The future of music

How to Read Piano Notes: Beginner’s Guide to Reading Music

August 4, 2023
How to read piano notes

If you want to learn how to play the piano, knowing how to read notes is essential.

In other words, you won’t get fat if you don’t familiarize yourself with musical notation.

Even if you only want to play simple songs, learning how to read piano notes will make everything easier.

And it’s actually not that hard – and we’re here to help you get through the first steps. 

How to Read Piano Notes

Learning how to read notes will allow you to develop sight reading skills – the ability to read a piece of music for the first time and play as you go.

That sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

But first, you need to get to know musical notation.

You can think of musical notation as the written communication of music. So it’s basically a set of visual instructions to perform music – If someone writes down a piece of music, you’ll be able to play it on the piano. 

And piano music is written down using notes on a staff.

Therefore, if you want to learn how to read piano notes, you need to become familiar with piano sheet music.

music sheet on piano

What is Piano Sheet Music?

Essentially, piano sheet music tells you exactly what to play on the piano.

And it tells you how to play it.

Sheet music has been used for ages now – in fact, the first sheet music form we know today was used by Catholic monks with the aim to standardize church music. 

And sheet music publishing was well established in the US by the early 19th century.

So, learning piano sheet music is sort of like peaking into your instrument’s history.

But learning it will also allow you to understand how music really works.

And if you want to become a skilled piano player, that’s inevitable. 

Guitar players often use guitar tabs and chord charts, but if you’re taking piano lessons, there’s no shortcut to learning songs.

Piano players don’t rely on chord charts and variations like lead sheets that much.

Of course, you can always learn how to play songs by ear. And many people claim it’s not necessary to learn notes to play the piano.

But as we mentioned earlier, learning how to read music will ultimately make your piano learning process a whole lot easier – even if it feels challenging or overwhelming at first.

How to Read Piano Sheet Music 

Yes, piano sheet music can look confusing at first glance.

But it’s actually quite straightforward. You’ll just need some time to get used to it.

Gaining sight reading skills takes time, and you’ll need to be patient and persistent. But with enough practice, you’ll be able to read notes effortlessly – and you’ll be able to play any song you like!

With that goal in mind, everything will be easier – even memorizing all those unusual symbols.

But before introducing you to all of the important parts of sheet music, let’s take a look at the musical alphabet. 

Memorizing piano notes and their position on the keyboard is the first step toward understanding standard notation. 

Musical Alphabet 

Starting with C, the musical alphabet has 7 letters: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B

This is also the order you’ll see them on the piano. 

musical alphabet

And black keys have names too. They’re usually sharps or flats, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

After all, it’s important for you to focus on the white keys for now. 

The Grand Staff 

When you look at piano sheet music, you’ll notice the grand staff consisting of two staves, treble and bass clef, joined together with a bracket. 

Each part of the piano grand staff contains five horizontal lines. 

The top part is meant to be played with the right hand, and the bottom staff is for the left hand. 

grand staff

Treble Clef

Now, the symbol you see at the beginning of the top staff (treble staff) is called treble clef.

The treble clef is the most used clef in Western music notation, and it notates the higher registers of music.

Since it circles the G note, it’s also known as the G-clef. 

The treble clef is typically played with the right hand. 

Bass Clef 

And the bass clef is usually with the left hand. 

As it goes around the “F” line on the staff, it’s also known as the F-clef

It’s typically used for instruments that have a lower pitch range, such as the cello, bass guitar, and trombone. 

Horizontal Lines and Spaces 

Each staff consists of five lines with spaces between them. And that’s where the notes are located. 

A note can sit on a line or in a space. And you know which note to play based on its exact position. 

That said, the height of the note is related to its pitch. The higher the line (or space), the higher the pitch. 

Ledger Lines

If you’re supposed to play a note above or below the staff, that note will be written on the ledger line. A ledger line is slightly longer than the note head and it’s drawn parallel to the staff.

ledger lines

The Notes 

Now, let’s focus on the position of each piano note in sheet music.

