To the absolute beginner, sheet music can look like a version of Double-Dutch. All of those long lines that run across the page, then there’s the little circles and stems (not to mention the weird symbols that seem impossible to even describe with words).
Where on earth does a beginner start when it comes to reading piano notes?
Before you lose hope, let me assure you that the basics of understanding sheet music and reading piano notes is not as difficult as it may first appear. In fact, if you’re willing to stick around for a few minutes, I plan to walk you through the main elements of piano notes on paper.
Now I’m not promising that you’re going to be able to understand everything written in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony within a ten minute time frame, but you should be able to understand what these long lines are in the sheet music, what those little circles mean, and how it all transfers to the piano.
Sound like a plan? Let’s get started.
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Reading Piano Notes: Know the Musical Alphabet
Before we even look at piano notes on paper, let’s quickly learn all of the white keys on the piano.
Yes, that’s right—you’re now going to name each and every white key in front of you. Whether you are sitting at an 88-key digital piano or a 61-key keyboard, the same rule applies, so let’s learn it.
The Musical Alphabet – 7 Notes on Repeat!
A B C D E F G
It may very well be the easiest alphabet you have ever seen—only 7 letters!
These 7 letters (let’s actually call them notes from here on) repeat all the way up the piano, getting higher each time.
Ready to play them? Well, if you’re learning on an 88-key piano, then the first note is A, the next note is B and so on. Remember, after you have reached G, we’re starting the musical alphabet all over again with A.
Give it a go!
Was the final note at the very top of the piano a C? If so, well done. If not, go back and try again. By the way, if you’re playing on a 61-key keyboard, your start note will be C and your final note should be C.
Not too bad, right? Well, of course it’s easy when we play them all in order, but now it’s time to give ourselves a little challenge. Can you try playing all of the C’s on the piano? Always use the groups of black keys to navigate. C is always found to the left of the groups of two black keys.
Now, how about trying to play all of the D’s? Notice how D is always the white key found in the middle of the groups of two black keys.
Next move on to E, found to the left of each group of two black keys.
Then we have F—do you see how each F is found to the left of each group of three black keys? Always check on a keyboard diagram to make sure you are definitely playing the correct piano key for each note name.
Now that you can name all of the white keys on the piano, it’s time to see how they correspond to what you see in written sheet music.
In other words, it’s time to learn how to read notes on a piano!
Learning the Stave (or Staff)
Some call it the “staff,” while others call it the “stave.” So that we have no confusion, let’s refer to it as the stave from here on.
The stave is the name for the set of five horizontal lines that run across the page on any piano sheet music that you may see. It is on the stave that we write our piano notes.
Right Hand Notes
First, let’s learn the names of the notes on the right hand stave. We also call this the Treble Stave and always find it written above the left hand Bass Stave (more about that one later).
Since the stave is made up of 5 lines, and 5 different notes can be written on each line. The line runs through the note. Starting from the bottom line, these notes are E G B D F.
Of course, remembering a string of letters can be challenging, so using a rhyme makes life easier, and a little more fun too.
So here’s the rhyme:
- Right Hand Rhyme for Note Names LINES
Now, it’s much easier to remember them, right? We’re not finished yet though!
The 5 lines create 4 spaces. Within each of the spaces, we also have a piano note. These notes are F A C E. No need for a rhyme here, since F A C E spell out “face,” it’s an easy one to remember.
Left Hand Notes
Now, let’s look at the left hand notes written on the left hand stave. We call this the Bass Stave. Just like the Treble Stave, our Bass Stave also has 5 lines and 4 spaces. Unfortunately, the note names are completely different!
The 5 notes, which each have a line of the stave going through them, are G B D F A. A little tricky to memorize of course, so here comes another rhyme to help:
- Left hand Rhyme for Note Names LINES
I think you know what’s coming next. Yes, those 5 lines have 4 spaces and 4 different notes. These notes are A C E G.
Perhaps a little rhyme might help? Here you go:
- Left Hand Note Names SPACES
From Sheet to Keys
Now you know the note names for all of the notes that lie on the stave, both for the right hand (remember, it’s called the Treble Clef), and for the left hand (Bass Clef).
Granted, you may not have memorized them just yet—but using the rhymes above can certainly help. How, though, do you know which key to press down on the piano? After all, only a few minutes ago you learned that the white keys on the piano comprise of 7 notes repeated over and over again.
That means there is a lot more than one C, D, E and so on. At this point, it’s crucial to refer to a trusted keyboard diagram that will show you where each of the notes mentioned above appears on your piano.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “okay, I know all of the notes on the staves, but I just can’t seem to remember them!”
Don’t worry—your complaint is a very common one! It can seem baffling that remembering a few rhymes and transferring them over to the piano keys can be so frustrating. I’m afraid to say that there is no cheat’s method or quick fix to really knowing the notes on the stave.
It’s a process and it takes commitment, repetition and practice. That being said, there are a few things that can at least make the process a little more fun, and potentially more effective.
Even when our world started to become more and more tech-driven, with new music software and apps appearing nearly every day, I still found myself relying on the simple flashcard. You can buy flashcards online for next to nothing, or you can even make them up yourself.
Use them at the piano to both identify the note name and play it on the piano, or use them away from your instrument to help you memorize all the names of the notes on the staves.
Note Naming Software
The fact that I have a lot of respect for flashcards doesn’t in any way mean I’m against the use of software and apps within musical learning. In fact, some of the software available today can make learning to read music a lot of fun.
Adult Learning vs Child Learning
It’s a curious question, but one that I think we should address. Will an adult approach the task of learning how to read piano notes in the same way that a child would?
In general, the answer is no.
Here’s why I feel adult learners and young learners differ significantly both in their approach and way of learning:
- Tend to be rather self-conscious and cautious about making mistakes, often leading to a lot of hesitation during the initial phases of learning.
- Hold more muscle tension, meaning that striking the correct key can be a more significant problem than knowing which key to strike.
- Thrive on logical, objective explanations.
- Tend to be motivated to study and practice outside of lessons.
- Have a longer concentration span for one topic.
- Don’t tend to be overly self-conscious and will often try something immediately without worrying about making a mistake.
- Have relaxed and spontaneous movements.
- Tend to need to see, hear, and try new concepts first before understanding them.
- Are often less motivated to study or practice outside of lessons.
- Have a shorter attention span for one subject and often benefit from frequent topic changes.
How do the differences in learning carry over to the task of learning to read piano notes? In general, children benefit greatly when given the opportunity to learn from observation. Since they don’t tend to be overly self-conscious, yet need frequent topic changes to keep them engaged, it is possible to teach a child a wide range of notes simultaneously.
In addition, using games, flashcards, music apps and reward schemes can see young learners making fast progress.
Adult learners, on the other hand, will likely find a more systematic learning method to reading piano notes more effective and less overwhelming. Since adults can be more self-conscious about making mistakes, coupled with their general appreciation for logical explanations, thoroughly learning one group of notes before progressing onto the next section can be very effective.
Practice Makes Perfect
Granted, we may have a few techniques, apps or methods that can help us on our road to learning how to read piano notes, but it all comes down to whether you’re going to put in the time to learn.
Being serious about reading sheet music means making it part of your daily routine. If you can spend at least 15 minutes each day studying the notes (and rhymes) for both the Treble Stave and the Bass Stave, as well as finding and striking each note on the piano, within a few weeks you should find that the initial appearance of sheet music is beginning to translate itself from a foreign language to simple English.
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