It's certainly possible to play music without being able to read it, just as it's possible to be able to speak without being able to read or write. In both cases, the person who cannot read or write is missing out on an opportunity to comprehend and communicate better. Learning to read sheet music can improve your grasp of music theory, enable you to play music you've never heard before, and allow you to more easily relate your musical ideas to others. The skill can take a while to master, but the basics are laid out for you here.
Treble clef: The treble clef, also known as the G-clef (because it circles the line for the G note), is used in writing music for most musical voices (soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, and tenor), most woodwind instruments, stringed instruments (violin, guitar) and high brass instruments such as the trumpet. It also typically corresponds to the notes played with the right hand on the piano. The notes played on the lines of the treble clef staff are, from bottom to top, E, G, B, D, F. The order of these notes can be remembered with the use of mnemonic phrases such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Elvis Goes Belly Dancing Friday, or Every Good Boy Does Fine, or Every Girl Best Deserves Fudge. The spaces between the lines, from bottom to top, correspond to the notes F, A, C, E, a sequence which, obviously, spells "FACE."
Bass clef: The bass clef, also known as the F-clef because it defines the line for the F note between two dots, is used for lower-pitched instruments such as the bassoon, the bass, and low brass instruments such as the trombone and tuba. The piano part played by the left hand is also usually written with a bass today. The notes played on the lines of the bass clef staff are, from bottom to top, G, B, D, F, A. This order can be remembered with the aid of phrases such as Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart or Good Boys Do Fine Always. The spaces between the lines, from bottom to top, correspond to the notes A, C, E, G. The mnemonic device All Cows Eat Grass may help you remember the order of these notes. Another way to remember them is knowing that "all" the notes between the two outer lines are A B C D E F G.
A flat symbol on a line or a space tells you that all notes on that line or space should be played flat (one semitone lower than they would otherwise be played.) Thus a flat symbol on the line of the staff that corresponds to "B" would indicate that all "B" notes in the piece should be played as "B-flats," which are halfway between "A" and "B". The symbols that look like lowercase letter "b"s are flats.
A sharp symbol tells you that all notes on that line or space should be played a semitone higher than they would otherwise be played. The symbols that look like number or pound symbols are sharps. The key signatures progress in what is called the "circle of fifths"; that is, each key is a musical interval of one fifth from its neighboring key. In key signatures containing flats, the name of the key is the flat to the left of the last flat. A key signature with four flats, B, E, A, D, for example, is the key of A flat.
o The exception to this rule is the key of F, which has only one flat. In keys containing sharps, the name of the key is one step above the last sharp; for example, if there are three sharps, F, C, and G, the name of the key, one step above G, is "A".
o Notes can also be designated flats or sharps by flat or sharp symbols placed right before them within the piece of music. In this case, only the corresponding notes in that measure (see next step) are modified.
If the key signature tells you that all "B" notes, for example, should be played as "B-flats," a natural sign can be used before a single "B" note to indicate that that particular note and other "B" notes in that measure should be played as "B," not as "B-flat."
o Be sure to check for key changes. Key changes will be indicated throughout some pieces and will look like a key signature. When this happens, change the key you are playing in as is indicated from there on out, or until you come upon another key change.
The top number normally determines how many beats are in a measure or bar (a measure is defined by vertical lines, or bar lines, that run perpendicular to the staff). For instance, if the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats in a measure.
o The bottom number in the time signature normally determines what kind of note gets one beat. This number is most commonly 4, which means that a quarter note (see next step) gets one beat. It may also be 2, which means that a half note gets one beat, or 8, which means that eighth notes are used to determine the length of the measure.
o 4/4 time is so common that it is sometimes designated with the letter "C" ("common") in the time signature instead of with a fraction. Likewise, 2/2 time is sometimes designated by the letter "C" with a line running down through it, and is known as "cut" time. More complex time signatures may have an 8 or some other number on the bottom, but these are beyond the scope of this introductory article.
A whole note or semibreve appears as a "circle" on the staff in a measure and is worth 4 beats in common time. A whole note is the base unit to which all the other fractional notes are related.
Whole rests look like dark rectangles hanging down off the second line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as whole notes. However, there are some occasions where a whole rest can indicate an entire measure, even when a whole note does not. For example, in 3/4 time, a whole note simply cannot be used, as it is too long for a measure; however, a whole rest is sometimes still used to indicate silence for the entire measure. You can remember that whole rests come DOWN from the line because it's like a hole was dug.
Half notes or minim are worth 1/2 the duration of whole notes. They appear as an empty circle with a straight line (also known as the "staff") dropping down off the left side or going up off the right side. In 4/4 time (or also referred to as Common time, with a C instead of the 4/4), a half-note receives two beats.
Half rests look like dark rectangles sitting on top of the third line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as half notes. These can be differentiated from whole rests because the half rest looks like a top hat--hat and half sound similar.
Quarter notes or crotchet are worth 1/4 the duration of whole notes. They look like solid circles with a straight line coming off of them (as in the half notes). In 4/4 time, quarter notes are worth 1 beat.
Quarter rests are designated by a unique symbol that looks something like a bird flying sideways. They are worth the same amount of time as quarter notes. Sometimes they are represented by a symbol that is the mirror image of an eighth rest, shown later.
Eighth notes or quaver are worth 1/8 the duration of whole notes. In 4/4 time, they are worth half a beat, so two eighth notes equal 1 beat, the equivalent of a quarter note. A single eighth note looks like the quarter note, but has a single "tail" (more properly known as a flag) that curves back along the staff toward the solid circle.
Two or more eighth notes together are connected by a single horizontal bar at the bottom or top, instead of having flags. This bar is known as a beam.
Eighth rests look a little like a leaning stick figure person cut in half vertically and holding his head in his outstretched hand. Or like a stylized number 7 with some kind of growth--hopefully it's benign--on its top left end. They are worth the same duration as an eighth note. The one in this picture is actually a sixteenth rest, having two flags on the top.
Sixteenth notes or semiquaver are worth 1/16 the duration of whole notes. In 4/4 time, they are worth a quarter of a beat (four of them together make a single beat). A single sixteenth note looks like the eighth note, but with two flags instead of one.
When they're connected, it's with two beams, not one.
A dot next to the note or rest means that it should be lengthened by half of the note's normal duration. A dot next to a half note means that the note should be held for the duration of 3/2 of a half-note -- in common time, it would be three beats.
o There are notes and rests of shorter durations than sixteenth notes and rests, which continue the pattern illustrated above. Rests lasting longer than one measure may also be designated by a bar running through more than one measure with a number on top. The number indicates the number of measures of silence and does not necessarily correspond to the number of measures through which the symbol actually runs.
Frequently you will see two or more notes "stacked" on top of each other on the staff. This is a chord, and indicates that all the notes should be played at the same time. Chords may only be played on polyphonic instruments (instruments on which you can play two or more notes independently or as a chord) such as the piano and guitar.
If there is an arc connecting one note's circle to another note's circle, this is a tie, a slur, or a phrase mark. A tie occurs between two notes of the same pitch, and means that the notes are connected and should be held out for the total duration of the tied notes. A slur occurs between two different notes, and means that the notes should be voiced or articulated as little as possible. In the case of vocal music, it means that the pitch will change while still singing the same syllable. A phrase mark generally is used over a series of notes, and means that you should play them continuously without a break in the musical thought.
If you see notes with dots over or under them (not next to them) play or sing them in a shortened fashion, leaving some silence between the notes so that they are detached from one another. This is referred to as staccato.