Understanding music symbols enables you to read all forms of music notation, but more importantly, makes you aware of concepts to incorporate into your playing and songwriting.
I cover 70+ music symbols and their meanings grouped by category: general, directions, time & rhythm, dynamics, and guitar chords and techniques, and ornamentation.
Music symbols geared towards guitarists
There are a lot of different music symbols and abbreviations that communicate how to play a song or composition. As a guitar player, you may think this is academic stuff not worth your time, but being aware of these concepts & techniques can only make you a better player.
If you are a natural and you have the “feel”, then you don’t need to know anything in this article or any music theory for that matter. For the rest of us, like myself, awareness of music concepts leads to creativity and some nice chops.
I would give examples from my songbooks for some of the symbols listed, but it would be too extensive to notate the actual measures and notes involved. Hopefully, you have your own songbooks to see examples and understand how they are used and why.
Make sure to read my Guitar Notation article to see all the ways you can notate music for the guitar.
General music symbols
The following music symbols are general symbols for an entire song or composition. These are the structure or backbone for which all other symbols are added.
1. Staff (stave): This is the foundational element of music notation. The staff is the graphic of 5 lines and 4 spaces on which notes are placed for communication of a musical composition. Standard notation refers to the use of staff for music notation. The image below also has Guitar Tablature which has 6 lines that represent the six guitar strings (low E at the bottom).
2. Clef: A clef is a music symbol that defines the note values of the lines and spaces of the staff. There are 3 different symbols that represent the 3 types of clefs: G clef (Treble clef, in the image below), C clef (Alto & Tenor clefs), and F clef (Bass clef). The clef is the first symbol on the staff.
3. Key Signature: this is the next symbol that appears after the clef unless the key is C major / A minor. Key Signatures display a number of sharps or flats that indicate the overall key of the piece. The purpose is to minimize the use of accidentals on the staff. For example, the key of F major has a key signature of a single flat for B♭. Any note on any “B” line or space should be played as B♭ not B natural.
4. Ledger Lines: These are the short lines above and/or above the staff for pitches outside the range of the pitches defined by the clef. For example, the open E and A on the guitar would appear on ledger lines (see image below).
5. 8va, 8vb: These symbols are used to play the affected note(s) one octave higher (8va) than indicated or one octave lower (8vb). This notation reduces the need for many ledger lines making the notes easier to read.
All of these symbols are important in reading sheet music with maybe the exception of 8va/8vb.
General music symbols (measures, sections)
These following symbols apply to smaller sections within a score.
6. Barline: The vertical lines that show the beginning and end of each measure as defined by the time signature. They may also extend to additional staves as in piano sheet music, or for the guitar tab in the image.
7. Measure: the section of the staff that falls between 2 barlines.
8. Double Barline: Used to separate sections of music (verse, chorus, bridge, coda, intro, etc.) or when there is a change in time signature. There is just 2 barlines next to each other.
9. Bold double barlines: Two bold barlines (1 thick, 1 thin) used to indicate the ending for the entire composition.
10. Dashed Barline: Used to mark divisions within a bar such as long measures to make them easier to read or as a sub-division of the measure due to complex rhythms. I have a rhythm training book that uses them for some of the exercises.
11. Brace: Used with the extended barline for multiple staves (looks like a curly bracket) in a musical system. Common with piano sheet music where the treble and bass clefs are part of the system.
12. Bracket: Similar to a brace but used for different staves that are not dependent. If you are a guitar player, then you will most likely never see this one. It looks like a square bracket.
13. Volta Bracket: Used when a repeated section has alternate endings. You will often see them with vocal melodies that change at the end of verses for popular songs.
The most important music symbols to know for reading sheet music are all the barlines and measure. That’s the end of the general music symbols for n entire piece or for many measures or sections.
General music symbols w\in measures
The following music symbols are a little less general and are focusing on individual notes within measures.
14-15. Double flats, Double Sharps: These are accidentals that raise notes by a whole tone. I see no need for either a double sharp or double flat except for altered chords or for chords not part of a key signature. A perfect example would be a 7#9 chord on the V of a harmonic minor scale, such as E7#9 in A harmonic minor. The F natural note would need a double sharp accidental to notate the F## (G) note.
