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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67 Comments

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

    Cindy: Glad you found it helpful.

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

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

  10. 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/

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

    Alio: Thanks. That’s really useful.

  12. DaveHJ February 2nd, 2015 11:05 pm

    If you are only strumming chords noted with lyrics and want to sing a song you’ve never heard, you will have to learn to read standard notation or find a recording of the song. Having both tab and notation is the best of both worlds. Read the one you want and ignore the other.

  13. Alex March 25th, 2015 2:03 pm

    I’m not sure if anyone has already said this yet, but I’m currently a music major and the stems of the notes really do matter. From the middle line and below the stems should be pointing down and on the left side of the note head. From the middle line and above the notes should be pointing up on the right side of the note head. The middle line is really up to the composer. The stem can face either way. The only time that the stem rules don’t really apply is when one is writing in something like four part harmony and maybe grace notes sometimes. Just wanted to let you know that it does mean something. c:

  14. John Hubbard March 26th, 2015 12:29 pm

    I take a different view of this to Alex.

    1. My priority is reading arrangements for solo uke and guitar. As a result I take notes with stems going upwards as the melody and the others with stems pointing downs as the accompaniment.This is not always possible but is helpful to the reader.

    2. My own theory on reading is to only read tab on uke.I keep the pure reading of notes on a staff for guitar. To play 2 different instruments where the positions of notes on certain frets are different would ruin my sight reading and do my head in at the same time. For those who can do it great for them.

    3.I do like tab to include the rhythm.

  15. Alio March 26th, 2015 10:03 pm

    Alex, you outline the rule, but what’s the meaning? Why must the stems go those ways? Is it to speed recognition for people who are music-literate (unlike me, the merest painful picker-outer of melody)? Or some other secret message!

  16. Alex March 27th, 2015 6:28 am

    The stems are pointed those ways merely for organization. It makes music a bit more difficult to read when the stem is hanging off of the staff somewhere. The only time they should not face according to the rules is when a harmony is being written.

  17. Monty June 14th, 2015 6:49 am

    So I’ve been playing the viola for about a year through my school and since it’s the summer now I’m thinking of trying something new. Is playing the ukulele at all similar to playing the viola?

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