How to Read Ukulele Music: Guide to Understanding Musical Notation

For the inexperience, music notations can be synonymous to marks left by insects crawling on the page.

Reading music is quite a powerful skill. These pages of otherwise inscrutable information may seem redundant, but entire songs and acts are based on the ability to read music.

It’s also an invaluable tool for studying up on new music and sharing that knowledge with other, while familiarizing with the instrument more.

Similar to a guitar and all other fretted instruments, notations of a ukulele are generally conveyed in many ways – via standardized staff notation all trained musicians can decipher, and by chord frames and tablatures, which was ukulele – as well as tuning-specific.

If you’re planning on learning any instrument, not just a ukulele, it’s wise to brush up on your musical notation knowledge. Spare some moments from your regular practice and try to learn these things and read new music. What is otherwise a strange symbol will become filled with rich, musical information. 

Here’s how to read ukulele music. (It’s not that scary!)

Standard Notation

This is penned on a five-line staff; the notes put in an alphabetical order from A to G. The sequence of notes starts over every time you pass a G, beginning with A.

 There are three elements that determine the duration of a note: 

  1. Note head
  2. Stem
  3. Flag

A whole note (w) is equivalent to four beats. A half note which is depicted by h, is half of that (as the name suggests): Two beats.

Similarly, a quarter note (q) equals a single beat; an eight-note (n) is half a beat; and a 16th note (x) is one-quarter of a beat. There are four 16th notes in a beat.

If there’s a fraction ( ¾, 4/4, etc) at the starting or any other point of a tune, this directs the time signature.

The top number stands for how many beats exist in a measure while the bottom number stands for the rhythmic value of each of those beats (2 = half note, 4 = quarter note, 8 = eighth note, etc.). For the most part, you’ll come across ukulele music written in four quarter notes per measure – 4/4 time.

This is also known as common time and sometimes denoted by a [c] symbol. When there’s a vertical line cutting through the symbol that appears as a “c”, that expresses cut time – which means two notes every bar, a meter taken for the quicker tempos.

Waltz time is described as three-quarter notes per measure (3/4) and is another common meter in this unique music literature of music.

Chord Diagrams

How to Read Ukulele Chord Diagrams

Chord diagrams, normally called grips or frames are an easy and quick way for players to read music – regardless of level.

In a chord diagram, the ukulele’s strings are represented by vertical lines – strings 4 through 1, left to right – and frets are depicted in the horizontal lines. The instrument’s nut is represented by a thick top line; if the line is thin, this stands for a fret, and the number of this is given right of the frame.

There are dots located in the show to tell you where you should place your fingers on the fretboard, and you will know which finger to use thanks to the number above the frame (1 stands for index finger, 2 for middle, 2 for ring, and 4 for pinky). Meanwhile, a 0 means a string has to be played open while X means the part needs to be silent.

Tablature

Another notation form that’s commonly used for fretted instruments is the tablature. There are four horizontal lines that represent the ukulele’s four strings; the first string is on the top and fourth is at the very bottom. The number indicates which fret has to played on decided string.

The relationship between the tablature and the notation will differ, depending on the kind of ukulele you’re playing. In the tuning that’s most commonly used in a uke, the reentrant (or high G), on a concert, soprano, or tenor uke have one type of alignment.

Low G, where the fourth string goes an octave lower, arranges the four strings in a consecutive pitch tier, is shown in the next measure. 

The baritone uke receive tuning to the same notes as those of the four top strings of the guitar. Keep note that in comparison to a written, standard notation, a guitar sounds an octave lower. But the baritone uke is usually written at pitch.

The tablature and standard notation in a ukulele is made for tandem use. The rhythmic information can be derived from the past. Fretting-finger placement information is received from the latter.

Fingerings

Picking-hand fingerings will get featured from time to time between the standard and tablature staves with a letter being used to represent every finger. The thumb is represented by the p, the index finger by the i, the middle by the m, and the ring finger by the a.

Keep in mind that the fingering in these notations are simply suggestions. If there’s something that works better for you, feel free to use that technique.

Slashes in the tablature and notation means you have to continue strumming the last chord.

Capos

A Roman numerical that direct where the fret has to be placed. The standard notation and tablature is made considering the capo as the nut of the guitar.

Like, a tune based on key-of-G chord fingerings and shapes will be noted in the key of G, no matter where the capo is positioned. Similarly, open strings pressed down by the capo are drawn as open strings.

Tunings

Music in a ukulele usually has standard reentrant tuning – G C E A, string 4 to string 1. If there’s alternate tuning like G B D G or G C E G, this information is stated right before the notation. For these tunings, the true pitches of the notes are reflected by the notation.

However, if the ukulele is positioned in a tuning in which there’s a similar relationship between the strings, the pitches are written similar to how it would be written in standard tuning.

Articulations

Two or more varying notes linked with slurs (these are curved lines, not ties that connect notes of similar pitches) in tab and standard notation and can be played with pull-offs and/or hammer-ons. Higher notes slurred to lower ones are played as pull-offs; lower to higher, as hammer-ons.

Fretting-hand articulation depicted by a slanted line is a slide. If the line follows the note, the note should be slid down; if it precedes the note, slide into from an indefinite lower point. 

A grace note is showed by a little note with a dash cutting through the stem in the standard notation and it’s a quick ornament moving into a note, usually played with a type of slur.

Harmonics

Natural harmonics sounds like chimes that are produced by touching the strings existing right above the fretwire – gently without apply pressure.

These are represented by regular numbers with text indication harm in tablature and diamond-shape notes in standard notation. On the uke, harmonics are commonly placed at the frets 5, 7, and 12.

Repeats

Repeat symbols exist at the start and end of a passage to tell you that it needs to be repeated. The forward repeat symbols (having dots on the right side) should be ignored the first time you see them; when there’s a backward repeat symbol (having dots on the left side), revert to the forward repeat. The next time there’s a backward repeat, disregard it and continue unless you notice clear instructions.

Example: Play three times.

D.C. is the abbreviated form of de capo, which also means “from the beginning.” When you encounter this indication, jump to the top of the piece. Fine means the end. Thus, D.C al Fine instructs you to go back to the starting of a piece and keep playing till you come across the indication “Fine” – this ends the piece. 

Keep in mind that both D.C. and D.S. can be used with either al Fine or al Coda, and that there can be numerous codas and signs within a piece.

The D.C.s and D.S.s getting a bit too confusing for you? Not to worry! Quite similar to strumming chords and playing melodies, you’ll need a bit of time and effort to learn notations.

But once you’ve dedicated a decent amount of time to it, it should be smooth sailing. You won’t have to look up what those symbols mean anymore!

Bottom Line

This was a very basic guide to get you started. Once you get through these, you should be able to play many songs from notations with much ease.

Even if you’re not pursuing a career or studied in music, you have to admit: Being able to read ukulele music is pretty cool!

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