The future of music

How to Read Piano Sheet Music: Simple Tips

August 4, 2023
How to read piano sheet music

Truth be told, you don’t have to be able to read music to play the piano.

But if you want to become a complete musician and really understand music, learning piano sheet music is a must.

Standard notation is the main language of music, and becoming familiar with it will ultimately bring your piano skills to another level.

So today we’ll show you how to read piano sheet music in a quick and easy way.

By the end of the article, you’ll realize that reading piano sheet music isn’t as difficult as it looks.

How to Read Piano Sheet Music 

Piano sheet music has a reputation for being hard to learn. And many online piano programs and apps don’t teach in-depth music theory (or they don’t teach it at all.)

And we believe that’s a problem.

Learning how to read piano notes is an integral part of every piano school’s curriculum.

Familiarizing yourself with standard notation is the best way to learn how music works, and every piano teacher knows that.

Piano sheet music will introduce you to notes, rhythm, dynamics, expression, and other elements necessary for playing the piano.

You can also think of piano sheet music as a medium to communicate. If someone writes down a piece of music, if you have sight reading skills, you’ll be able to play it on the piano. 

Using notation is as old as music itself, and people have been writing music since we’ve been able to write at all. The earliest fragment of musical notation is found on a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet.

Musical notation has been through many changes and innovations over the centuries, and the sheet music form we know today was created by Catholic monks with the aim to standardize church music.

piano sheet

As you can see, learning piano sheet music is like getting to know a piece of history. It’s sort of like learning a new language.

From that perspective, anyone can do it, but the learning process can also be challenging.

Honestly, getting comfortable with reading notes takes time. You’ll need a lot of practice before you can read notes effortlessly.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. On the contrary – learning how to read sheet music will help you in so many ways.

What is Piano Sheet Music?

Understanding piano sheet music is crucial for understanding how to play a certain musical piece.

Symbols in musical notation indicate the pitches, rhythms, or chords, and they will tell you everything you need to know to play something as it’s supposed to be played. 

So, piano players use sheet music to play any song they want.

Sight reading skills – the ability to read a piece of music for the first time and play as you go – are extremely useful.

Whether you’re playing the piano or any other instrument, sight reading will allow you to play any song you want as long as you find the sheet music you need.

Of course, gaining sight reading skills takes time. Even when you memorize all the symbols and markings, you won’t be able to read sheet music smoothly.

But the more you practice, the easier it gets. And eventually, you’ll be able to read notes just like you’re reading this article.

But how are you supposed to gain those skills? Is it really as hard as some people say?

How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Piano sheet music might look confusing at first. But it will all make sense once you learn what each musical symbol represents.

Before moving on to the most important parts of sheet music, let us remind you of the piano notation.

Starting with C, the musical alphabet has 7 letters: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. And that’s the order in you’ll see them on the piano. 

piano sheet music

The black keys you see on your keyboard are half-steps: sharps and flats. We’ll explain this in a bit.

The Grand Staff

You’ll recognize a piece of piano sheet music by its grand staff. The grand staff consists of two staves, treble and bass clef, joined together with a bracket. 

So, the piano grand staff basically has two parts, and each part 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

The symbol you see at the beginning of the top 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. It’s typically played with the right hand. 

The treble clef circles the G note, and that’s why it’s also known as the G-clef. 

Bass Clef 

The bass clef is also known as the F-clef. So as you might assume, it goes around the “F” line on the staff.

The bass clef is typically used for instruments that have a lower pitch range, such as the cello, bass guitar, and trombone. And in piano playing, it’s usually played with the left hand. 

Lines and Spaces 

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

So, a note can sit on a line or on a space. And you know which note to play depending on the space or line it’s positioned on.

Also, 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, it 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 

You’re already familiar with the musical alphabet. Now, let’s see how to identify these notes in sheet music.

Let’s focus on the treble clef and the top staff first.

The position of the middle C note in staff notation is actually easy to memorize. It’s a note on the ledger line below the first horizontal line. So it’s a note that looks like a note with a hat.

If you don’t know how to find the middle C on the keyboard, just 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 in the treble clef go in the order we mentioned before: D, E, F, G, A, B, and C again.

So if you only take a look at the notes in the spaces, you’ll get the word “FACE” – and this is a great way to memorize them.

music notes

And if you want to memorize the notes on the lines, you can use “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “Every Girl Boss Does Fine” acronyms. 

music notes

When you put all of that together, the piano notes look like this:

full music notes

At first glance, all of these notes might seem intimidating, but if you try to play them on the piano everything will make more sense.

