Advanced Sheet Music Symbols

Sheet music doesn't stop at notes, rests and repeats...there is much more to a piece of music than that. Music needs emotion and character, a collection of bland notes won't particularly sound great unless there is some dynamic change to it. Quiet parts building into loud parts, accent, exciting musical tricks and techniques make a great song marvelous. This lesson will help you learn some of the more advanced sheet music reading techniques.

Crescendos and Decrescendos

What would a song be without dynamics? “What are dynamics?” I hear you asking. Dynamics are what make music sound quiet or loud and how to transition between those two extremes to a nice place in the middle.

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Crescendo

A Crescendo is a notation that tells the musician to build up the volume that they are playing at. This can be used to build up to a very exciting part in the song and really add to the emotion the listener feels.

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Decrescendo

On the other hand, a Decrescendo is the exact opposite. It tells the musician to taper off the volume so that the song can get quieter. This is used to bring the listener in closer and make them pay extra close attention to details (after all...the music is getting harder to hear!).

My piano teacher once told me that you should never be able to listen to classical music at one volume because the dynamics were so extraordinary that you would turn the volume up at low points and it would blow your speakers out at the highs! This is the kind of playing that evokes emotion in listeners (as long as they are not mad that you blew out their speakers!)

Note Accents

Accents give certain notes some pizzazz. There are several different types of accents. There are accents, staccatos and tenutos to name a few. Those are the important ones at least.


Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Accent

Accents are basically exactly what they sound like...they are used to make that particular note sound louder or more pronounced than the ones around it. Think of yourself saying dah...dah...DAH...dah. It sounds (more like reads!) like the third note is louder, or accented compared to the rest. The notation for this is a simple little > symbol above a note.

“PHAT” notes or Marcato

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Marcato

This was the name I learned when I was in jazz band in high school. For lack of a better term, you play these notes big and wide, as the name implies. Think of it like the last note in a song, you want it to be “PHAT” and important. The real name, is of course marcato.

The notation for this kind of note is like an accent, but tip up like a \^ symbol. It also goes above the note.


Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Staccato

Staccatos are like accents except they are meant to make a note shorter, not louder. A staccato means you would to play the note for a fraction of the time that you normally would, yet still use up the full duration of the note. Say this out loud...imagining that the notes are a little longer this time: daaah...daaah...daaah...da...da...etc. The last two notes seem to be shorter than the rest.

The important key to remember about staccatos is that they don't shorten the time until the next note, they just shorten the amount of time the note is “on” so to speak. If you were playing quarter notes, and they were all staccatos, you would still start each note on the respective beat in the measure, but you wouldn't be playing the notes a very long time. It would be similar to playing an eighth note, then resting an eighth rest, then playing an eighth note, resting an eighth, etc.

The symbol for a staccato is a dot directly above the note. Note that this is not the same position as a dotted note, which would be to the side of the note, making it 1.5 times the duration as we discussed in the note duration lesson.


Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Tenuto This is the opposite of a staccato. With tenutos, the goal is to play the note as long as possible without exceeding the duration of the note itself. So if you were to play a quarter note and there was another quarter note right after it (the first one being tenuto) it would sound as if there were no space in between the two notes except for a slight re-attack of the key.

The symbol for tenuto is a line across the top of the note.


Glissandos are quite the fun thing to play, especially on the piano. I will explain what they are in a moment...first I want you to picture a rock and roll pianist (or any other fast and fun pianist), now picture him sitting there playing the piano, rocking away. All of the sudden the phrase comes to a halt and the pianist takes his hand and slides it down the piano and the band resumes playing. That is a glissando. It's one of my favorite tricks on a piano. It doesn't get used much in classical music (or much at all for that matter) but it is fun to throw into some of your own creations for some extra excitement, especially if the music is fast paced.

Long story short, a glissando is where you go from note 1 to note 2 and play almost every note (usually by sliding your hand across the keys) in between.

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Glissando Straight

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Glissando Squiggly

The symbol for a glissando is a straight line that connects the two notes and usually has “gliss.” written above it or something similar. It is also marked with a sort of squiggly line as well sometimes.


Codas are very important to the structure of a song. They allow repeats to have different verses the second time around and help change the motifs instead of just flat out repeating them.

The way a coda works is at the end of the song, it might say something along the lines of “D.C. al Coda” which means go back to the beginning and play until you see the coda symbol. The tricky thing is the second time you play through the song, you will skip the last portion (defined by where the coda is sitting on top of the staff) and go straight to the alternate section to finish the song. The symbol is quite unusual looking, so it's hard to miss.

The alternate section where you need to jump to is always at the very end of the song, denoted again by the coda symbol.

Here is a picture of a coda symbol, so you know what to do if you see one in music.

Advanced Sheet Music Symbols - Coda