16. Accidentals (Flat, Sharp, Natural): A flat, sharp or natural (♭, ♯, ♮) used in the notation is for any note(s) that are not in the key signature. They are used to modify the pitch by a semitone of the notes that follow them within a measure. They can extend into the next measure via a tie. The natural symbol is used to remove the sharp or flat indicated by the key signature and to play the natural letter note, or to cancel a previous accidental (sharp or flat). All 3 symbols are in the 4th measure of the image above this section.
17. 1/4 tone sharp or flat: The fancy name for the ¼ tone sharp is demisharp, but for guitarists, it’s called either a microtone bend or curl. It’s less than a half-step bend, or ~ quarter step bend. There is also the demiflat which lowers a note by a quarter tone. I’m not aware of a technique on the guitar that would noticeably lower a note by a ¼ tone.
Accidentals are important, not so much for the other symbols.
Some directions are simple like “Repeat and fade”. You may also see “No Chord” (N.C) though a chord is suggested. However, the following music symbols definitely need explanation.
1. Repeat signs: You see repeat signs when there is a measure, multiple measures or a section that is to be repeated. Repeat signs are bold double bar lines that have a double vertical dot symbol. Normally there are two repeat signs: the open/begin repeat, and the close/end repeat. You may only see the end-repeat sign which means to go back to the beginning of the song or to the nearest double bar.
2. Simile marks: These are used to repeat the preceding measure.
3. al fine: Literally means “to the end” where you play to the end of the music and used with Da Capo or Dal Segno.
4. al coda: This means to play to the Coda sign and used with Da Capo or Dal Segno.
3. Coda: I’ll quote Wikipedia here because their definition is the best:
Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).
4. Segno: symbol used with Dal Segno.
5. Da Capo: Means “from the top” and is used to signal a repeat to the end of the music and stop (D.C al fine) or to repeat to the Coda sign (D.C. al coda) and then to jump forward in the piece. Confusing? I know. Find sheet music of a song you know that uses it and you’ll understand.
6. Dal Segno: Means “from the sign” and is used to repeat playing from the nearest Segno sign. Similar to Da Capo, it is written as D.S. al fine or D.S. al coda.
Direction symbols summary
I’m going to assume that you found the above direction notation confusing as I did. Here is the actual text that you may see:
D.C. al coda: means return to the beginning and play to the Coda sign then skip to next Coda sign to continue playing.
D.C. al fine: return to the beginning and play to the end.
D.S. al fine: means return to Segno sign and play to the end.
D.S. al coda: return to Segno and continue to Coda sign then jump to Coda.
If you know the song you are learning from sheet music, then none of these symbols or text are necessary to know and understand.
I mostly see D.S. al coda in my songbooks, so that will probably be the same for you. Here is the process of D.S. al coda:
- If there are any repeats (verses) before the Coda or Segno symbols, play them as normal.
- When you encounter the first Coda symbol, keep playing until you encounter D.S. al coda, then…
- …Go to the (first) Segno symbol and play until you reach the first Coda symbol.
- Jump to the next Coda symbol to continue playing.
This is so much harder to explain via text than to get sheet music and play along. I have the Grateful Dead Anthology but the songs with D.S. al coda do not have a friggin’ Segno symbol. Luckily, I know the songs. That is not the case with my book The Beatles / 1967-1970 where he Segno symbol is shown.
Dynamics music symbols
Sorry for stating with the difficult stuff, but now we are getting into the music symbols for playing!
The following symbols have to deal with the volume of the music. You may see words or abbreviations for the words instead of actual symbols. This quality of music, in general, is known as dynamics.
1. Accented note: The note with this symbol is played louder than surrounding notes.
2. Crescendo: An increase in volume as you play the notes.
3. Decrescendo: A decrease in volume for the notes to be played.
4. Swell: An increase in volume followed by a decrease. Basically, a crescendo followed by a decrescendo.
5. Nuances: Words or abbreviations that range from extremely soft (pianississimo, ppp) to extremely loud (fortississimo, fff). More often you will see symbols in the middle volume range: p, mp, mf, f.
I’d say accented notes are important to use for your originals, but the others are less important but it’s good to be aware of your options.
