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A Beginner's Guide to Reading Piano Notes

  • The piano sheet music and piano kyes

    Reading sheet music is a necessary skill for anyone who wants to master piano playing. It is the universal “language” of music that a musician needs to know and understand. AAt first glance, music notation can be intimidating — comprising unfamiliar symbols that bear no resemblance to the letters, numbers, or other symbols we're used to. Yet many things in music are very logically constructed, so let's figure out the basics of how to read piano music!

    How to Read Piano Notes

    To capture the sounds of any instrument, many symbols and notations are used. And the basis of notation is notes — they indicate the pitch of the instrument's sounds, i.e., whether it is a “Do (C)”, “Re (D)”, or another note. At the same time, they indicate how long this note lasts, with what strength to press the key, and with what speed and character to perform the notes. In other words, the music notation contains everything a player needs to know.

    The Staff

    Notes are written on five horizontal lines, known as the staff. For the right hand, notes are written on the upper staff, for the left hand, on the lower staff. Notes can be written on the rulers, between the rulers, under, and above them. We also use additional lines at the top and bottom of the staff and write on them, under them, or above them.

    An example of the staff for playing piano


    However, this is not enough — there are 88 keys on the piano! And the 5 lines of the musical staff and additional lines will not accommodate so many sounds. Therefore, we should remember an extremely important element of music notation - the key. This is a sign that “ ties” the written notes to a specific pitch. Without a key, it is impossible to write notes - it, like a real key, “opens” the note state!

    The piano uses 2 keys: treble and bass clefs.

    1. The treble clef is also called the “So (G)” key because it starts from the second line, indicating the “So (G)” note of the first octave. We write it down on the second line. From this note, you can count all the others! However, you should memorize a few notes for yourself - some kind of “anchor points” from which you can count other sounds. I suggest memorizing the “Do (C)” and “So (G)” notes of the first octave, as well as the “Do (C)” note of the second octave! It will be much faster and easier to count other sounds from these notes.

    The treble clef

    1. The bass clef is more characteristic of low sounds - more often notes of the lowest octave and below are recorded in it. Its other name is the key of F. The bass clef begins on the fourth line, indicating the “F” note of the lowest octave, which is on the same line.

    And again, knowing about this “F” note, you can calculate other sounds. However, here I suggest that you also memorize 2-3 notes that will help you count other sounds faster and with less effort. For example, the “C” and “F” of the small octave and the “C” of the fourth octave. Doesn't the last note sound like a “C” in the treble clef?)

    An example of the bass clef

    If you find a record of several notes that are on top of each other, these notes will be played simultaneously. This also applies to the combination of right and left hand.

    If you can draw an image of a straight vertical line between the notes in your left and right hand, then this material will be played with both hands simultaneously.

    Treble and bass clefs

    Note Durations

    With the pitch notation, everything is clear. But how do you show how long each note lasts? For this purpose, there are note durations - various graphic symbols that indicate how long a note should sound. To measure the duration of sounds, you don't use minutes or seconds. For this purpose, the relative count “1 and-2 and-3 and-4 and” is used.

    A note can only consist of an unshaded head - it is a whole note that lasts for all 4 counts: “1 and-2 and-3 and-4 and”. An unshaded head with a stave - a stick on the side of the note - is a half note, which we count as “1 and-2 and”.

    The next duration is a quarter with a count of “1 and”, then an eighth with a count of “1” or “and”, and all other subsequent durations will be half as long as the previous ones.

    An example of notes duaration

    Beat and Measure

    Durations are placed in one beat - a piece of music from one line to the next. A beat can contain the count “1 and-2 and-3 and-4 and” or “1 and-2 and-3 and”. This will be indicated by the top digit of the measure - these are the 2 digits that you will find at the beginning of the piece.

    An example of various beats

    All that needs to be done is to place all the durations correctly and evenly in the measure according to the beat size! Playing the rhythm is one of the most difficult tasks in reading music, so at first try signing the score under the notes to visualize it for yourself.

    Tips for Memorizing Notes

    At first, you'll have to count to figure out exactly what note it is. This is a natural stage for beginners, even though it often feels strange or boring. You definitely shouldn't try to memorize all the notes on the music staff at once! Over time, the notes will be memorized on their own, just like letters in a language. However, there are still ways to speed up or simplify your reading in the early stages of your learning!

    1. The main tip is to PLAY. Practicing from sheet music is the best way to develop your note reading. The more you play, the faster you will learn the notes. It's important to choose the right repertoire so that the material is manageable.

    2. Learn the order of the notes. Most people have known the order “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti '' since childhood, but it's not always convenient to count, for example, from “do” to “la” up to 6 notes. It is often more convenient to take 2 steps back: “do-si-la”. To do this, I recommend memorizing the reverse order of the notes: “do-si-la-so-fa-mi-re-do”. This will make finding some notes much faster and more convenient!

    3. Memorize a few notes in the violin and bass clefs as “anchor points” from which you can find the notes faster. The more such points you have, the better!

    4. Pay attention to the movement of the melody. Is it moving up or down? Are the notes next to each other or are there jumps across notes? You will notice this faster than counting each note individually. For example, if both notes are written on adjacent rulers, they are one note apart. You don't have to count each of these notes - you just play the second one through the key!

    5. Choose the repertoire you like! What could be better than playing your favorite song at the beginning of piano lessons? Also, playing something familiar is very motivating and allows you to see the result right away - what you've heard before can now be played with your fingers!

    However, an important point here is that you should choose simple material that is within your reach. A complicated and boring analysis is demotivating.

    1. Match the durations to each other. In some simple rhythms, you don't have to count all the durations. Often you can simply match them to each other: if you play a half note in a piece, the quarter note should sound half as long, and the whole note should be played twice as long.

    2. Online simulators. The notes will gradually be memorized with practice playing different pieces, but you still need to give this process a boost. Online note detection simulators will help you with this. You can find plenty of them in the public domain! Often, these simulators are made in the format of a game that is exciting and will definitely not let you get bored.

    Common Mistakes in Learning Sheet Music

    When working with music notation, try to avoid the most common mistakes below, which will make it difficult to read and learn music:

    • Label each note. It's okay to annotate notes in the sheet music, but avoid labeling every single note.This way, the skill of reading music will develop very slowly, as the brain will not have to recognize and distinguish between notes. You can label notes that are difficult to read or sounds that will help you recognize notes later. I understand that sometimes it is not interesting and seems difficult, but give yourself time to get used to it!

    • Do not pay attention to the key. It is a common situation for a musician to have a piece of music taken apart and find a bass clef in their right hand, not a treble clef... Indeed, in most pieces, the right hand is the treble clef and the left hand is the bass clef, but this is not always the case. So be sure to check carefully which key you are playing!

    • Try to play at a fast tempo. The key to good piano playing is to play at a slow tempo. Especially when you're just learning a piece, you shouldn't make it difficult for yourself by going at a fast tempo. This leaves little time to think, count notes, or find the correct keys. I know, you often want to play right away, just like in the original! However, slow down at the beginning, and leave the fast tempo for when the text is fixed!

    • Choose a difficult repertoire at the beginning. More complex pieces require much more time and effort to analyze. And even when the text is analyzed, there is not always enough physical data and technique to bring the piece to good condition. This can often be demotivating, so it's better to choose something more accessible at the beginning. A quick result is what motivates the best!

    In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the basis for developing the skill of reading music is practice. Just like when we learn a foreign language, music notes need to be practiced all the time. Even reading what seems to be the simplest music text will help you memorize notes and speed up the process of recognizing them. So give yourself time and enjoy learning a new language!