Take a look at the treble clef first. 

The middle C note is located on the ledger line below the first horizontal line. 

And to find the middle C on the keyboard, find the two black keys in the middle of the piano and press the white key on their left.

music notes

The rest of the notes go in the order we mentioned above: D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

But there’s an easier way to memorize piano notes.

For instance, you can first memorize the notes in the spaces.

musical notes

As you can see, they spell the word FACE. 

If you remember this word, you’ll easily know which note is in which space.

There’s also an easy way to memorize notes on the lines.

music notes

The notes on the lines are E, G, B, D, F. Well, that’s not really a word…

But if you use the sentences “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “Every Girl Boss Does Fine” as acronyms, you’ll memorize the notes very easily.

You can even make up your own sentence if that seems easier.

And when you put all of these notes together, you’ll get this:

complete music notes

And don’t worry – although this might look intimidating at first, there are simple ways to learn piano notes.

For example, you can memorize the position of the G note and then count the notes in relation to this note. If you know where the G note is, you immediately know that a step up from G is A.

Parts of a Note

As you can see, each note consists of the note head, the stem, and the flag.

All music notes have a note head which can be ‘empty’ (white) or ‘filled’ (black), and some of them have stems and flags. 

Stem is a thin line that extends from the note head, and a flag is a curvy mark to the right of the note stem.

Stems and flags will help you determine how long you’re supposed to play that note. 

Now that you can identify and locate notes of the staff, let us introduce you to other important musical symbols and markings. 

Accidentals

In piano sheet music, you will also spot markings placed immediately to the left of (or above) a note. 

accidentals

These signs are called accidentals. 

Accidentals are very common in piano sheet music, and they can tell you to play a different note from the original. 

So, accidentals indicate that the note must be changed in pitch.

A sharp (♯) means you need to raise a note up by one half-step.

A flat () tells you to lower a note down by one half-step.

And a natural () represents the unaltered pitch of a note. A natural cancels all previous accidentals and tells you not to sharpen or flat a note.

On a piano keyboard, all of the black keys can be notated as sharps or flats. 

However, any note can be a sharp or a flat, even the white keys – the note F can also be notated as E-sharp, for instance.

Key Signatures 

Don’t get confused when you notice the same signs as the accidentals at the beginning of the staff. 

These signs are called key signatures. They’re normally positioned between the staff and the time signature. 

The key signature basically highlights if there are any sharps or flats, and therefore determines the key of a musical piece.

key signature

Note Values 

Another crucial thing that piano sheet music tells you is how many beats a note should be played for. 

And you’ll know that by recognizing the time signature and note values.

A note value is the length of the note, and it’s related to how the note looks. 

An ‘empty’ note without a straight stem has 4 beats. And if we’re talking about a 4/4 time signature (the most common time signature), this note will last 4 beats. Therefore, this is also called the whole note.

Generally, the most important notes in sheet music include:

  • whole notes 
  • half notes
  • quarter notes
  • eighth notes. 
key note values

There are also 16th notes. Just like eighth notes, they have flags that can be joined together.

But you probably won’t come across 16th notes in the beginning.

Time Signatures

As we’ve already mentioned, the 4/4 is the most common time signature in music. 

If you see 4/4 on your sheet music, you’ll have to count out 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, and so on. So, each measure consists of four quarter-note beats.

A measure is a unit of music separated by bar lines, vertical lines that cross staves.

Generally, the upper number tells you how many beats there are per measure, and the bottom number tells you what note value takes one beat. 

time signature

Dynamics 

If you want to learn how to play the piano well, you also need to pay attention to dynamics.

Dynamic marks can tell you to play very loud, very soft, or somewhere in between. 