Time: Tempo, rhythm, & duration symbols
Some sheet music will have additional words at the beginning of the score or song such as “Moderately”, “bright”, “Latin feel”, etc. You may also see the words Adagio, Moderato, Allegro, Vivace and others. I’m skipping all of those since they are words, not symbols.
The measure symbol mentioned above is the container of the notes that equal the value of the time signature. The following 4 symbols indicate the beat, tempo, rhythm, etc.
1. Time Signature: This is the last element you will see at the beginning of the staff, after the clef and key signature (1st image, 6/8). It defines the meter/count for the piece as contained in each measure.
Meter is the pattern of beats within each measure. What that means is that the time signature shows how many beats there are per measure and the duration (note value) of each beat. For example, 6/8 time has 6 beats per measure each with the value of an eighth note. The time signatures of 4/4 and 2/2 are also called Common time and Cut time respectively (images below). Just remember, the top # is the number of beats, the bottom # is the value of each beat.
2. Metronome Mark: Usually at the beginning, it defines the actual tempo of the music where the tempo is the speed of the piece. See the first image where the tempo is expressed as 𝅘𝅥 = 120.
3. Accelerando & ritardando: these words indicate a gradual speeding up of the tempo (accel.) or slowing down (rit.). There are no symbols, just the abbreviations and I don’t see them in my songbooks.
4. Triplet & Tuplet: a triplet is a subdivision of 3 of the beat or a portion of the beat, whereas a tuplet is a subdivision different from that suggested by the time signature. A triplet is a form of a tuplet. See the image below for an example of a triplet.
You absolutely must understand time signatures and triplets. Speeding up or slowing down are nice effects for song endings but it would be difficult to pull-off within a song. Although, a great drummer and bass player would help with tempo alterations. Take a look at my article on Songs not in 4/4 time for examples of other time signatures.
Actual note symbols
These are the symbols that refer to the actual pitches to be played (C, B♭, G#, etc.) and their duration.
5. Notes: Note values refer to how long they last within each measure as defined by the time signature. The whole note is the note used as a reference for all other notes. A whole note lasts the length of one measure regardless of the time signature. It takes two ½ notes to equal one whole note, four ¼ notes to equal a whole note, eight 1/8 notes to equal a whole note, etc. Or you could say 2 quarter notes equal a half note, and so on.
6. Noteheads: Every note has a head or circle shape. A whole note is only a note head.
7. Stems: Every note from a half note and shorter have a vertical stem that extends above or below the note head.
8. Flags and Beams: Eighth notes and greater have flags, where an 1/8th note has one flag, a 16th has 2 flags, etc. Multiple notes of an eighth or greater next to each other have beans connecting them in place of their flags. They don’t always have beams, but that involves rests, time signatures, beats, etc. Don’t worry if you do not alays see beams.
You must understand all of these symbols to read sheet music. It’s also important for guitar tab where the sheet music is above it. You can’t express rhythm in tab so it’s important to know the length of notes and the symbols below.
Music symbols for increases in the duration of note values
The following symbols indicate increases to the length or performance of the note(s) played.
9. Dotted notes: A dot next to a note adds half of the value of the note. For example, a dotted 1/4 note adds an 1/8th to it. A double dot add 3/4 of the value, e.g., a dotted 1/4 = 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16.
10. Tie: A tie adds together the value of the notes tied. For example, two 1/8th notes tied equal one 1/4 note. You can also tie notes of different note values together, such as a quarter and eighth note which can also be expressed as a dotted 1/4 note. Ties are used between notes of the same pitch (note name). The same symbol is used for slurs (see ornamentation) which occur with notes of different pitch.
11. Fermata: This symbol is used to sustain a note or chord longer than the designated note value, usually twice the note value. Basically, it’s a sustain, like a chord that rings out. It’s a nice effect that bands employ.
You must know dotted notes and ties to read sheet music and to understand rhythm.
Decreases in the duration of note value
These music symbols are used to decrease note values in one way or another.
12. Rests: These symbols replace their corresponding note values and indicate no notes are to be played – no sound. See examples in the image under Actual Note Symbols above.
13. Dotted rests: A dot next to a note or rest adds half of the value of the note/rest, similar to dotted notes. For example, a dotted1/4 note or rest adds an 1/8th to it. A double dot adds 3/4 of the value, e.g., a dotted 1/4 rest = 1/4 + 1/8 rest.
