How to Decode a Musical Score

We can learn a lot about a piece without even playing a single note of it. A musical score may look like it’s full of secrets, but we can uncover the secrets if we look carefully and think about what we see.

The composer always gives us hints:

  • The title
  • Tempo marks
  • Descriptive words in the music, such as leggiero, marcato or con fuoco.
  • Overall dynamics. Where is the loudest part, the softest part? Is the piece mostly loud, mostly soft, or constantly changing?

You can ask yourself…

Rhythm questions

  • Which rhythm patterns does the composer use more than twice?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that only happens once?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that looks confusing? Write in the count. Start with the simplest part of the measure—the first count, for example, or any long note. Write in the counts for that part; once you’ve done this, you can probably figure out where the remaining counts go.

Melody questions

  • Which hand plays the melody? If there is more than one line, or voice, played by one hand, which voice is more important?
  • Where else can you find this melody in the piece? How many times?
  • Does the melody move mostly by skips or by steps?
  • Do you see a scale, chord or arpeggio that you recognize?
  • Is there any melody that happens only once?
  • Do both hands ever play the same thing?
  • What’s the highest melody note in the piece? The lowest?

Accompaniment questions

  • What is the first note in each measure? Look at the downbeats of four measures in a row. Do you see a pattern?
  • What interval is used most often? Least often?
  • Do you recognize any chords?
  • Does the accompaniment ever look like a melody?

Phrase questions

  • How many measures does each phrase contain?
  • What is the highest melody note in the phrase? The lowest?

Watch Nancy O’Neill Breth demonstrate decoding a musical score.