Music is everywhere, and we all have the ability to connect to it in a visceral, emotional way. For the uninitiated, however, reading and understanding music on an intellectual level might seem like a task for… someone else. Like most other skills, learning how to read piano sheet music takes dedication and a fundamental understanding of what’s on the page.
We’ve provided a helpful guide to get you started on your musical journey. Hopefully, this will help you understand the fundamentals of sheet music, how to read piano sheet music, and how to expand this knowledge in further musical endeavors.
Sheet music is a visual representation of a piece of music. By using musical symbols, sheet music indicates most, if not all, important aspects of an individual piece. This includes, but is not limited to, melodies, chords, rhythms, and speed—or tempo.
A musician’s ability to sight-read is essential. In the professional world, musicians will encounter a number of situations in auditions, performances, recordings, etc, that will require the ability to read and play simultaneously.
Sheet music also works as a record of existing music, which was much harder to preserve before the invention of the phonograph. In theory, anyone can look at sheet music and recreate the same song.
Let’s go over the elements you’ll always find on sheet music:
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The unmistakable lines that go across piano sheet music are called staff lines and the full set is called the stave. This basic structure allows you to differentiate the notes in a melody.
Within (and past) these lines, you’ll find all the notes, rests, dynamic symbols and measure lines or bar lines that make up a piece of music. There are too many to name here, but if you can identify how different note and rest lengths are denoted, you’re on your way to learning how to read piano sheet music.
At the beginning of each line, you’ll usually notice one of two symbols, called a clef. While there are nine possible clefs, modern music typically employs up to four, of which two are most common: the treble clef and the bass clef.
The treble clef informs you that all the subsequent notes are to be played in a higher octave, while the bass clef is reserved for lower octaves.
Immediately to the right of the clef, you might find a series of sharp (#) or flat (b) symbols. Each individual symbol indicates that the note on that line should be raised or lowered a half note, which when read together indicate the key—or basic group of notes—in which the piece should be played.
Finally, to the right of the key signature, you’ll find the time signature in the form of what appears to be a fraction, though they shouldn’t be read as such.
The top number on the time signature indicates how many beats are included in a measure. The bottom number shows what type of note counts as one beat.
In 4/4 time, or common time, there are four beats in a measure, with the quarter note set as the standard beat. 4 quarter notes in a measure = 2 half notes in a measure = 1 whole note. You can probably see why 4/4 is considered common time. 6/8, on the other hand, would mean there are 6 beat in a measure with an eighth note counting as one beat.
Now we’ve gone over the general makeup of a composition, let’s go over the most effective way to learn to read piano sheet music.
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First things first, you need sheet music!
Like learning to read any new language, when learning how to read piano sheet music, start with a simple, but unfamiliar composition. That means, no jazz: at least to start. You can find a simple piece in a beginner songbook or you can purchase one individually online or at a music store.
Do everything you can to familiarize yourself with the notes on the paper, and the corresponding keys on your piano. You can do this by physically labeling the keys, with a permanent marker, or on a piece of tape, if you’d rather not write directly on the keys. Then, label the lines and spaces on your sheet music. Now, you can see exactly what keys to play based on the notes you see.
On the treble clef, you’ll notice the notes in the spaces, F-A-C-E, are easy to remember. The notes on the lines, E-G-B-D-F, might not be as easy. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” is a common mnemonic device used to remember these notes.
On the bass clef, you can remember the spaces, A-C-E-G, with the phrase, “All Cows Eat Grass.” For the notes on the lines, G-B-D-F-A, use, “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always.”
By employing mnemonic devices, you can eventually graduate from relying on your labels, to knowing each note simply by looking at its position on the stave.
Number your fingers 1-5 starting with your left pinky and right thumb. This is a fairly universal method of referring to the fingers on the piano, and will help you when you begin working on scales and taking further instruction.
Now that you know your notes both on the sheet music and on your piano, get familiar with where your fingers should land on the piano. The black keys are helpful because they come in 2 or 3 note groups, allowing you to deduce where you are on the keyboard at all times.
Using the black keys as a guide, move your fingers over the keyboard until you can comfortably tell which keys your fingers are touching. Once you feel familiar, challenge yourself by trying to find specific notes using this method.
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Before getting into the actual composition, practice some drills that take you up and down different scales. This is where we begin to employ the numbered fingers.
For example: Place your fingers on the keyboard with your left pinky and right thumb resting on the root (1) of the scale you intend to play. C is a good place to start.
Then, ascend up the scale, playing 1-2-3-4, and finally reaching out to 6 with your 5 finger. You’ll notice you’ve jumped up one note in your hand placement.
Now play down the scale back to your 1 finger, which now plays the 2 note. Repeat this until you’ve gradually moved your hands up the entire scale one step at a time. The initial sequence should look like this: C-D-E-F-A-G-F-E, then D-E-F-G-B-A-G-F, and so on.
Practicing scales will not only help your dexterity, but it will also familiarize you with the positions of different keys. The key of G major incorporates a different grouping of notes than the key of B major, but shares the same notes as E minor.
Now, you can read a key signature on paper and immediately know which keys on the piano you’ll be using and you’re ready to learn how to read piano sheet music.
Go through the piece, taking note of the different symbols, and try to imagine the melody as you read through. You can start by playing the first note of the piece as a reference. Tap your hand or foot to the beat of the song, as this will help you understand the rhythm of the piece while your brain works on the melody. When starting out, you can ignore some of the more complex commands, but make sure you can understand how two notes differ in pitch and length.
Look at your composition, place your fingers on the piano, and try to play the piece through… very slowly. Try to keep your finger placement consistent throughout, and as you being to feel more comfortable, try to play the song without looking back and forth between the keys and the composition.
In this step, focus more on the notes you’re playing, to begin building the relationship between your eyes, brain and fingers. When you’re comfortable, begin playing faster.
When you’re at a place where you feel you can at least play the right notes based on what you see, begin reading ahead.
Try to get comfortable looking two notes ahead of what your fingers are playing. This might seem tricky at first, since you’re taking in different information than your fingers are putting out, but as you get more familiar, this too will begin to feel more natural.
Learning how to read piano sheet music, like any skill worth learning, takes time and patience. Aside from the physical act of playing the music, there are infinite musical concepts represented by a multitude of unique symbols, that can only take time to learn. You don’t have to sit for hours on end, but try to dedicate a little time each day to learn how to read piano sheet music, and your skills at playing will improve as well. It won’t take long to learn your first song; do your best to remember that feeling, and appreciate every new song you work to learn. Learning to play music can be frustrating, but even the best musicians are still learning, and improving by mastering new skills, big or small, is what it’s all about.