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Learn how to read accordion sheet music

Accordion notation

In order to play the accordion, you should learn how to read music, you need to know how to read the treble and the bass clef. In fact, accordion notation is similar to piano notation, both use the double staff, the treble staff for the right hand, and the clef staff for the left hand. Playing accordion without reading music could be extremely difficult but don’t worry, although you may think, learning to read notes is quite easy and the accordion notation is simple.

(In this article, we will start from the treble clef; in case you are more interested in learning the bass clef, I invite you to read this tutorial about how to read accordion bass notes on a score.)

marius masalar unsplash

(Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash)

If you already know how to read music notation then you can skip this lesson but if you are a beginner, I suggest studying this page and practice until you can read notes easily.

Let’s start with some definitions:

 

What is music notation?

Music is an organized form of sound and rhythm.

Music notation is a visual representation of these two elements using 12 notes:

7 notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G called “natural notes”, plus 5 half-step intervals, between notes, called “sharps and flats“.

Let’s focus just on sound for now.

Which are the components of sound?

Sound can be defined as a mixture of these four elements:

  • Pitch
  • Duration
  • Dynamic
  • Timbre

 

Pitch

Pitch is the highness or lowness of a sound.

Without involving physic and math let’s say that on accordion the lowest sounds are produced playing bass buttons and the highest sounds, playing the keyboard. Obviously, basses and keys have their range of pitch but in this article, we’ll focus just on the keyboard which is represented by the treble clef.

Piano Accordion pitch range

On the accordion keyboard, the key that produces the lowest note is the first you find at the top and the highest is the last one at the bottom.

In a 120 bass accordion usually, the lowest key is an F (F3) and the highest is an A (A6):

Highest and lowest pitch on piano accordion

Highest and lowest notes on piano accordion

As you can see, the lowest sound is the lowest note on the staff and the highest sound is represented as the highest note on the staff. Pretty intuitive and simple.

Now, I will explain how music notation can represent pitch variations.

 

The staff

Blank staff spaces and lines

Spaces and lines

Five lines and four spaces are the most important elements of a music staff. There are many other graphic elements in a score but for now, let’s focus just on lines and spaces.

 

Notes on the staff

You can see how spaces and lines are arranged on the staff. The first space and the first line is at the bottom of the staff, the fifth space and the fifth line is at the top of the staff. On the staff, there are 9 positions available (5 lines + 4 spaces) but it’s possible to add notes above and under the staff.

Notes Inside staff

When you will be able to recognize all positions on the staff, it will be much easier reading the note above and below it. For this reason, you have to memorize the name and position of these 9 notes in the treble clef.

You can memorize these 9 notes on the staff all at once but there’s a simpler way:

 

Lines notes on the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each line note:

Lines

  • 1st line: E
  • 2nd line: G
  • 3rd line: B
  • 4th line: D
  • 5th line: F

Memorize one of these acrostic sentences:

  • Every Good Boy Deserves Food

or

  • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

or

  • Every Good Boy Does Fine

or

  • any other acrostic of your creation.

Reading practice #1

Spaces notes on the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each space note:

Spaces

  • 1st space: F
  • 2nd space: A
  • 3rd space: C
  • 4th space: E

I think this sequence it’s pretty easy to remember as the word “face“, so nothing difficult here. With little practice, you’ll be able to recognize all notes inside the staff.


Reading practice #2
Reading practice #1 & 2

Notes above and below the staff

Now, let’s talk about those notes which are above and below the staff. As I said, it’s possible to add notes above and under the staff.

Righi sopra 1

You have to imagine lines and spaces above and below the staff like in this example or simply, memorize space and line notes position like you did before:

 

Line notes above the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each line note:

Lines over

  • 6th line: A
  • 7th line: C
  • 8th line: E
  • 9th line: G

If you use the 5th line note as reference (F), there’s still the word “face”, plus a G.

Line notes above the staff has always a segment of the imaginary lines in their head.


Reading practice #3

Space notes above the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each space note:

Over spaces

  • 5th space: G
  • 6th space: B
  • 7th space: D
  • 8th space: F
  • 9th space: A

If you use the 4th space note as reference (E), there’s still the acrostic sentence Every Good Boy Deserves Food, plus an A.

Space notes above the staff are always resting on a segment of the imaginary lines.


Reading practice #4
Reading practice #3 & 4

 

Over staff

 

Line notes below the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each line note:

Lines low

  • 3 lines below the staff: F
  • 2 lines below the staff: A
  • 1 line below the staff: C

There’s still the word “face”, less an E. Even line notes below the staff has always a segment of the imaginary lines in their head


Reading practice #5

Space notes below the staff

Observe and memorize the name and position of each space note:

Low spaces

  • Below 2 space under the first space: G
  • Below 1 space under the first space: B
  • Below the first space: D

There’s still the acrostic sentence Every Good Boy Deserves, without the word “Food”.


