In standard music notation pitch is notated vertically showing the highness or lowness of each note. In this lesson I will explain how to read pitches in written music.
Music is written on the staff. The staff is a group of five lines and the spaces around them. Each line and space represents a letter of the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G).
Don’t be confused: the lines of the staff do not correspond to the strings of the bass. The lines are a completely separate system from the strings of the bass. This is a common misconception many beginning bass students have.
The clef is a symbol drawn at the beginning of each staff indicating how to interpret the lines and spaces. Each clef assigns different letters to the lines and spaces of the staff.
There are a number of different clefs. Each clef covers a particular range of pitch. Each musical instrument reads a particular clef depending on which range of notes it produces. The bass, tuba, cello, trombone, and other low-pitched instruments use the bass clef. Higher-pitched instruments like guitar, violin, and saxophone use the treble clef. Some wide-ranging instruments, like piano, read two clefs at the same time.
Bassists are mainly concerned with reading in bass clef. However, it is a good idea for all musicians to know how to read treble clef, too. Many books are written in treble clef only expecting that every musician can read it.
Music notes are drawn on the lines and spaces of the staff. The location of the notehead (the dot part of the note) indicates which note to play. If the notehead is on a line for F, the note to be played is F; a notehead on a space for A means to play the note A. We will discuss what the various types of music notes mean in the lesson on rhythmic notation. For this lesson you only need to understand the notehead part of the note.
The range of the staff can be extended using ledger lines. Ledger lines are added lines placed above and below the staff adding extra places to draw notes.
Note Names on the Bass Clef Staff
The letters assigned to the lines and spaces of the staff go in order from low pitch to high starting on the bottom of the staff moving up. The letters of the lines and spaces cycle through the natural notes of the musical alphabet A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, … and so on.
The bottom line of the bass clef staff is the letter G. The next space above is the letter A. The next line is B, then a space for C, and so on up the staff.
In the beginning people often learn a phrase to help remember the letters of the lines and spaces. Piano teachers use "Good Boys Do Fine Always" for the lines (what about girls?), and "All Cows Eat Grass" for the spaces. You can make up your own like: "Good Bassists Don't Forget Anything" and "Always Create Excellent Grooves". Don't confuse the phrase "Every Good Boy Does Fine" which is the well-known phrase for the lines of the treble clef! You can also test your note name recognition speed with the bass clef quiz.
The range of the bass extends beyond the notes of the bass clef staff. To get at the notes beyond its range we add ledger lines. A 4-string bass in standard tuning (E-A-D-G) requires one lower ledger line to add the note for the open E-string. Many of the higher notes on the bass fretboard will require multiple ledger lines above the staff.
You can find a printable chart of all the notes of the fretboard associated with the notes on the bass clef staff in the bass clef fretboard notes lesson.
You may be wondering about how we get all of the other notes of the musical alphabet on the staff. To give us the rest of the notes, there are three basic symbols called accidentals which can be attached to notes: the sharp, the flat, and the natural.
The Sharp Symbol
When a sharp symbol is added before a note, it means to raise the pitch by one note. So if a note is on the line for F and a sharp is placed before it, the note is F♯. Notice how the accidental is always placed before the note even though when you say the note name the accidental is said after the letter name.
The Flat Symbol
Similarly, a flat is placed before a note to get notes with flat names. If a note is on the line for D and a flat (♭) is placed before it, the note should be played as D♭.
The Natural Symbol
Another sign you will see is the natural sign. The natural symbol (♮) means to return a note back to the natural note. For example, if a note is D♭ but needs to be followed by a D, a natural symbol would be placed before the second note.