How to Read Ledger Lines

As a flute and piccolo player, I read ledger lines a lot. Pretty much every piece of music goes above the staff. And some even go slightly below the staff.

Hannah B Flute | How to Read Ledger Lines

But the flute goes pretty high. And some of those ledger lines can be hard to read. That’s why you should know how to read ledger lines with ease.

There’s no easy way around it. You have to practice reading ledger lines, just like you practice anything else.

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What are Ledger Lines?

Take a look at a staff of music. Unless you’re looking at a grand staff, there’s only space for nine notes. Eleven if you count the spaces right above and below the staff.

What instrument only has nine (or 11) notes? That’s just over an octave. Compare that to the flute’s range of over three octaves.

Ledger lines are what make it possible for us to read notes outside of the staff’s range. Just about half of the flute’s range is outside of the staff, so ledger lines are super important when playing the flute.

More than the staff

The treble clef has five lines and four spaces. Its range is E above middle C up to F an octave higher.

The flute’s range is middle C (or the B just below) to the D a full three octaves higher. And that doesn’t even count the altissimo register.

If you want to play a lot of flute music, you have to know how to read ledger lines. Sure, some composers use a form of notation that allows them to write the notes in the staff but still show the pitches are supposed to be an octave higher.

Of course, you won’t need to read ledger lines right off the bat. But it won’t take long for you to start learning notes just above the staff.

And even if you’re not a flute player, almost every other instrument uses ledger lines.

Life of a flute player

However, use flute players need to be able to read ledger lines fluently. Tons of pieces go up into the third octave of the flute. Orchestral excerpts like Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 are almost entirely above the staff.

If you play piccolo, you can expect to play above the staff, too.

Reading ledger lines is just part of life as a flute player. And the same is probably true for violinists and clarinetists.

You need this skill

Learning to read ledger lines may sound difficult, but don’t overcomplicate it. You’ve probably learned how to read notes within the staff, right?

Well, reading ledger lines isn’t much different. The only difference is that ledger lines only pop up when necessary. Whereas the staff is constant throughout a piece of sheet music.

If you want to be able to sight read music well or just learn more advanced repertoire, you can’t get around ledger lines.

Ledger Lines: You New Best Friends

Okay. You know that reading ledger lines is important. But how do you practice reading them? How do you even get started?

Reading notes outside of the staff is just like any other musical skill. So you can follow a similar process as learning anything else.

However, there are a few tips that will help you specifically with reading up high.

Start slow

Don’t expect to be able to read high C right away. Instead, focus on the notes just above or below the staff. But make sure to focus on the notes that are in your instrument’s range.

If you play flute, you don’t need to focus much on below the staff. However, if you also play clarinet, you should focus on those notes.

In either case, start slow and with a couple of notes. Using flute as an example, get comfortable with the G on top of the staff and the next few notes after it. The notes A, B, and C are all fairly easy to read.

Moving on up

Once you’re comfortable reading up to the C above the staff, add the following notes. The notes D and E are still relatively easy to read, but they can be confusing.

As you start to move away from the staff, you’ll have to focus more on the notes. Make sure you can see the sheet music well.

So if you’re like I used to be and never wear your glasses, you should wear your glasses.

Once you hit the notes F and G, it can be more difficult to read. So take things slowly here. Don’t be afraid to learn one new note per week.

On top of the world

Now, we’ve reached the highest of high notes. While you probably won’t have to play above G as a beginner or intermediate player, the more you advance, the more common these notes will become.

High A, B, and C can all seem to blend together. If you mix up the notes that are on lines or in spaces, think of the notes an octave below. They’ll be the opposite of that.

For example, the A just above the staff is on a line. So, the A an octave higher will be in a space.

Practice Reading Ledger Lines

Aside from starting slowly and working your way up, you can do a few things to practice your skills.

The more you read notes above the staff, the easier it will become. So find ways to read ledger lines as much as possible.

If you have the technique, learn the Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky excerpts. But you definitely don’t need to play those excerpts to practice your ledger line reading.

Find books and exercises

There are a few resources out there that you can use to practice reading ledger lines. My favorite resource for this is the book Top Register Studies for Flute by Filas.

Technically, the book focuses on developing your sound in the high register. However, it’s great for reading up that high. The exercises are mostly above the staff.

Plus, they’re melodies, so they’re not as boring as some other exercises out there.

Write your scales & arpeggios

Even if you’ve memorized your scales & arpeggios, you can use them to practice reading in the high register. Of course, continue to play them from memory.

But you can write your scales out and practice reading them as you play them.

Make your own

If you still want more ways to practice reading ledger lines, you can make your own exercises.

But maybe you want more exercises and don’t feel like writing your own. Well, I created an exercise just for reading up in the high register.

You can subscribe below and download the exercise for free!


Do you ever practice reading ledger lines? Will you add it into your routine? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

And be sure to subscribe so you can download a free ledger line exercise!

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