This is part 3 of my series on reading sheet music. If you are unfamiliar with how to read notes, rests, and rhythms, please go read part one and/or part two.

Although simple notes can be used to make some nice melodies, we need more. Notes need modifiers to make them sound the way we want them. Although there are literally dozens of different modifiers that you can find. There are a few that I consider the  most important.

  • Accidentals
  • Length Modifiers
  • Ties/slurs

Chances are that, in any given piece of music (non-beginner that is), you will find these three things. Sometimes you will find only these three things, and sometimes you will find more.


I will start with this one. Accidentals could be considered the most important of these three things. Accidentals are any sharps, flats, or naturals that do not appear in the key signature. Accidentals indicate that you should play a sharped or a flatted note.This is where the black keys on a piano come in. With no sharps and no flats, we just play on the white keys. But, if we add an accidental, it will tell us (most likely) to play a black key. There are three different types of accidentals, sharps,  flats, and naturals.

A sharp sign (at the left of the image) indicates  that you should raise the pitch by one half step. In other words, if you see a note with a sharp next to it, you should play the note (black or white) directly to the left of it. A flat sign (in the middle of the image) indicates the exact opposite. It means that you should play the note directly to the left of what you would normally play.

When a note is sharped or flatted, the sharp or flat continues on through the end of the measure. If one C in a measure has a sharp next to it, ALL Cs following it in that one measure are played a C sharps. This is where a natural comes in. If you want to go back to a normal C, you need to place a natural sign (the sign on the right of the image) next to that C.  Natural are treated just like sharps and flats and a note stays naturaled (I just made up that word) through the end of the measure. A natural can also be used to change a sharp or flat that is found in the key signature.

Length Modifiers

Length modifiers are also an important part in notation. They change the length of a note played. In general, there are only two you should be worried about. They are the dot and the fermata.

A dot, like it sounds, is a dot. It is placed after a note, and causes the note to be 1.5 times it’s normal length. To the right is an example. In this line, because we are in 4/4 time, a quarter note would usually relieve one beat. However, you will notice that the second note has  a dot next to it. Because of this, the quarter note receives not one beat, but 1 and a half. The eighth note next to it makes up the rest of the beat.

A fermata is quite different. A fermata is used to indicate that the musician should hold the note as long as he or she pleases. In singing, this can be used quite effectively to build anticipation. The nice thing about fermatas is that they are completely open to interpretation, they can be as long, or as short as you like. You can see an example to the right. The fermata is the little sign above the first note.


Although they are used for different purposes, ties and slurs look similar and I will lump them together into the same category.

A tie is a line that connects two notes of the same pitch. You can see an example with the last two notes in the images above. The arc indicates that the notes should not be played separately, rather they should be played as one note with the combined value of the two. So, in this example. Those two notes should be played as one note with a value of 5 beats (1 beat for the quarter note, 4 beats for the whole note.). You should also note that accidentals continue across a bar line when a note is tied, and do not terminate until the end of the tied note. Many notes can be tied together, there is no real limit.

Slurs connect two notes that, although they can be of the same pitch, do not need to be. Slurs, unlike ties, do note go from note to note. Instead they connect to one note, and then connect at the last note the composer wishes to be effected by it. All notes in between are affected as well. A slur indicates that a series of notes should be played without any pause at all between them, giving it a smooth feeling. An example is shown to the right. Notice, slurs can be above or bellow the notes in question.

I hope this helps you out with you reading of music! Now go have some fun.

This is part 3 of my series on how to read music. You can read Part 1: Notes here and Part 2: Rhythm and Rest here, and Part 4: Other Things of Importance here.

Categories: Music Basics