In going back and reading my previous posts in these series, I realized there are a few things I left out. In this post I want to go back and cover those things.


One very important thing in music is dynamics. We have to know when to play to play loud and when to play soft. To the right you can see the most common dynamic markings. The “p” stands for the Italian word piano and means soft. The “mp” stands form Mezzo-piano and means, essentially, “kind of soft.” The “mf” stands for Mezzo-forte and means “kind of loud.” And the f stands for Forte and means simply “loud.” Now, if you want to be even louder you can just add an F or a P. For example  pp would stand for Pianissimo and means very soft, and ff stands for Fortissimo and means very loud.

Those indicators can be found throughout a piece to tell us to change our loudness or lack thereof. But sometimes the composer wishes for us to change gradually. When this is the case, he uses crescendo or decrescendo markings. The image to the right is a crescendo marking and indicates you should get louder over a period of time. A crescendo mark can be drawn out over many notes. This particular example would be a very short crescendo. In general, you will find a dynamic marking at the end of the crescendo mark, indicating how loud you should be at the end. Remember, get loud over the length of the whole crescendo, not all at once.

A decrescendo on the other hand look exactly the same except backwards (>). It too will most of the time be drawn out over many notes and will most likely include a dynamic marking at the end too indicate how soft you should be. Sometimes, instead of a mark like this, you will simply find an abbreviation. For the most part crescendo will be abbreviated “cresc.” and decrescendo will be abbreviated “decresc.” Normally you will find a dynamic marking later on indicating how long you should be changing volume and what your final volume will be.

Notes Above and Below the Staff

This is incredibly important. Frequently you will run into notes that are either too high, or too low to be on the staff. In general, these notes can be represented in two ways: ledger lines and octave markings. Ledger lines are lines that have been added above or below the staff to indicate where the notes should be.

Take the example to the right. Let us imagine for a moment that this is the G clef. As we know, the very top space (the one above the last line) will be high G. The line above it, which is simply a ledger line, will be an A. The next space, written above a ledger line, will be a B and so on. Going down it is opposite. Since we know that the bottom space is a D, we can know that the note on the line belowit is a C, the space below that is a B, and so on. This also applies for the bass staff. If this was the bass staff, the top space would be B. As such, the next line would be C, the next space would be D, and so on. Down below, the lowest space is F, the line below is E, etc.

If the composer wants you to go even higher, but doesn’t want to confuse you with a bunch of ledger lines, he will generally use octave markings. You can see them at the right. 8va indicates to play an octave above the indicated pitch, and 8vb indicates to play an octave below the written notes. At the top of this example you would normally play high F, high G, and high A. Instead you would play the next F, G and A above those. The same below, except going down. Instead of playing low G, low F and low E, you would play the next G, F and E down on your instrument.

The doted line indicates that the octave change extends over all the notes. A dotted line such as this only influences one staff. If the composer needs you to play extra low or extra high on both staffs there will be two indicators.

Pedal Markings

Last, but not least, if you are playing piano you will need to know when to use the damper pedal. The damper pedal is the pedal that cause all the notes on the piano to continue to ring, even after you release them.

This can be indicated in two ways. The first one is a simple horizontal line below the staff. The upside down V indicates that you should lift the pedal and place it back down.

The other way uses two symbols. One to indicate you should put the pedal down, the other to indicate it should be lifted. You can see them below, the one to the left indicates you should press the pedal down, and the one on the right indicates you should lift it up. These also will be found below the staff.

I hope this series has helped you understand sheet music better. If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment below.

This is part 4 of my series on how to read sheet music. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Categories: Music Basics