Reading Sheet Music for the Ukulele

Compared to tabs, reading standard notation is a complete pain in the arse. For some reason, there are a few ukulele books that use only standard notation (such as the Jumpin’ Jim books and some of the Ukulele Masters series). I thought I’d knock together a short post in the hope of making all those squiggles and splatters a little more decipherable.

There are certain similarities with tab such as rhythms and repeats (there’s a full guide to reading ukulele tab here). So I’m just going over how musical notation indicates pitch.

Like tab, there are a bunch of horizontal lines (known as a stave), but that’s where the similarity ends. Notes are indicated by the position of the dots: the higher up the stave a dot is, the higher the note. The dots can appear on the lines or between them. Each time you shift up a position, you go up to the next white key on the piano (C,D,E,F,G,A,B etc.)

Here are the notes as they compare to the tab

Whether the stems of the notes go up or down doesn’t make any difference at all.

The notes that fall in between the lines spell “FACE” from bottom to top.

The notes on the lines spell “EGBDF”. If you’re not familiar with the word ‘egbdf’, there are plenty of mnemonics to remember it such as Every Good Boy Deserves Football (or any other f-word you think a boy might enjoy).

On the uke, there are two notes that fall below this: C and D. The D hangs underneath the stave, and the C is on a line drawn underneath it.

Like tab, you read music left to right with notes that are vertical are played at the same time e.g.

You might have noticed that none of the notes we’ve discussed are sharp or flat. Sharps and flats are indicated with a sharp (#) or flat (b) before the note like this:

When it comes to the ukulele, standard notation has some serious shortcomings. For one, it can’t tell you which string you’re supposed to be playing a note on (a big drawback since the uke has so many options for playing the same notes). For instance, Example 1 could equally be played like this:

Or any of a whole array of other ways.

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61 Comments

  1. Brad July 23rd, 2008 10:16 pm

    I suppose it depends on your background and perspective. I learned to read music as a kid and have only been playing uke for about a year so I find that tab is more difficult to read and that using the written notes helps me with the rhythm as well as learning where individual notes are on the fretboard. Learning that the open G on the 4th string is the same (on a high G uke) as the 3rd fret of the 2nd string gives an option on how to play a melody, for example. Once you learn to read written music, you have an amazing source for finding music to play, such as old sheet music.
    Thanks providing the introduction.

  2. T July 23rd, 2008 10:49 pm

    Thanks very much for this.

  3. amber July 24th, 2008 7:47 am

    Every Good Boy Does Fine

    That’s how I was taught.

  4. Isaac July 24th, 2008 8:56 am

    I did up to grade 5 theory of music and used to play the piano- but would hate reading uke music from just standard notation. I like when they have both standard and tab.

  5. zymeck July 24th, 2008 9:24 am

    we were taught “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”

    although as we werent good boys we replaced Football with something else beginning with ‘F’

    :)

  6. zymeck July 24th, 2008 9:25 am

    damn,

    i really should read these posts before I comment :(

  7. Howlin' Hobbit July 24th, 2008 3:51 pm

    Re: the sharps and flats. Accidentals are indicated by the sharp or flat sign before them. Any sharps or flats that occur normally in a given key are given in the key signature and you’re just supposed to remember that the given note(s) must be played sharp or flat as you play it.

    That’s what used to throw me for a dang loop when I was in school band tootling on the clarinet.

  8. Woodshed July 24th, 2008 10:09 pm

    Brad: Thanks for the alternative perspective.

    T: You’re welcome.

    Amber: I always heard ‘Nice guys finish last’ which seems more accurate.

    Issac: Yeah, I think that’s probably the best layout.

    Andy: Great minds and all that.

    Hobbit: Thanks for that.

  9. Gotago August 14th, 2008 2:51 am

    where can i find saxophone music?? any good websites

  10. Howlin' Hobbit August 14th, 2008 2:57 am

    Try saxfiends.com. :-p

  11. jon August 23rd, 2008 5:32 pm

    Can anyone recommend a uku sheet music book for classic rock such as the beatles or dylan?
    thanks

  12. Woodshed August 24th, 2008 7:13 pm

    Jon: I think Jim Beloff’s 60s Uke In might be what you’re looking for.

  13. jon August 31st, 2008 4:57 pm

    Thanks to Woodshed for the tip. I am going to buy it.