You can also help yourself by memorizing the position of one note (G note, for example), and then counting the notes in relation to this note.

So, if you know where the G note is, you immediately know that a step up from G is A.

Furthermore, each note consists of the note head, the stem, and the flag.

All music notes have a note head which can be ‘empty’ 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. But we’ll come back to this in a moment.

Accidentals

You might also spot markings placed immediately to the left of (or above) a note. 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. In other words, they indicate that the note must be changed in pitch.

accidentals

When you see a sharp (♯), you need to raise a note 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. So a natural cancels all previous accidentals and tells you not to sharp 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 sharp or flat, even the white keys. For example, note F can also be notated as E-sharp.

Key signatures 

In piano sheet music, you’ll also notice the same signs as the accidentals at the beginning of the staff.

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

key signatures

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

Note values

Another thing you need to learn to read music is the length of each note. And you can find out ‘how long’ the note is going to last based on how it looks.

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

Besides whole notes, there are half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes

note values

Time signatures 

To truly understand how rhythm in piano music works, you also need to be familiar with time signatures. 

A time signature determines the rhythm of the song, and it consists of two numbers. 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

The most common time signature in music is 4/4. This means that each measure consists of four quarter-note beats.

In this case, you’ll have to count out 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, and so on. So, a time signature also determines the way you count.

Dynamics

The beauty of sheet music is that it doesn’t only tell you what to play – it also tells you how to play it. 

For instance, there are markings on sheet music that will tell you whether you need to play something loud or soft. This is what pianists refer to as dynamics. 

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

Other common symbols on piano sheet music refer to expression.

For example, the word legato indicates that you need to play something 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.

There are also words that tell piano players how to play the whole piece. These words can indicate the atmosphere of the song, and they are mainly executed by adjusting the tempo. 

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

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

During your piano learning process, you’ll probably encounter some of the following terms for expression:  

  • 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

Should I Learn to Read Piano Sheet Music? 

As you can see, you need to memorize many symbols, markings, and terms if you want to be able to read music. 

So is learning to read standard music notation worth the effort?

person playing piano

Well, as we’ve already mentioned, standard notation is the main and universal language of music. And although it might seem challenging at first, learning sheet music will actually make things easier for you.

Besides being able to understand the structure of the musical piece, once you develop your sight-reading skills, you’ll be able to play any song you want with ease. 

Finally, every professional pianist is familiar with standard notation. So if you want to become a skilled piano player, learning how to read notes is simply inevitable.

Tips for Reading Sheet Music for Piano

But learning how to read notes doesn’t have to be difficult or tedious. Many online piano lessons and courses teach notes in an interesting and engaging way. 

But even if you’re learning notes by yourself, there are ways to make the process easier and more effective.

For instance, you could break it down into smaller chunks. For example, you can start by reading and playing single notes before moving on to chords. 

Practicing scales is a great way to learn notes. Just make sure you look at the sheet music while playing them, even after you memorize them. 

Also, try to explore different rhythms and tempos. This will help you become familiar with note lengths and develop a feel for rhythm. 

Finally, don’t forget to count. In the beginning, we strongly suggest you count out loud – this will help you keep time and you won’t get lost in sheet music. Tools such as metronomes can also be very helpful here. 

Now, let’s quickly summarize our tips for reading piano sheet music:

  • tackle the basics first
  • break it into smaller chunks
  • practice scales
  • count out loud
  • use a metronome
  • play a variety of rhythms 
piano with music sheet

Where to Get Piano Sheet Music? 

Luckily, the piano is one of the most popular instruments to learn. And that’s why there are so many options for buying sheet music. 

First of all, you can visit a local music store or a library to check if they have the sheet music or sheet music book you’re interested in. 

But the easiest way to get sheet music is to buy it or download it online. 

  • IMSLP, also known as Petrucci Music Library, provides a huge library of sheet music and scores
  • Music Notes is a good place to purchase piano sheet music online
  • 8notes offers free sheet music for piano and covers a variety of genres (jazz piano, film music for piano, classical music, etc.)

If you need some inspiration for picking a good song to play, check out our list of easy piano songs for beginners.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to read piano sheet music might be challenging, but we promise – it will be worth it in the end.

And it’s actually not as complicated as it looks. You just need to become familiar with the parts of sheet music and, of course, practice.

Sight reading is a valuable skill, but it will ultimately help you become a better musician and learn how to play piano better.

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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