14. Grace note: A very short note before another note, usually before a melody note. It is a smaller-sized note and is quite common. These notes may also be called Acciaccatura or Appoggiatura. A variation is known as a Smear – a super quick slide from below your target note.
15. Staccato: This indicates that the note should be played shorter than the note value, often half the duration with a rest for the rest of the note value. For guitar, this is when you will lift off a chord after each strum for a shuffle feel.
16. Caesura: This is actually a pause in the music where the beats are not counted. I don’t see this one in my songbooks, but it’s basically when everyone just stops and the result is silence.
Rests and dotted rests are important to understand. I think staccato and grace notes re important, but caesura is less important IMO.
In my opinion, it’s the rhythm of your chords and solos that makes for great music – not the actual notes.
Guitar technique (right-hand articulation)
The following are various ways to actually play notes on the guitar. Not all of them have symbols but these methods are how you make noise known as music on a guitar.
1. Fingerpicking/fingerstyle: You either see PIMA (thumb, index, middle, ring) or T1234 (thumb, index, middle, ring, pinky) to represent which right-hand fingers to use for the various notes.
2. Pick strokes, Flatpicking: Using a guitar pick is the alternative to fingerstyle guitar. There is no symbol for using a pick to sound the strings though you may see symbols to indicate down and upstrokes in guitar tab.
3. Hybrid picking: This is a hybrid of fingerstyle and Flatpicking and is commonplace in country and bluegrass guitar, though musicians of any style will use it. You may see the Flatpicking down and upstroke symbols along with “m” (middle) or “a” (ring) to indicate hybrid picking is required.
4. Harmonics: In case you are not aware, you can play harmonic notes by lighting touching the strings at nodal points. The round note heads for harmonic notes are replaced by diamond shapes and may be seen with the 8va notation.
You should know all of these methods as well as other variations in playing notes.
This is a relatively simple section dealing with the different methods of playing chords.
1. Chord (Symbol & Diagram): Chords are notated as notes stacked on top of each indicating to play all the notes at the same time. You will also see either the chord symbol/name or a chord diagram.
2. Arpeggiated Chord: A chord with notes played in rapid succession, usually ascending (downstroke) but can be descending (upstroke), each note being sustained throughout the stroke. It is also called a “broken chord” or “rolled chord”. This is not the same as an arpeggio (see ornamentation section). The symbols are an up or down arrow similar to brush strokes.
3. Rasgueado: A Flamenco guitar strumming technique that uses the fingers (downstrokes) or thumb (upstrokes) to strum chords using the fingernails. There is just an abbreviation of “rasg.” instead of a symbol. Don’t bother with this one – it sounds weird.
4. Brushstroke: A brushstroke is similar to Rasguedo but you use the flesh part of the finger for a softer dynamic and uses arrows but smaller than arpeggiated arrows. Skip this technique as well plus I’m not sure how you notate it.
Forget about brush strokes and Rasgueado unless you are into flamenco.
Guitar percussive techniques
The following are techniques that produce sound but not from pitches, though you will hear the pitch slightly with some of the techniques. They involve either using the strings or an acoustic guitar body to make the percussive sounds.
The techniques that may sound an actual pitch are the dead note effects: ghost note, palm mutes, and rakes. You will notice this if you hold a barre chord to mute strings, strum and then move the chord to a different position. You should hear the difference in pitch.
1. Ghost-Note: a dead note made by muting the string played with either the palm of your picking hand or the fingers of your fretting hand.
2. Palm Mute: This is when you use the palm of your picking hand to muffle or mute the strings that you are playing.
3. Rake: This is often 2 dead or ghost notes before playing a note. It’s common to be played as a triplet where the first 2 beats of the triplet are dead notes.
4. Pickscrape: This is when you use your pick to scrape against the metal windings on the bass strings, either up or down.
5. Golpe: The term Golpe is when you use your finger(s) to tap on the guitar body just below the soundhole at the end of strum. Variations of the technique are when you use your fingers, thumb and/or palm to hit various parts of the guitar body for different sounds. I am not sure how the variations involving hitting the guitar body are notated.
6. Pop or Snap: This is when you pull a string away from the fretboard and let it snap back making a “pop” sound. Not sure how this is notated.