  14. Woodshed August 31st, 2008 7:16 pm

    Hope you like it, Jon.

  15. David Barnes September 3rd, 2008 3:55 pm

    Hey woodshed, these ukulele 101 lessons were the highlight of my ukehunt week. And they were just getting beyond where I was comfortable when they stopped coming. Any chance of resurrecting them, please?

  16. Woodshed September 3rd, 2008 7:09 pm

    David: The ukulele 101 stuff is/was a beginners’ series. The problem with beginners’ series is that they pretty soon end up being intermediates’ series. What else would you want in the series?

  17. TAMSIN December 26th, 2008 10:41 am

    I AM 11 YEARS OLD i am really great with pianos/keyboards but im stuck with the f.a.c.e and egbdf i have no clue were they go could you please help me

  18. AndreaC December 26th, 2008 10:16 pm

    TAMSIN… FACE are the notes in between the lines of the staff (in the treble clef), and EGBDF are the notes that are ON the lines. They go from bottom to top.

    The second diagram in the post on this page shows what the FACE notes look like. The third diagram shows what the EGBDF notes look like.

    So examples: if a note is in the space between the bottom two lines, it’s F, and if a note is right on the middle line it’s B.

  19. Woodshed December 27th, 2008 9:50 am

    Andrea: Thanks very much for the explanation.

  20. H June 27th, 2009 2:59 am

    Does anyone know of a good book that will teach me where the notes are on the fret board and what I am playing as read in standard notation? I’m very visual so tablature doesn’t really help when I can’t see what I am playing on a staff.

    I’ve been learning fiddle and the book were using is a lot like what is used in grade school band class. The book is the American Fiddle Method and it teaches you where the notes are on the fingerboard and you read this in standard notation. Very minimal use of any kind of tablature, just introducing where the notes are initially above the staff with a number, and slowly builds to knew fingerings etc. I know the fingerboard of a fiddle way better then my uke, so well I can already play without looking, and I’ve been playing fiddle for 4 months now… It’s very frustrating when I’ve been trying to get uke down for 2 years and the fret board is still a big puzzle to me.

  21. Sandy February 15th, 2010 4:27 pm

    Like the Hobbit, I too have been tootin’ on my clarient for 6 years, so I understand how to read the notes, but I DONT understand the numbers on the bottom. I’m working on the Happy Days Theme Song chord sheet on this website, and I just can’t seem to understand the solo, or anything in this format. >.< Peas help!

  22. Howlin' Hobbit February 15th, 2010 4:46 pm

    Sandy,

    Tab basically tells you which fret on which string you press in order to make the note above it (if it’s the staff & tab display). Plain tab doesn’t have the notes but it’s the same thing, “Just press here”.

    Woodshed did a pretty fine job of explaining tab and linked to it up in the original post. Check it out.

  23. Woodshed February 15th, 2010 9:45 pm

    Sandy: Here’s the tab reading guide that Hobbit mentioned.

  24. Phil February 25th, 2010 3:52 pm

    Reading music is not any harder than tab, plus it has its benefits over tab. It’s about as hard as Third Grade Math.

    Most tab just tells you where to fret the string but some adds rhythm flags) . The problem with tab is that you must KNOW how the song goes before you play. With notation, you can know mostly how a song goes and fill in the blanks with the notation.

    The ($5.50) Alfred handy guide, (11 x 4 inches) How to Play the Ukulele has a fretboard map with all the notes listed for each fret. on the back cover.

    The 45-page booklet show music notation on the staff with each note market in white type on the notehead.

    This gives you an E note on the first line of staff along with the notehead with an E ikn white type.

    The re-entrant tuned ( high G) uke only has about an octave (a few go above the 12th fret),

    This means the note range goes from Middle C to high A (if your uke stops at the 12th fret).

    This means that any old songbook within that range can be played melody style on your uke. You can also plink out the melody line of Jumpin Jim’s books. (If you play the notes, you get double your money’s worth.

    It also means that once you understand this basic idea, you no longer have to depend on books written expressly for the uke.

    Further, you can take better advantage of fake books. Fake books look like the style used by Jumpin JIm — a simplified sheet music with a melody line (one note at a time) , a chord listed above the music staff: C, C7, G, Am without chord boxes. You can buy pop fake books, Beatle fake books, blues, country, Broadway.

