As a professional musician, who has taught musicians how to read music for the last 15 years, here is my advice.
Written music is just another written language, that can be mastered just like you mastered English. It uses a series of symbols to show which note should be played and for how long. Extra symbols indicate beat speed, musical shape, louds and quiets and expression.
STAVE, BARS AND CLEF
Music is written on five horizontal lines, called the stave. This is divided into sections called bars by vertical bar lines. At the beginning of the stave you find a symbol called a clef. Depending on your instrument this will either be the treble clef (high instruments) or the bass clef (low instruments).
THE BEAT AND TEMPO
The beat is the regular pulse that all music is shaped round. The tempo is the speed at which the beat goes. You cannot play music without first deciding on a tempo.
Each piece is divided into the same amount of beats in each bar. The time signature at the beginning of the stave, is made up of two numbers, one above the other. The top number shows number of beats to a bar.
Different pitches or notes are named using the first seven letters of the alphabet (A to G). Each line and space between lines on the stave is used by one note. On the treble clef the bottom line is an E, the space above it an F, the line above that a G, and so on. The bass clef starts with a G on the bottom line, so the space above that is an A, etc
The stave is extended both above and below by leger lines. These small lines are just big enough for one note. They simply carry on the lines and spaces of the stave.
SHARPS AND FLATS
Notes can be raised and lowered by a very small amount of pitch called a semi-tone.
A sharp note is raised by a semi-tone and is indicated by a sign that looks like a noughts and crossed grid.
A flat note is lowered by a semi-tone and is indicated by a sign that looks like a b'.
A natural sign shows that a note is neither sharp or flat. This sign looks like the sharp sign, but with lots of the legs missing.
The rhythm is the length of the notes how they fit around the beat. To play rhythm you must feel the tempo in your head.
The length of each note is indicated by what the note looks like.
Crochets last for one beat count and are a solid dot with a straight tail.
Minims last for two beat counts and are an empty circle with a straight tail.
Semibreves last for four beat counts and are an empty circle without a tail.
Quavers last for half a beat count and look like crochets but have an short line at the end of their tails. If you get two or more quavers together, the short line is usually replaced by a line that joins the tails together.
Semi-quavers last for a quarter beat count and look like quavers, but have two short lines at the end of their tails. Two or more semi-quavers are joined together in the same fashion as quavers, but with two lines.
Sometimes you will see a note with a dot after it (not above it - that is something else entirely!). This makes it a dotted note and adds on half the value of the note again to its length. So for example a dotted crochet will last one and a half beat counts and a dotted minim will last three beat counts.
These are the points at which you should not play. They should be treated like silent notes and must be counted in the same way as notes you play.
Each length of rest has it's own sign:
The crochet rest is the squiggly" one.
The minim rest is a block sitting on the middle line of the stave.
The semibreve rest and also the full bar's rest are a block hanging from the fourth line of the stave.
The quaver rest looks like a number 7.
The semiquaver rest looks like a number 7 with a double horizontal line.
Sometimes you will see a bar with a solid block in it and a number written above. This indicates that you have several bars rest to count - the number tells you how many.
FINDING RHYTHM DIFFICULT?
Rhythm is tricky because you have to do several things at once. You are reading notes, co-ordinating your fingers and working out the maths of the different rhythms, all at the same time as keeping a steady 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 count going in your head, without ever missing a beat.
The way round this is to put some decent time over several weeks into just concentrating on the following exercise:
1. Put your instrument down.
2. Find a piece of music, notice how many beats there are to a bar and decide on a tempo.
3. Start counting the appropriate number of beats to a bar out loud, at your chosen tempo.
4. Start clapping the rhythm of the music to fit in with your counting. This is not easy and will take some practise.
Always look ahead and imagine when the next beat will arrive. You then have a deadline before which you must fit in everything in the beat you are currently on.
Try to avoid foot-tapping the beat - it's your brain that does the counting and you'll find that in your head, not your foot.
5. Then clap through the rhythm while counting in your head.
6. Next get your instrument. Pick a note and play the rhythm using just that note, while counting the beat in your head.
7. When you feel completely in control of the rhythm, play through the piece as it is written. All the time make sure that you keep counting the beat in your head.
This whole process will probably take a week or two to complete, maybe longer. That is fine and what I have come to expect in my teaching - you should not rush this process.
Dynamics are the louds and quiets. They are very important because they stop the music sounding boring. They are found below the stave and are indicated by letters that are short for Italian terms.
pp = pianissimo = every quiet
p = piano = quiet
mp = mezzo-piano = medium quiet
mf = mezzo-forte = medium loud
f = forte = loud
ff = fortissimo = very loud
cresc = crescendo = get gradually louder
dim = diminuendo = get gradually quieter
If at all possible, learn with a teacher.
You are learning a new language. Like any language it will take repetition, slow reading and mistakes before you become fluent. Give yourself a chance.
Don't write in the letter names of notes - this drastically slows learning.
Write in sharps or flats that you keep forgetting.
Write in beat numbers above the notes to help you figure out the rhythm.
Use memory aids to help you remember where the notes fall on the stave. For example in the treble clef, the spaces, reading from bottom to top, spell FACE and the lines give the first letters of Every Good Boy Deserves Football.
Read through notes without your instrument.
TWO TYPES OF MUSICIAN LEARN TO READ MUSIC:
First are complete beginners, who learn to read music alongside learning their instrument.
The second group of musicians are the ones who have already reached a high standard playing their instrument by ear, and have to deal with the difference in standard, between music they can read and music they can play.
I recommend accomplished musicians take the following steps:
Buy a beginner book for your instrument (even if it's a couple of decades since you would have classed yourself as a beginner!). If you want a recommendation for a beginner book, I use the Abracadabra series.
Work through the book, focussing on reading the notes and rhythms. Only move ahead, when you know all the notes and understand all the rhythms on the pages that you are working on.
When you have completed the beginner book, get some written music of an equivalent standard to your playing. First read through the notes without your instrument. Repeat this until you recognise all the notes easily. Then decide on a tempo and work out the rhythms. Make sure you completely understand where all the beats fall in each bar. Clap any complicated rhythms.
When you completely understand everything on the page, play through the music. Keep working at pieces like this and you'll soon be reading fluently.