7. Slap: This is when you use your thumb or palm of your picking hand to slap the bass strings. Use this technique in between normal chord strums as a rhythmic device. It’s another version of a dead note. Not sure how this one is notated.
The best percussive effects are ghost notes, muting, rakes, and pick scrapes. Golpe, pops, slaps, snaps are cool but I chose the guitar as my instrument, not drums.
Guitar ornamental embellishments
I saved the best for last. These are the techniques that most guitar players are familiar with. I will briefly cover them and show some of the music symbols, but I will be writing an in-depth article on all these embellishments.
Single note embellishments
There are only two guitar embellishments that involve a single note: Tremolo and Vibrato.
1. Tremolo: Extremely rapid up and down strokes of a single note. You want to play as fast as possible.
2. Vibrato: Involves using the fretting hand to slightly vary the pitch of a note. It is a very slight string bend.
Double note embellishments
The effects involving two notes are hammer-on, pull-off, trill, tapping, string bends, and slides.
3. Hammer-on: Played by striking a note and then hammering onto a higher-pitched note to sound the second note.
4. Pull-Off: A pull-off is the reverse of a hammer-on and is when you play the first note and then pull off to sound the second note. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are often used together, so they can be multi-note effects
5. Trill: Similar to a tremolo but with two notes via repeated hammer-ons and pull-offs.
6. Tapping: This is a hammer-on technique but where you use your picking hand to hammer-on any note on a string. It makes possible hammer-ons of intervals greater than your fretting hand can make.
7. String Bends: This is when you pluck a note then push or pull the string to sound a higher pitch note. There are variations like the pre-bend and release.
8-10. Slides (Glissando, Portamento): A slide is when you play one note and slide up or down to another note. You can either slide to the 2nd note and let it ring or slide and pick the 2nd note. There are 2 other subtle slide variations: Glissando and Portamento.
Glissando is a quick large interval slide where you do not hear the individual notes as distinct
Portamento is a slow large interval slide where you do hear the individual notes between the first note and final note.
Read my Guitar String Bend Map article for some more examples and insights into bends.
Multiple note embellishments
There are 3 embellishments in this group: arpeggio, mordent, and gruppetto.
11. Arpeggio. This is when you play the notes of a chord individually in the order of thirds such as 1-3-5-7 for a major 7th chord. This is not the same as an arpeggiated chord.
12. Mordent: This is a 4-note riff in the pattern of target note + upper neighboring note + lower neighboring note + target note. Or you could reverse the upper and lower. For example, with an A note as the target note, you would play A-B-G#-A or A-G#-B-A. The neighboring notes are often notated as grace notes with short duration.
13. Gruppetto / Turn: Similar to a Mordent but the neighboring note is played first. Using the example for A above you would either play B-A-G#-A or G#-A-B-A.
I like every single embellishment listed above with the exception of tapping.
Here are some other soloing techniques that aren’t specifically mentioned or are examples using some of the music symbols in this article. I’ll briefly mention them here but look for my embellishments article where I cover in detail all the ornamental techniques.
A) Sustained notes – allowing a note, interval or chord to ring out. This can be notated as a Fermata or with ties and dotted notes. The creative point is to use sustained notes for interest and variety. Electric guitar players would allow a note to sustain and cause feedback.
B) Rip – a super fast riff. This is basically a flurry of 32nd notes.
C) Sul ponticello – “at the bridge” and means to play the strings close to the bridge which creates a sound described as bright, thin, or high pitched.
D) Sul tasto – “over fingerboard” and means to play over the fretboard for a tone that is described as thick, phat, rich, etc.
E) Use of silence – this is the opposite of sustained notes and would be notated with rests or a caesura. Continue until it makes sense to rash back into the song.
F) Distortions of tempo or meter – this is playing what appears as erratic rhythmic phrases, such as speeding up, slowing down or anything similar that adds interest.
G) Imitation of the voice – easier said than done, especially for an acoustic guitar but think call and response as one method. One option would be to use a steel or glass slide to mimic a singer.
Reading standard notation is not that hard once you know what all the music symbols mean. Knowing and understanding all the duration elements will only help your playing. And knowing all the techniques and embellishments should make your originals sound interesting as opposed to common. Start with the easier music symbols and add to your knowledge base each month.
Check out the following two links for a comprehensive list of music symbols: