10 Keys to Reading a Musical Score

By Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day

One of the main reasons that music theory exists at all is so musicians can write their compositions down for other musicians to play. Even if those other musicians have never heard the original piece, if they can read music, they can play the piece exactly how the original composer intended. As long as people know how to read musical notation, that piece of music can be played and replayed by musicians in countries around the world theoretically forever.

You can find many different ways to represent a piece of music, depending on how many musicians or musical instruments are involved, if the piece has vocals, or even if a complicated piece has been scaled down into something a beginning musician can play first time out.

The basics

While many of the basic music theory concepts seem to be almost universal, the way sheet music itself is written out generally follows the writing patterns of the society responsible for the creation. Therefore, depending on the part of the world the cartographer is writing music for, scores can be found that are meant to be read from left to right, from right to left, or in vertical columns. However, the European standard of musical notation, is always read from left to right, just like a piece of writing.

Lead sheets

A lead sheet consists of the melody of a piece of music — usually something popular and easily identifiable — and most often just contains one musical staff. It often has the lyrics written underneath the notes, with the chord names or chord charts for accompaniment written on the top of the music.

Lead sheets are a great, quick way to learn how to play a song on guitar. You can dig up a ton of popular music lead sheet collections, called fake books, out there for people who just want to know how to play their favorite songs without messing around with memorizing scales or reading notes.

Full scores

A full score is a musical score that contains music for every instrument used in the performance. Generally, each instrument gets its own staff in a full score, because all the instruments are usually performing a slightly different piece than each other. You’re most likely to see or use a full score for any performance that uses a large ensemble of musical performers, such as an orchestra or a marching band.

Miniature scores

A miniature score is simply any musical score that has been reduced by a significant percent from its original size. But do not be deceived — this doesn’t necessarily mean that a miniature score is small. Some printed miniature scores are as large as a regular music score, but have been reduced from a very large original score. Most miniature scores are made that way for portability reasons, especially the very large ones, and are very often made for purely aesthetic reasons for collectors of original musical compositions.

Study scores

A study score is a printed score with additional academic markings and analytical comments added to the music. You’re most likely to find study scores in anthology collections of sheet music.

Piano scores

A piano score is, of course, a piece of music meant to be performed on piano. The music, which may or may not have originally been composed with multiple instruments in mind, is condensed or simplified to be contained in the treble and bass clef staves.

Short scores

A short score is usually the first step for many composers to creating a full score. It carries the basic harmony and melody of a piece of music, upon which a composer can build on and expand into a piece for multiple instruments and voices. Most short scores aren’t ever published or used by anyone other than the original composer.

Vocal scores

A vocal score is music written out specifically for a vocalist, almost like a combination of a piano score and a lead sheet. The entire musical accompaniment is condensed to a piano score, with the vocal parts written out on separate musical staves and as words beneath the vocal section.


Tablature, or tab, is designed specifically for guitar and bass. Instead of using notes, rests, and staves, though, tablature uses ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) numbers. These numbers represent the fret number to be played and are placed on four or six lines representing the instrument’s strings.

The limitation of tablature is that composers have no way to write specific note values, so often the pacing of the song is up to the musician playing the song, which can lead to many wonderful interpretations of the same piece. But the upside is that tablature uses ASCII characters, so writing out and sharing music with people on the Internet is insanely easy.

Figured bass notion

Figured bass is a little-used form of notation in which only the bass note of a piece is given, with numbers giving the interval quantity (scale steps) needed for the accompaniment written above or below the note. So, for example, if you have an F note written on a staff, with the numbers 6 and 4 written below that note, it would mean that the accompaniment should play a fourth and a sixth above the F (or a B and a D). Figured bass notation was used extensively in Baroque music and is very rarely used today.