# - D# - E# - F#

  5. G# - A# - B# - C#

  6. D# - E#


  1. Eb - Fb - Gb - Ab

  2. Bb - Cb - Db - Eb

  3. Fb - Gb - Ab - Bb

  4. Cb - Db - Eb - Fb

  5. Gb - Ab - Bb - Cb

  6. Db - Eb

We have now altered all the 7 notes of the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) consisting of only white keys. But we are actually looking for the 5 black keys! The secret is that the piano lacks the black keys between the notes E and F, and B and C...




  • E sharp = F

  • B sharp = C

  • F flat = E

  • C flat = B

These note pairs are what we call enharmonic equivalents. 2 tonalities became prevailing in Western music: these are the major and the minor. The circle of fifths reflect these 2 basic tonalities and their key signatures; it also shows that there is in total 24 possible tonalities (12 major and 12 minor) in this system.



The approach presented in the circle of fifths is a little simplified though, as we all know, there is more than 2 tonalities. On top of the 2 major tonalities, we have as many as 5 additional tonalities, out of which some of them are also considered basic tonalities. That's where the below chart comes in, with all the 2 + 5 tonalities included: - How to read music (scores) - Introduction