    With a little bit of effort, you can not only play the chords, but the melody of a song from a fake book.

    The key signature shows what flats or sharpts go with a song. The tricky part is that Bb in the key signature stays in effect for the entire song. If you have trouble remembering that Bb, get your pencil out and put a flat sign next to each Bb — until it becomes automatic.

    Now if you have a low G uke, your lowest note in the G below middle C which will give you a slightly more range.

    Hope this helps

  25. Woodshed February 25th, 2010 6:37 pm

    Phil: Thanks very much for all the info. Useful stuff.

  26. Naomi November 30th, 2010 6:48 pm

    I learned it as: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

  27. TJ December 31st, 2010 10:25 am

    I have been reading tabs for years (both uke and guitar). I just picked up a set of Ukulele Flash cards from Elderly Music and in just a short time I have begun to teach myself to read uke notation. I think the 10 bucks I spent on them was weel worth it……check em out.

    tj

    ps I’m still trying to get some time to come downtown to catch up with you Hobbit !

  28. Woodshed January 1st, 2011 11:50 am

    TJ: Thanks, I’ll check those flashcards out.

  29. QBall March 20th, 2011 2:46 am

    ok…so how do you tell if your supposed to strum up or down?

  30. gavin March 29th, 2011 3:44 pm

    the most difficult thing is that I never learned the ABC etc. symbols in music school, but do re mi. So in the beginning it was weird because I didn’t realise a C chord was actually a do chord. but that’s just me

  31. Woodshed March 31st, 2011 2:24 pm

    QBall: If there is a strum it’ll usually indicate a with an arrow. But standard notation rarely includes much strumming.

    gavin: That is confusing. There is no way I’d be able to retrain myself if I had to use do re mi…

  32. HellomynameisKatie(: April 25th, 2011 11:45 pm

    I just wanted to comment. I felt left out. So. Hi. 0_0
    And I love you. My scalp itches… :l

    WELP, Bye!:D

  33. Woodshed April 30th, 2011 10:02 am

    HellomynameisKatie(: Ahahaha!

  34. Sarah July 27th, 2011 9:03 pm

    I recently got a ukulele for my birthday, NO clue whatsoever on where to begin to learn. i can’t even fathom how to read music. It’s frustrating to me because making music would be so great.. so my question? my ukulele is standard GCEA tuning. how do these notes apply to that? so lost.. :(

  35. Woodshed July 29th, 2011 7:42 am

    Sarah: If you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t worry about learning to read music at this stage. Start by following the beginner lessons.

  36. Linny September 1st, 2011 3:57 pm

    Love Uke Hunt!Soooo useful! I started learning how to play my ukulele, Edna, at Christmas and was really sruggling until I found this site!!! Thanks, and the sheet music was great!!! xx

  37. Sparky September 14th, 2011 4:00 am

    Way cool… been playing guitar and tenor banjo for a spell, and have been a bit frustrated trying to find note reading info for the Uke…

    Still frustrating trying to get the muscle memory to remember which instrument I’m (trying), to play, but this helps..

    Thanks;

  38. Woodshed September 16th, 2011 8:08 pm

    Linny: Thanks very much! Very glad you’re finding it useful.

    Sparky: I’m frustrated too! I really need to get practicing sight reading on the uke.

  39. John Hubbard June 10th, 2012 5:28 pm

    I have played guitar for 50 years and for most of that time I have strugged to be a good sight reader of music notation. My obsession with the reading actually got in the way of the playing. At Xmas I bought a uke and because I was so used to reading for guitar I went to tab. Result my playing on uke is now better than guitar. I know there are only 4 strings and neck is slimmer but it will be some time before I tackle reading notation on the uke. The reentrant tuning does not make it easier and without it a real uke sound in my mind is lost. So I dont want to spoilt the buzz Im getting at present.Yes reading would be a bonus.
    Regards John

  40. Ruth June 11th, 2012 6:22 pm

    I still don’t get how to play normal written music on a ukulele (:-}), but i find tabs much easier to read, even though i’ve been reading normal music for 4 years! :-)
    I have to wait till september (my birthday) to get a ukulele! aagh!!!

