How To Read Piano Sheet Music: A Beginner’s Guide 

 March 16, 2021

By  Zen Chung

Learning how to read sheet music allows you to unlock a world of freedom of creative expression when playing the piano. It takes practice to become an expert at sight-reading; however, it is one of the most valuable skills to hold as a musician. Studying the piano and learning to read music go hand in hand. In this article, we will take you through the steps of how to read piano sheet music.

How To Read Piano Sheet Music

1. Learn the Basic Symbols of Notation

Music notation is made of various symbols. The basic ones are the staff, the clefs, and the notes. To learn how to read sheet music, it’s important to familiarize yourself with these three as they are the most common.

a) The Staff

It consists of five lines and four spaces. The staff is structured around the grand staff. The top staff is generally marked with a treble clef and usually played with the right hand, while the bottom staff is normally marked with a bass clef and usually played the left hand.  

Each of the lines and spaces represents a different letter hence a note. Notes sit on a line or in a space. The height of the note determines the pitch. The higher the line, the higher the pitch. Ledger lines are added above or below if a note is higher or lower than the 5 staff lines.

b) Clefs

There are two clefs that you should know: The treble clef and bass clef

The Treble Clef has an ornamental G on the far left side. The treble clef notates the higher pitch or notes of your piano.

The Bass Clef notates the lower notes or pitch of your piano.

c) Notes

Notes on a staff let us know which note letter to play on the piano and how long to play it. There are three parts of each note, the note head, the stem and the flag.

Note head: Every note has a note head that is either open (usually blank) or filled (black). Where the note head sits on the staff will determine the note you will play.

Note Stem: A thin line that extends either up or down from the note head. If the line is pointing upward, it extends to the right and left if it points downward.  The direction of the line does not affect how you play but makes it easier to read the sheet music while allowing them to fit neatly on the staff.

Flag: A curvy mark to the right of the note stem. It aims to tell you how long to hold a note.

There are five notes to take note of:

  • A whole note is an open note without a stem and holds four beats
  • A half note adds a stem and holds two beats
  • A quarter note is a closed note with stem holds one beat
  • An eighth note is a closed notehead with a stem and a tail. It covers one eighth of a four beat measure
  • A sixteenth note is closed notehead with a stem and a double tail. It covers one sixteenth of a four beat measure.

d) Time Signatures

When learning how to reading music, you’ll need to know its meter to play it. This is the beat you use when you are dancing, clapping, or tapping your foot along to it. The meter is presented in a fraction and is known as the time signature.

e) Ledger Lines

A ledger line goes above or below the staff. Bar lines on the otherhand are used to connect both staves in piano music.

2. Label the white spaces with FACE and EGBDF for the treble clef

Piano music usually has 2 staves. As a beginner, if you want to learn how to read sheet music, you should start looking at the treble clef first. This is the staff that shows you which notes to play with your right hand. The first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the letter names of lines and spaces. On your sheet paper, label the white spaces with FACE starting with the first space at the bottom of the page going up, then the lines EGBDF starting at the bottom line going up to the top line. There are little ways to help you remember the names of the lines and spaces. For example, for EGBDF – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. The more you memorize it, the more you’ll remember.

3. Write the names of note letters

The next step is to write down the letter names underneath the music notes. This is to help you recall and practice music notes that you’re having a hard time remembering. However, it's not a great habit to keep as you should be able to know the music notes by heart in the long run. As a beginner, keep in mind that you’re only focusing on the white notes on a piano at the moment. As you keep advancing, you’ll move on to the black keys where the sharps and flats are.

4. Memorize the note names and letters

 Once you’ve memorized all the letter names on the lines and spaces for your right hand, you can now proceed to reading piano notes on the bass clef. These are the notes on the lines and spaces that will be played with your left hand.

5. Name your spaces ACEGB and GBDFA

At this point, you should begin practicing how to draw the bass clef. The bass clef starts on the F line. With the spaces at the bottom of the page, name your spaces ACEGB. Using the same strategy as Step 2, you can find a simple way to remember the letters. For example, All Cows Eat Grass. The next thing is to name your lines starting at the bottom of the page GBDFA. It’s important to remember and memorize these notations.

6. Use A Hand Diagram and Label Each Finger 1-5

There’s an alternative method that you may find easier when learning how to read piano sheet music. Look for a diagram of your hands, and looking at the right hand starting with your thumb, label each finger 1-5. Do the same with the left hand. Look for an easy piano song, e.g., “Hot Cross Buns” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” that only use notes C-G or numbers 1-5. Starting on the middle C of the piano, put both thumbs on the note and align your hands such that your right pinky ends on 5 (G) and your left pinky lands on 5(F). For ease of memorization, you can write the numbers next to the letter names. Beginners should always remember to start with the white keys on the piano. As you read through the song, play and sing the letter or numbers while playing. This will help you memorize the names of the numbers of the notes on a piano. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. You can make it more challenging for yourself by erasing the letter names to see if you remember the song's playing pattern and tune.

7. Know your Piano Scales

A piano keyboard is made up of eight consecutive notes. For example, the C major scale is made up of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. In between the first note of your C major scale and the last is an octave. Learning the C major scale is key as once you know, it will be much easier to learn the other major scales. Each of the notes of a C major scale is represented by a white key on your keyboard. The distance between the C and D keys in your scale is a whole, while the distance between the E and F keys in your C scale is a half step. Every major scale on a piano keyboard has the same pattern- whole half- whole- whole- whole –half. There are many different scales, and they all produce unique sounds, for example, minor scales, modal scales, etc.

Semitones or half steps on keyboard allow us to write various sounds in music. A sharp which is denoted by the ♯ symbol signifies that the note is a semitone higher than the note to its right on the sheet music. A flat denoted by a b symbol signifies that the note is a semitone lower than the note head to its right. Lastly you have a natural which cancels a sharp or flat within a measure or a song.

Zen Chung

I'm Zen Chung, a piano and violin teacher based out of Plano, Texas. I started this blog because my students (and their parents) kept asking about the best musical instruments to buy online. Look no further I'm here to save the day! 

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