Some of the other common dynamic markings you’ll come across include:

  • Forte (f) – loud
  • Piano (p) – soft
  • Mezzo forte (mf) – moderately loud
  • Mezzo piano (mp) – moderately soft
  • Fortissimo (ff) – very loud
  • Pianissimo (pp) – very soft
  • Crescendo – gradually gets louder
  • Decrescendo – gradually get softer

Expression 

Another important aspect of music reading skills is recognizing the right expression of the musical piece.

As a beginner, you should first learn how to read notes – which note belongs to which line and space, what is the note’s value, and so on.

But adding expression to your performance will ultimately make you sound better.

If you see the word legato in sheet music, you need to play the song lightly. 

Staccato (marked with a dot) tells you to play the note very short and sharp. 

Phrasing means you need to play the notes connected.

Most of the words used in music theory are derived from Italian, German, and French. Therefore, an Italian piano student will know what the previous markings mean right away.

But if you’re not familiar with the language, you can simply learn these words one at a time.

In your piano lessons, you’ll probably come across these common terms:  

  • Largo – play slowly and broadly
  • Allegro – play fast
  • Moderato – play at a moderate speed
  • Presto – play very fast
  • Andante – play at a “walking pace”
  • Lento – play slowly
  • Vivace – play at a lively and fast pace

Finger Numbers for Piano Players

Once you learn all of the basic symbols and markings, you’re ready to play your first songs!

But how can you play a note on the piano if you don’t know which finger to use?

Well, you need to be familiar with the piano finger placement. 

Remember this – your thumb is number 1, the pointer finger is number 2, the middle finger is number 3, the ring finger is number 4, and the pinky is number. 

finger numbers for piano players

And that’s it!

If you’re familiar with the musical alphabet, symbols, and fingering, you’re ready to read piano sheet music.

Just make sure you play something simple first.

Reading Notes for Beginners 

Choosing songs and exercises suitable for your level is important.

For instance, you can first practice notes without accidentals.

Practicing scales also help. If you already know how to play basic piano scales, you can find piano sheet music and read notes while playing the scale.

Counting out loud also helps. This way, you’ll get used to time signatures, measures, and note values.

And while learning notes, try to pay attention to patterns and intervals (the space between two notes.) 

As a beginner, it will take some time to get used to standard notation. Piano sheet music can be complex, but if you take it one step at a time, you’ll be reading notes smoothly and playing your first piece of music in no time.

And as you progress, you will be able to tackle more complex things – you will learn how to read and play chords, for example.

But master the basics first, and leave the more difficult stuff for later. 

Why Learn How to Read Sheet Music?

If learning how to read piano sheet music takes time and practice, while there are easy song tutorials and methods to play the piano by ear, is it really worth it?

Learning how to read music:

  • helps you understand the structure of music
  • allows you to play any song you want
  • allows you to join a band or an orchestra
  • helps you pick up other instruments more easily 

Piano sheet music will introduce you to pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and expression. And all of these elements are important in learning any instrument. 

So why not learn how to play the piano while learning how to read notes?

You can do it simultaneously, as long as you master the fundamentals first. If you start with easy beginner piano songs and note-reading basics, you won’t feel stressed or overwhelmed. 

And don’t worry – the more you practice, the easier it gets. 

Once you get a hang of it, everything will make much more sense, and lines and dots won’t be just lines and dots – they will become music.

music sheet

Standard notation is like a universal language of music. 

If you familiarize yourself with it, you will ultimately become a more complete musician. 

After all, every professional pianist is familiar with standard notation. If you want to become a skilled piano player, learning how to read notes is essential. 

But even if you just want to master the basics, learning notes will make your learning process easier in the long run.

Final Thoughts 

Learning how to read piano notes may not be necessary to play the piano, but it’s very important. 

Gaining sight reading skills are useful in so many ways, and it will ultimately make you a better piano player.

So, learn the basic parts of piano sheet music first, pick a simple song to play, and continue to expand your knowledge.

You’ll be able to read notes with ease sooner than you think! 

If you’re looking for a way to learn to read piano notes and the piano as a whole in a fun and easy way, check out my guide on the best online piano lessons.

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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