How to Read Piano Notes and Sheets – A Beginner’s Guide

One of the first things you need to do as a beginner pianist is to learn to read music sheet. While learning piano you will constantly want to play the music you hear randomly on the radio. Or involve with your friends who can play musical instruments and have fun. Being able to read music sheet makes it possible to achieve all this. Learning the basics of sheet music is really simpler than you thought.

The symbols you see on the pages have been used for hundreds of years. It is like reading an old book. Learning music opens up a whole new world for you to explore. Follow these step-by-step instructions, and you will be able to play from a music sheet in no time.

Step 1: The symbols

Music is made of a variety of symbols. So, step 1 is to learn the symbols in a music sheet. The most basic symbols are the staff, the clefs, and the notes. These are the fundamental components and all music contain these.

The staff

Being a beginner pianist you already know that the music sheet has horizontal lines on it. The notes or the symbols are all made on these lines. These lines are called the staff. A music sheet contains 5 lines and 4 spaces. These spaces have a specific meaning and representation. They have a reason for being there. Each of these spaces and lines represents a different letter. They signify notes named A-G which move up the staff alphabetically.

Treble Clef

There are 2 types of clef in music. The first one is known as Treble Clef. The Treble Clef is the ornamental ‘&’ type symbol at the left end of the staff. When you read sheet music, the Treble Clef is the first thing you will encounter. The Treble Clef indicates the approximate range in which to play your piano. It is also known as the G Clef. In Treble Clef, the 5 lines of the staff will have the notes E G B D F on the lines from bottom-up. Also, the four spaces represent the notes F A C E., in the beginning, it may seem that it is a lot to remember. But an easy way to do that is to make a mnemonic. The notes on the line make the following sentence ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’.

Bass Clef

Also referred to as the F Clef, it is used for lower pitches like the left hand in the piano. The staff on the Bass Clef will represent different notes on the sheet than the Treble Clef. The name is derived because of the two dots of the clef which lie above and below the “F” line on the staff. From bottom to top, the lines represent the notes G B D F A while the spaces represent A C E G. The popular mnemonic for these are ‘Good Boys Don’t Fool Around’ and ‘All Cows Eat Grass’ respectively.

The Notes

The notes on the staff tell you which letter note to play on your piano and for how long. A note is made of three basic elements: the note head, the stem, and the flag.

The note head is the oval shape which is either black or white. The black oval is a closed note while the white oval is open note. It tells you which note to play on your piano.

The thin vertical line attached to the note head is called a stem. When the stem extends up on the line, it joins the notehead on the right side. When the stem extends down on the lines, it joins the notehead on the left. The left or right joining does not affect how you play the note. It just allows them to fit cleanly on the staff and makes reading the sheet easier.

The flag is the curvy stroke that attaches to the end of the stem. The flag is always drawn on the right side of the stem and tells you how long to hold the note.

Step 2: Playing the notes

Now that you know what are notes, let us see what it means. A closed note head with a stem is the quarter note and gets one beat. An open note with the stem is the half note and it gets 2 beats. A whole note is an open note which looks like an “o” and has no stem. It gets 4 beats. The length of these notes can be extended by the placement of dot. A dot after a note head extends the note’s duration by another half note.

Similarly, the opposite can also be done. To shorten the note we add flags or beams. A flag makes the notes faster. A flag halves the value of a note. So one flag on a quarter note means ½ of a quarter note and two flags mean 1/4th of a quarter note. To make the sheet less cluttered, instead of flags we can use beams too. Beams are the horizontal lines at the base of a stem.

Step 3: Time and Meter

Before playing the music on the piano, you need to understand the time signature or the meter of the music. A meter is nothing but a beat, a tap or a clap; the pulse of the music. On the music sheet, you will see there is a number written on it which look like a fraction with the middle line of the staff in between both the numbers. Usually, this is called the music’s time signature.

The number on the top tells you how many beats to measure and the number on the bottom tells you the note value of each beat. So if you see the number 4/4 beside the Treble Clef, it means 4 beats per bar and each quarter note equals to one beat. 4/4 is the easiest time signature to understand and is also called the “common time”.

Step 4: Melody

Once you are through steps 1 and 2, you can read the sheet music. The next step is the scale. A scale is made of consecutive notes. The C Major Scale is taught as the first step towards reading music because it uses just the white keys. Once you have that locked in your brain, the rest becomes easy.

The C Scale starts with from below the staff line and is made of 8 notes which go up with every line. There is a small line passing through the note head which means we add staff line to that note only.

By this time, you not only should be able to read music but also imagine how it sounds like.

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As a beginner level pianist, the sheet music may feel a little intimidating, but once you get the hold of it, it comes naturally. Learning to sing the notes also helps, though it can be a little difficult. Practice the C major scale looking at the music sheet and sing along with it. It will help you memorize.
Congratulations, now you can read music.

About the Author Wendell A Wiese

I'm the lead researcher and content manager at PianoNadu. I test various different digital pianos and share our unbiased reviews here. We test them on various different aspects and make sure it passes our quality criteria. During my college years, I was a part of my college band known as DMT. I was the Pianist in our band. My love for playing the piano grew during middle school. Read more about me here