Reading practice #6
Reading practice #5 & 6
Reading practice: All notes

Low staff

Now you have learned to read all natural notes (white keys on the keyboard), it’s time to introduce the concept of sharp and flat notes (black keys) but before that, you need to know something about intervals:

 

Intervals

Semitone and tone

The pitch difference between two notes is called interval, the smaller interval is a semitone.

So, for example, look at a G on the keyboard chart: by definition, G♭ is a semitone lower than G, this means that you have to play the black key between F and G to lower down the pitch. G# is a semitone higher than G so you have to play the black key between G and A. The interval between G and G# is a semitone and the interval between G# and A is still a semitone. The word “semitone” means “halftone”: 2 halftone makes a whole tone. In other words, between G and A, the interval is called tone.

 

Intervals on piano accordion keyboard

Now look how keys are arranged: you should have noticed that there are groups of 3 and groups of 2 black keys that go along all the keyboard. Between E and F and between B and C there are no black keys. You may think that the interval between two white keys is always a tone as the interval between G and A but it’s not true: the interval between E and F is a semitone, the interval between B and C is a semitone too.

This means that E sharp and B sharp are white keys because E plus a semitone = F, as well as, B plus a semitone = C. This also means that F flat and C flat are white keys because F less a semitone = E, as well as, C less a semitone = B. Don’t worry, #E, #B, ♭F and ♭C, are quite rare on scores.

Intervals

 

Sharp and flat notesAccordion lesson for beginners: How to read music notation

A sharp sign (#) placed before a note means that the note is a semitone (one halftone) higher than the natural note. A flat sign () placed before a note means that the note is a semitone lower than the natural note.

 

Accidental marks

Sharp (#) and flat () signs are called accidental marks. Now, let’s see all others marks and signs that change a note pitch:

The double sharp sign 𝄪

A double sharp sign (x) placed before a note raises it a whole step (tone). Example: Fx = G

The double flat sign ♭♭

A double flat sign (♭♭)placed before a note lowers it a whole step. Example: A♭♭ = G

The natural sign

A natural sign ()placed before a note cancels any previous sharp or flat in the same measure. Example: Natural sign

 

Enharmonic notes

What happens if you add a semitone to F or if you detract a semitone to G? In the first case you get an F sharp (#) and in the second case, you get a G flat (♭). Take a look at the keyboard chart, find the black key between F and G. As you can see that key can be called F# or G♭. Since that black key is between F and G, it can be seen as F plus a semitone but is either as G less a semitone. For this reason, F# and G♭ are called enharmonic equivalents: two notes that sound the same but have a different name.

All black keys can be intended as sharp or flat notes but there are some other equivalences, for example:

D♭♭ = C

or

Ax = B

At this point, you know how to read pitch variation, you can say if a note is higher or lower than another one and you can give a name to every note inside and outside the staff.

 

Duration

Now you have to learn how to read the length of time that a note should be played but first, let’s learn how time is represented on a score.Measures

These are 3 measures (or bars). A measure is a portion of the staff between two vertical lines, it divides the staff into units and groups notes and/or rests into subsets. Measures contain the exact number of beats indicated by the time signature at the beginning of the staff. Keep reading.

 

Note values

Notes values

 

In music notation there are 7 different note values, each one has its own value.

Whole note:

it’s the note with the biggest value, 4 beats. This means that you have to play the whole note counting up to 4.

Whole note

Half note:

it has a value of 2 beats, this is why it’s called half note. Play it counting 2 beats.

Half note

 

Quarter note:

it has a value of 1 beat so it’s 1/4 of a whole note.

Quarter

Eighth note:

you need 2 eighth notes to make a quarter. Since you need 8 of them to make a whole note, it’s called eighth note (1/8). In this example, eighth notes are grouped into beam, the line used to connect consecutive notes.

Eighth notes

Sixteenth note:

it has a half value of an eighth note. If you split 1/8 in half, you get 1/16. Even sixteenth notes are beamed: the two flags of a single sixteenth became two lines that connect all notes in groups of four.

Sixteenth notes

Thirty-second note:

like before, this value is half of the previous so dividing 1/16 by 2 you get 1/32

Thirty second notes

Sixty-fourth note:

1/32 : 2= 1/64. This is the smaller value and you need 64 sixty-fourth notes to make a whole note.

Sixty fourth notes


Note values Quiz

All these values are even, sometimes you need to play a note for 3 beats or for a quarter and a half for example. There are two way to extend note values:

 

1. Tie

The Tie is a curved line which connects two notes of the same pitch, indicating that the time value of the two notes is combined:

Tie

 

Tie 2

In the first example, there is a half note (2 beats) tied to a quarter note (1 beat), 2 +1 = 3 total beats. You have to play A for 3 beats then F for 1 beat.

In the second example, there’s a quarter note (1/4 of a whole note) tied to an eighth note (1/8 of a whole note): 1/4 + 1/8 = 3/8

Ties can connect even two notes of two different measures:  Tie measures

 

2. Dot

The other way to extend the duration of a note is by using the dot. In music notation, a dot placed right after a note, adds half of the value of that note.

Dot 1

 

Dot 2

In the first example, there’s a dot near a half note: the dot extends the duration of the half note (2 beats) adding half of its value (1 beat): 2 + 1 = 3.

In the second example, we have a dot near a quarter (1 beat, 1/4 of a whole note), in this case, the dot adds half of the value of the quarter note: 1/4 + 1/8 = 3/8.

 

Time signature

The time signature is expressed by two numbers: a top number and a bottom number. You will find those numbers near the clef. The top number indicates the quantity of beats, the bottom number indicates the quality of beats (quarters, eighth, etc.).

The most common time signatures are:

4/4, also known as “Common time” (C)

4 44 4 c

4 four quarter-note beats in each measure: it is used for many different rhythms and it’s the most common time signature.

 

3/4

3 4

3 quarter note beats in each measure: this is the time signature for waltz and mazurka but is quite common even in pop music ballads.

 

2/4

2 4

2 quarter note beats in each measure: polka and marches are written in 2/4.

 

6/8

6 8

6 eighth note beats in each measure: this time signature is used in many rhythms from traditional “tarantella” to shuffle rock. It has two groups of 3 in the same measure: ONE, two, three, FOUR, five, six (ONE and FOUR beats accented). In tarantella and shuffle the 2nd and the 5th beat are omitted.

 

Rest values

Music is sound but it’s also silence. As for notes, there are 7 signs for rest values:

Whole rest:

Rest 4 4

As the whole note, it has a value of 4 beats. The only difference is that these are 4 beats of silence.

 

Half rest:

Rest 2 4

This rest is very similar to the whole note rest but if you look carefully, it has a different position on the staff: the whole rest is below the fourth line and the half rest is placed above the third line. It has a value of 2 beats so to fill a 4/4 measures, you need two half rest.

 

Quarter rest:

Rest 1 4

These are four quarter rests. Each one has a value of 1 beat.

 

Eighth rest:

Rest 1 8

Eight of these rest fill a whole 4/4 measure. Each rest has a value of 1/8 (half a beat).

 

Sixteenth rest:

Rest 1 16

 

Thirty-second rest:

Rest 1 32

 

Sixty-fourth rest:

Rest 1 64

 

 

Dynamic

In music, the dynamic is the variation in loudness between notes or groups of notes, in other words: volume variation.

1. Dynamics are represented by some letters like:

  • ppp which in Italian it means “pianissìssimo” = play very very soft
  • pp which in Italian it means “pianìssimo” = play very soft
  • p which in Italian it means “piano” = play soft
  • mp which in Italian it means “mezzo piano” = play moderately soft
  • mf which in Italian it means “mezzo forte” = play moderately loud
  • f which in Italian it means “forte” = play loud
  • ff which in Italian it means “fortìssimo” = play very loud
  • fff which in Italian it means “fortissìssimo” = play very very loud

 

Dinamics

 

2. Gradual changes in volume are expressed using these Italian words:

cresc. which in Italian it means “crescendo” = increasing volume
decresc. which in Italian it means “decrescendo” = decreasing volume
dim. which in Italian it means “diminuendo” = diminishing volume

 

3. Hairpins (<>)are also used to express volume variations.

If the angle lines open up (< ) then it means you have to start soft and get gradually louder; if they close (>), then it means that you have to decrease the volume.

Dinamics 3

Conclusion

This post is just a resource to start reading the accordion notation, there’s much more to say about it but if you are a beginner, I think that this lesson has all you need. Obviously, you need also to practice: reading music is a skill that needs time so please, don’t worry.

This lesson can’t teach instantly how to read music notation. Learn how to read music is a slow process so be patient, keep doing the “reading practice” exercises and all other quizzes, I can guarantee that you will be able to read an accordion score very soon!

Author: Giovanni Lucifero

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