  41. john hubbard June 11th, 2012 6:55 pm

    I do wonder how even a pro like James Hill could sight read music noting the various tunings he uses. For me the only way I could read at all is in a GCEA tuning to imagine Im playing guitar with a capo on the fifth fret and that would still do my head in noting the high G. Sorry if Im becoming a bore. Promise I wont say anymore
    John

  42. Woodshed June 13th, 2012 2:30 pm

    Ruth: Roll on September!

    John: I’m pretty sure he could. He’s a smart cookie. And say as much as you like.

  43. Beetroot September 8th, 2012 12:12 pm

    This is so helpful for people with zero sheet reading background. It’s the start of the -ber months and my office folks and i plan on doing some caroling with Carol of the Bells on the playlist but cannot found chords, instead found a sheet (holy!). This guide comes in very handy :-)

  44. Woodshed September 9th, 2012 1:54 pm

    Beetroot: Thanks! Very glad you found it helpful.

  45. Joan B October 5th, 2012 2:13 am

    As a kid I played piano and sang. As a teen and young adult I played the flute and sang. I am so used to reading notes on a staff that, although I have been doing pretty well on my own and then with a teacher, I find tab frustrating because I want to SEE what the tab represents on the staff.

    The thing is, as far as I am concerned, this goes for chords as well as single not playing.

    Does anyone know of any online or hard copy resources that would include standard notation for chords? I know what a C chord looks and feels like on the piano, but does a C chord on the uke look look like in notation?

    Does this make sense??????

  46. John Hubbard October 5th, 2012 7:12 pm

    I would like to give Joan B some advice if thats ok and she would not mind .After playing guitar and reading standard notation I honestly feel that if the end result is to be able to learn and perform music on ukulele then standard notation can hold you back. Tab often incorporates the rhythm and if not then then the tab is written below the standard notation so use the notation just for the rhythm. I punished myself for years to read standard notation and it got in the way of my technique i.e held me back. If however you want to be a session musician then all round reading is vital. I do admire anyone who can read full chords in standard notation especially on a uke with re entrant tuning . However not many arrangers will write out all the chords in this way.I think it was woodshed who said reading notation is a pain in the a…e . He was so right.Tab gets you closer/quicker to the end result as its like a road map approach.
    Anyway good luck
    John

  47. Joan B October 6th, 2012 12:11 am

    Thank you, john Hubbard, for your comments. I do agree with much of what you have said, but my aim is two-fold:

    - to play what I have been told by a guitarist is called “solo style” — sounds like single note/line playing, but is based on chords and

    - to be able to play ukulele accompaniment from ordinary sheet music.

    I also play from tab — a lot! But I have a long background in music, I read music in a couple of “media” (including voice) and, well, as a tabloid paper once said, “Enquiring minds want to know!””

    Joan

  48. Joan B October 6th, 2012 12:12 am

    Forgot to click the box for e-mail notification. I hope I get any responses that appear!

    Joan

  49. Woodshed October 6th, 2012 4:02 pm

    John: Thanks for stepping in. I completely agree with you.

  50. Randy January 1st, 2013 2:28 am

    It seems to me that both traditional music notation and tablature have their uses. The thing wanted is “communication”. To me, a long time note-reader, regular notation is how one communicates with other musicians, while tablature is how, or a way, that one communicates with other ukulele players.
    I’ve been trying to do some arranging for our ukulele group, approaching it as I would any other ensemble. But having most of the people not able to read notation is very hampering. I can write notes for some players and have others comp chords, but if I’d like each person to play exactly the notes I write, I have to resort to tablature. I can do that, but it is very much more time-consuming than writing notes.
    If I were writing something which utilized the re-entrant tuning in any significant way, then tab would make more sense, perhaps.
    I guess what I’d like to see is ukulele players not be so set against reading notes. It just isn’t that difficult! And I will attempt to return the favor and use TAB whenever it is the best way to communicate. Fair enough?

  51. John Hubbard January 1st, 2013 7:47 am

    Much of what Randy says makes good sense. I have a real interest in this subject so here I go again.
    1. Ive been a poor reader of standard notation for 50 years ie on guitar. Hence I came to the uke late in life and my only goal ie playing an arrangement well using the easiest method

    2. I usually play solo so Ryans points on the group issue dont really apply to me but fair point

    3.As a young man I wanted to be a session guitarist and was bullish about only using notation. I was not dood enough. Now on reflection I believe that ignoring tab has held me back and stopped me being a better player

    4.Having studied notation I am proficient on reading the rhythmic side andIm grateful for my study on this side as its hard

    5.I do prefer the re entrant tuning and this coupled with years of playing guitar makes it necessary for me to re learning all note positionsif I choose standard notation (thats quite a task for me which Im slowly tackling)

    6. I think as a result of all this Ive achieved more on uke in a short time than if I had struggled with standard notation.The bottom line is that ukes and guitars unlike keyboards have many options on note location and tab sorts this out.

    Sorry to ramble on -thats what happens when you you get old

    John

  52. Woodshed January 1st, 2013 10:46 am

    I got this comment from Phil via email:

    What you need to do is get a copy of TablEdit — a program that lets you enter a song by notation or tablature. It will probably meet all your needs. It will also allow the insertion of lyrics. You don’t have to read music to enter music notation. But you do have to clever enough to tell the different notes and enter the same ones if you are copying from a songbook.

    If you only have tablature, it will automatically convert the tab to a combination of tab and notation. If you have notation, it will automatically provide the tablature plus make chord boxes. (even custom chord boxes) This program was designed by guitar but it can be set up for any stringed instrument. Most guitar players know about it — especially fingerstyle players.

    There is a free demonstration version that can be downloaded for Mac and PC. The demo version allows printouts but provides a nice giant watermark right in the middle of the page.

    For about $50 or so, a registered copy is available. An in-depth manual is available online and it can be printed out. Even if you don’t have the main paid registered program, there is another free program that lets you read a song somebody else has done in TablEdit.

    TablEdit will also play the song in midi — just like most music notation programs do.

    TablEdit will also convert and read a similar program called Power Tab that is sometimes available on the web.

    Hope this helps.

    Phil

  53. John Hubbard January 1st, 2013 3:16 pm

    Thanks Phil Ive learnt something new today and will investigate.This is why Ukehunt is so useful when like me you play at home away from other players you would normaly pick up tips from.

  54. Erik Hoffman January 31st, 2013 4:07 pm

    First, thanks for this. Second, there is way, in standard notation, to indicate the string, it’s to put a little number over the note indicating the fret of the note, which will only happen in one place. That is the 4th fret B note on the g string only happens at that one place.

  55. Randy January 31st, 2013 8:26 pm

    Well, to further muddy the waters, the classical guitar editor’s approach to the above problem of how to indicate the location of a note on the fretboard is to use a number in a circle to indicate the string, and an uncircled number indicates the left- hand finger to be used. The fret is not indicated exactly, but the Position of the entire left hand — position meaning which fret the first finger is at, and therefore where the 2,3 & 4 fingers will be — is indicated by a Roman numeral.
    I have made it sound more complicated than it is! It is a good system; it works. Incidentally, the example cited in Erik’ s post is true, but only if the 4th string is tuned to low G.

  56. Woodshed February 1st, 2013 9:35 am

    Erik and Randy: Yeah, it’s possible but not ideal. They’re okay if you’re learning a piece but you can’t read in two places at once so it’s not so good for playing straight off.

  57. Cindy March 14th, 2013 9:57 pm

    I have found your comments helpful. I learned to play using Discover the Ukulele and Exploring the Ukulele both by Herb Ohta, Jr. and Daniel Ho. I love tab playing and have been practicing playing for several years off and on. These two books are great teaching books.

  58. Woodshed March 15th, 2013 8:12 am

    Cindy: Glad you found it helpful.

  59. katherine June 11th, 2013 2:53 am

    i still dont understand reading the sheet music, is there any video tutorials teaching this? thank you!

  60. Alio June 12th, 2013 2:14 am

    I struggled to pick out the melodies on a bunch of old sheet music I was given – especially once all those weird little ###s and bbbs started cluttering up the notation. I couldn’t find anything written out simply enough for me to follow (particularly not for my low G tuned uke), so I painfully drew up some charts. I hope this helps someone else – writing it all out has certainly helped me :-)

    http://alittleart.net/2013/06/10/completely-unrelated-musical-notation-for-low-g-tuned-ukulele/

  61. Woodshed June 12th, 2013 7:38 am

    Alio: Thanks. That’s really useful.

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