Let’s say you just bought yourself a new Yamaha digital piano.  So how does one learn to play a digital piano? 

How about a crash course in piano sheet music to help you learn to play?  That’s what we’re discussing today: how to read piano sheet music for beginners.  Here are some things you need to know before we dig in:

  • Vocabulary—staves, clef signs, measures, time signatures
  • Treble clef
  • Bass clef
  • Note values
  • Practice techniques

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Vocabulary

A regular unmarked staff looks like this:

Notice that it has five lines and four spaces.  This staff has no clef signs, which denote the pitch of the notes used in music.  

Treble Clef sign

Here’s a treble clef sign, denoting higher pitched notes:

Bass Clef sign

This clef sign is called a bass clef sign (not bass like the fish; bass like the instrument) that symbolizes lower pitched notes:

Higher pitched instruments like flute, violin, clarinet, etc. use the treble clef to notate the pitches they play.  Low pitched instruments like the trombone, the cello, the bass guitar, etc. use the bass clef to notate their instruments.

Grand Staff

Piano sheet music is different than any other instrument because it utilizes two staves (staves is the correct term for multiple staffs).  A piano staff looks like this:  

This is called a ‘grand staff,’ signifying that it is a piano staff with both bass and treble clef signs, a barline at the beginning of the staff that joins the two staves, and a rear-facing parenthesis.  All of the notes on a piano, whether acoustic or digital, can be notated on this grand staff, although it requires use of short lines called leger lines to do so.  I’m not going to go into leger lines in this article; I’m just going to discuss the notes written on the grand staff.

Before I do, this graphic will help you identify and connect the notes on the grand staff with the keys on a piano:

This graphic identifies the keys on the piano.  Notice that the black keys have two different names for each one.  Some of the white keys do, as well, but I’m not going to discuss those white keys in this article.  Please notice that the black keys are in patterns of two keys, then three keys.  

This allows the player to locate specific keys.  For instance, the ‘D’ is always located between the two-black-key pair.  Some beginning musicians purchases dot-shaped stickers to label the keys on their keyboard.  I’ve never been a proponent of such, but some teachers highly recommend the practice.

All keyboard instruments share this conformation (except authentic harpsichords– the color of their black keys and white keys are reversed).

Now let’s look at a grand staff with the notes added:

 The note marked with the arrow is the note ‘C,’ middle C to be exact.  As you go to the left, the notes go down in pitch and backward by name.  The note just to the left of C above is ‘B,’ and so on.  The note to the right of the C is ‘D,’ and so on.  If you match up these notes with the keys above, you can see the connection between notes and keys.

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Note Values

Every note used in music has value, meaning that every note receives a measure of time.  Every note also has a corresponding rest, meaning that no sound is heard for the same value as the note.  Here is a list of basic notes with their corresponding rests and their typical note/rest values:

There are many other types of notes, but I won’t address them here.  Every note has a corresponding rest that receives the same number of counts or portion of counts as the rests.

Beginning to Play

Learn how to read piano sheet music

Once you feel comfortable playing each one of these pieces, one hand at a time, let’s try something that uses both hands.  Let’s try a little Beethoven, shall we?

In the bass clef (left hand), if you place your left hand index finger (finger #2) on the ‘C’, your 5th finger (pinky) will drop automatically on the following ‘G,’ in the second measure.

Notice in the 4th, 8th, and last measures of the treble clef (right hand), you see a different type of note.  This note is called a dotted quarter note.  Dots after a note or rest give them an additional value; the rule is, the dot gets half of the value of the note.  So a dotted quarter note increases the value to 1 ½ counts.  You can try to count it, or you can try to play this piece ‘by ear,’ which means you recall how the piece sounds and try to emulate it.  If nothing else, Google “Ode to Joy” and listen to the timing of the melody.  This is called the rhythm of the piece.  

Do you see the patterns in this melody?  Three measures of quarter notes, followed by a measure of dotted quarter note, eighth note, half note defines the first, second and last lines of this simple but famous melody by Beethoven.  The man may have been deaf, but he certainly understood the beauty of a simple, unforgettable melody!

Practice Techniques

Of course, don’t expect to sit down and play this piece perfectly!  It takes practice—but not just pounding out the notes.  To become an accomplished pianist or musician on any instrument, you must learn how to practice efficiently.  You may think it takes more time, but your results will be better and faster than if you try to practice any other way.  Your frustration levels will be minimized, as well, if you use these time-tested techniques.

First, analyze the music in each staff:  What is happening in each measure? In each line?  Write in note names if you need to).  Write in counting if you need to do so…and most people need to do so.  This piece is familiar, so play the right hand the way you know it should sound.  It is a good idea to write in finger numbers above the notes in the treble staff and below the notes in the bass staff, at least at first.  I would begin the right hand with the 3rd finger (the middle finger) in the example above.  The left hand begins with low ‘G’ played by the fifth finger.  The thumb will easily fall on the ‘D’ above it.

Once you have finished the analysis of the piece, you are ready to play!  Start with the right hand and play the piece SLOWLY all the way through once.  If you’ve made any mistakes—and you likely will!—don’t worry about those the first time through. 

On the second time through, play SLOWLY again, but this time if you make a mistake, stop and correct it.  (One of the many reasons you should play slowly at first!)  Practice the right hand alone, counting steadily and working until you can play the correct notes at least three times through with no mistakes.

Now practice the left hand.  Use the finger numbers you have chosen or given to you in the music.  Play SLOWLY, counting steadily, through one time, ignoring mistakes.  The second time, play slowly but stop and correct any mistakes you make.  Continue to practice the left hand alone, playing steadily and working until you can play the correct notes at least three times through with no mistakes.

Now comes the fun—and hard!—part: putting the hands together.  First and foremost, remember to play SLOWLY!  If you rush, you will only frustrate yourself.  Start by playing ONE MEASURE, hands together.  Repeat the measure until you play both hands correctly, steadily and smoothly, at least three times. 

Then practice the second measure the same way: SLOWLY, correctly, steadily and smoothly.  Once you’ve mastered the second measure, go back and play the first and second measures straight through.  Hopefully your practice has been successful and you can play them correctly after only one or two tries.  

Repeat this technique, working on one and then two measures at a time, then a line at a time, and so on.  It may take a great deal of work, since this is a new process for you.  Or perhaps you’ll master the piece rather quickly.  Who knows?  The most important thing is that you are LEARNING, and making music, and becoming a musician. 

I started with just three notes.  Every musician I’ve ever known has started with just a handful of notes.  Even Mozart started with a handful of notes, at 2 years old.  You don’t have to be a Mozart, or a Van Cliburn, or a Billy Joel.  Just be YOU, and enjoy learning to play the piano!

  • If you’re interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!

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