Learning how to read violin sheet music is a challenging but important task.
Being able to read music off of the page unlocks an entire world of musical potential. When you develop your sight-reading skills, playing a new piece of music can be as easy as reading these words.
Playing by ear is a wonderful and valuable skill that can come in handy in many situations, especially when it comes to improvising. However, learning how to read violin sheet music is necessary if you aspire to perform with an orchestra, quartet, or band.
Once you’ve learned how to read violin notes, you’ll be able to play any piece of music you set your mind to. Learning a new piece is exponentially easier when you can interpret the sheet music. The good news is that you can learn how to read music while building up other fundamental violin techniques such as scales, finger positions, and bowing.
Below, we will walk you through how to read violin sheet music and then test your knowledge with a quick quiz.
How to Read Violin Sheet Music: Step by Step
The journey of learning how to read sheet music starts with the staff. The staff is the set of five horizontal lines on which notes are placed in standard violin sheet music.
There are seven notes of which all music is based: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Once you get to G, you would start back over with A and the cycle would repeat again, getting higher in pitch as you go up the staff.
There are also multiple pitches that correspond with the same letter in music. For instance, there are several different A’s on the violin. They are just in varying forms of higher or lower pitches.
The easiest way to learn violin music notes is to divide the staff up into lines and spaces.
These are the notes that fall on the lines of the staff, meaning the notes directly on top of the lines, with the lines intersecting them.
Starting from the bottom line, begin to memorize each note going up the top line. One popular mnemonic device you may have heard is “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” Another is “Elvis’ Guitar Broke Down Friday.”
These devices can be really handy to help you memorize the notes! You can also start with a beginner violin book, such as Essential Elements for Strings Volume I, which will give you some great exercises to help you memorize and learn these notes.
The Notes on the Spaces
Next, there are the violin music notes that fall in between the lines – on the spaces:
Another great mnemonic device applies here. If you look at the notes starting from the bottom note up to the top note, you will see that the letters spell F-A-C-E. And that of course rhymes with space. It’s quite catchy and memorable: “Face is in the space!”
Whenever you’re practicing or working from an exercise book make sure to keep these mnemonic devices in mind. If you forget the name of a note, first determine whether the note falls on a space or a line.
Then take your finger or a pencil and point to each note from the bottom on up, while saying aloud the corresponding mnemonic device to refresh your memory. See, learning how to read violin notes isn’t that hard after all!
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The five lines and four spaces aren’t quite enough to contain the entire spectrum of violin notes. In order to place these violin music notes, we use small lines or dashes called “ledger lines.” The notes can fall on the lines or in the spaces between them just like the five lines of the staff.
In the G scale chart above, you’ll notice that there are other notes that fall below the staff (lower in pitch) and above the staff (higher in pitch.)
To read these notes you can use the ones on the staff that you already know as a reference point to figure them out.
Important Symbols on the Staff
A very important part of learning how to read violin notes is memorizing the different symbols you might come across on the staff. If you look over some violin sheet music or an exercise book, you’ll notice some new symbols at the beginning of each staff line.
The Treble Clef
You may recognize the fancy swirly symbol at the beginning of the staff as a clef. Clef symbols are reference points that name a specific note on the staff from which the names of all the other notes are based.
Lower pitched instruments use other clefs with different reference points, such as bass or alto clef. But in violin (as well as higher pitched instruments such as flute and trumpet) we use the treble clef.
The main thing a beginner should take from this is that if you’re looking at sheet music with a treble clef on it, it signifies that the music is suitable to be played on the violin.
Next, you’ll see the key signature, which is very important to pay attention to because it will tell you whether or not you have any flat or sharp notes in the song.
- A flat note (i.e. B flat) is a half-step lower in pitch than the base note (B) and is signified by this symbol: ♭
- A sharp note (i.e. C sharp) is a half-step higher in pitch than the base note (C) and is signified by this symbol: #
If you see a flat symbol in the key signature, look at the line or space that is striking through the center of the symbol and determine which note corresponds to the line or space.
Now throughout the duration of the piece (whether it’s a higher or lower version of that note) you will be playing the flat version of that note.
The same goes for when you see a sharp symbol in the key signature. Take a close look at the sharp symbol and notice that there is a little skewed square right in the middle of the symbol.
Whichever note corresponds to the line or space that the square forms around will be the note that will become sharp throughout the piece.
Sometimes there will be multiple sharps or a combination of sharps and flats. If you don’t see any sharps or flats in your key signature, you can just assume that all the notes in the piece are going to be your normal or “natural” notes.
Any notes that are not mentioned in the key signature are assumed to be natural notes as well.
Next in line is the time signature. The time signature lets you know how to count a piece or how many beats are in each measure.
The staff is divided by vertical lines into segments called “measures,” which will contain a certain number of beats depending on what your time signature says.
The top number in the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure. Once the allotted number of beats have been counted out, it’s time to move on to the next measure and start the counting over again.
The bottom number describes the length of the beat. If you have a 4 on the bottom (most common) that would signify that you are basing your beat off of the length of a quarter note.
These are the numbers you’ll be seeing on the bottom of the time signature and which note lengths they correspond to:
- 2 = half note
- 4 = quarter note
- 8 = eighth note
- 16 = sixteenth note
These are the most common time signatures you will see:
The 4/4 time signature is so common that it is referred to as “common time” and often, you will see a C on the music where the time signature would normally be which means to play the piece in 4/4 time.
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Quiz Yourself on How to Read Violin Notes
Now that you understand all the symbols and signatures at the beginning of a violin song, you’re ready to start reading notes.
Remembering your mnemonic devices can help you read the notes on the staff, but will you be able to identify the notes that fall off the staff?
As discussed earlier, there are many notes that will fall above the staff and a couple that fall below it.
Just remember that if you know the notes on the staff, you can count up or down using the alphabet to figure out any note you come across.
Test yourself with the chart below.
Starting with the top line, which you know is an F, count up alphabetically to figure out what note this is. Make sure you count each space and line!
If you guessed D, you’re right!
Now that you understand the basics of how to read violin notes, you’re ready to start putting it all together. You can now begin to learn about how these notes on written sheet music correspond to the notes on your violin, which is discussed thoroughly in this article.
While we covered a lot of information in this post, online resources such as these are no substitute for a violin teacher. Your teacher can provide you with a personalized, step-by-step approach to mastering how to read violin sheet music, while answering any questions you may have along the way.
If you’re looking to improve your musical skills from the comfort of your own home, online violin lessons are a great option. Your teacher can share their screen and explain the various elements of sheet music in a fun and accessible way. Through real-time feedback, you can develop proper playing habits and make the most out of your time on the instrument.
The time you spend learning how to read music is well worth it. The more you practice, the more the notes will jump off the page and onto your violin!