how to Read Piano Music
Your one stop guide to reading piano sheet music
Learning to read music is such a different skill from actually playing the piano. As part of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning Piano’ series, this section will give you just enough information to begin practicing this amazing skill.
What is musical notation?
Music is a language; and like any language, it has a written form. Notation gives musicians around the world a tool to communicate. A composer writes their piece with specific symbols, and if you can read music, you can understand it, decipher it, and ultimately play it.
Examples of early notation have been found on tablets dating back as far as 2000 BC. Modern’ staff notation’, the method we now use, was created by Catholic monks to standardise church music.
Why should you learn to read music?
Learning to read music takes time and effort. There are no two ways about it, it’s a hard skill to learn.
Some incredible musicians never learned, and there are popular methods that include playing by ear, or by using chord patterns, that ultimately don’t need sheet music.
You can absolutely go down this path if you choose. Just know that like riding a bike, reading music is a skill you never forget – and the pros massively outweigh the cons.
How should you learn to read music?
When you learnt to read and write, did you treat them as the same task? Of course not. Controlling your hand movements with a pen, learning the shapes of letters, understanding how letters join together are all a radically different skill from using your eyes to figure out what a combination of letters spells.
Learning to read music is the same.
Playing the piano is a radically different skill from reading the sheet music in front of you. Many badly experienced teachers try and teach these two elements together – but you know better! Learn them as separate skills that overlap. That way you’ll be successful quicker.
Genres like pop or jazz are often less specific about what the backing instruments play, so full staff notation offers unnecessary detail. Instead, musicians just need to follow a sequence of chords, and then the player improvises around those chords. Applicable for Elton John. Not so much Johann Sebastion Bach.
Basics of Reading Musical Notation
For piano, staff notation is structured around something called the grand staff. This consists of two staves (the name for the lines) of five lines and four spaces, connected by a brace on the left. The top staff is usually marked with a treble clef (the squiggly thing at the start of the line!) and is typically played with the right hand. The lower staff is usually marked with a bass clef (looking like a backwards C) and is typically played with the left hand.
Middle C lies in the gap between the staves, on an imaginary line. Just as it is the centre point on a keyboard, it’s also the centre point on the staff.
Notes can sit on a line or in a space. The vertical position (height) of the note defines the pitch. The higher up the stave, the higher the pitch. If the note needs to go higher or lower than the stave lines, we add mini lines for each note that is higher or lower. These lines are called ledger lines.
To avoid counting up from middle C every time, we can use memory aids to recognise the notes. The four spaces of the treble staff spell out “FACE”.
The five lines of the treble staff are EGBDF. The acronyms that are popular are “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “Every Girl Boss Does Fine.” We personally think these are pretty rubbish, and it’s much more fun to make up your own!
And just for completeness, here is the full Grand Staff, with all notes…
When reading music, we read from left to right. And now we know what position on the stave makes what note, we need a second instruction from the printed symbol. We need to know how long to hold the note for.
The shape of the note tells you how long to play it.
- A whole note (or if you are in the UK, it’s called a Semibreve) is an empty circle and lasts four counts.
- A half note (or if you are in the UK, it’s called a Minim) adds a stem and lasts two counts.
- A quarter note (or if you are in the UK, it’s called a Crotchet) fills in the circle and lasts one count.
How To Read Piano Music - Summary
With that information, if you study it long enough and get used to knowing which line and space equal which note, you’ll be fluent in reading music in no time. Once you are comfortable with the Treble Clef, you should then start figuring out the Bass Clef. The same principle applies.
Of course, there are many additional factors to eventually learn – but for now, that should give you a great headstart!
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