How to read piano sheet music: a beginner’s guide

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

If you’re taking up the piano and want to learn to read sheet music for it, this article will tell you everything that you need to know. It offers a guide that will help you acquire the knowledge and skills to make your playing ambitions a reality.

There are a few aspects to learning to read piano sheet music. It involves learning to understand the language of music notation as well as getting to grips with how that notation is used in music written for the piano. 

So, we’re going to bear both obstacles in mind as we break the process down into more digestible steps. First, some background.
 

Same sheet music, different instruments


The majority of piano sheet music utilises Western music notation. This is a language that transcends instruments, functioning more or less in the same way regardless of the instrument in question.

So if you had a piece of sheet music for saxophone and another for violin in front of you, and any references to either instrument were erased, you’d have to know a fair bit about how violins and saxophones work to be able to tell which piece was for which instrument. 

But this doesn’t mean that different instruments don’t present different challenges. Far from it. The music itself might be written in the same way, but when it comes to reading and playing it, what each instrument demands of its player is unique.
 

Sheet music for piano


One of the piano’s demands is for the player to read music written across two staves, on what’s known as a grand staff. That’s two parallel lines of music to be read at the same time. It can be daunting, and many beginners have been put off by it. 

This challenge is common to all keyboard instruments, and some others too. At least we’re not taking on the organ - music for that is written on three staves. 

Further specifics to take into account with piano sheet music include fingering, pedalling and more. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we’ll turn to learning to read music notation.

How to read piano sheet music

If you don’t know how to read sheet music, you will soon. Let’s break down music notation into its various parts and examine them one at a time. 

  1. The stave
  2. Clefs
  3. Notes and keys
  4. The octave
  5. The ‘notes in between’
  6. The key signature
  7. The time signature
  8. Real-life piano sheet music example
  9. Bonus tips for reading piano sheet music

The stave


The stave is the foundation of notation. Across these five lines, all sheet music unfolds. Those lines represent musical pitches, sound frequencies that we know better as C, G, F-sharp, B-flat, and so on. 

Notes are placed on the stave to indicate which pitch is to be played. The higher the note on the stave, the higher the pitch of the note heard. And the lower the note, the lower the pitch.

Clefs


The note that each line represents changes according to the clef in use. There are a few clefs out there, but pianists really only need to know two: the treble and bass clefs.

The treble clef fixes the following pitches to the lines (from the bottom line to the top): E, G, B, D and F. So when a note appears on those lines, those pitches should be played. Notes also go in the spaces between the lines, which are aligned to the pitches F, A, C and E (from the first space to the uppermost). 

The bass clef, on the other hand, fixes the pitches G, B, D, F and A to the lines, while the pitches in between become A, C, E and G. There are a few mnemonics out there to help you remember these pitches, such as 'every good boy deserves flowers’ and ‘grizzly bears don’t fear anything’.

Regardless of the clef, you’ll notice that each step between line and space marks one note. Notes can also appear above and below the stave on floating ledger lines, and the C that’s one ledger line below the treble clef’s E is the same C that’s above the bass clef’s G, known as middle C.

In this way, the two staves are connected. One flows into the other. Together they create a framework which becomes filled out with music notation. 

This also happens to be the stave arrangement used in piano music. Most instruments read music on one stave using a treble or bass clef, but you’ll recall that piano music is written on two staves, each with a different clef, arranged as in the image above, which features the grand staff.

Notes and keys


You might be thinking, ‘what do all those letters mean?’ A keyboard is the best tool to help you answer that question. Which is just as well, as we’re here to learn how to read piano sheet music.

Each note on a stave corresponds to a piano key which sounds that note when pressed. Understanding which note is to be played and when, by reading the pattern of notes on a piece of sheet music, is the fundamental process of music-making. 

If you look at a keyboard you’ll see that this pattern of keys repeats. The easiest way to spot it is by looking at the black keys. You’ll see that a pair black keys sits alongside a group of three. Then another group of two and then three. And so on.

The octave


This recurring pattern is an octave. An octave is the gap - or interval - between two pitches that are the same note, even if one is a higher or lower tone than the other. This gap spans seven notes – A through G. And because the octave repeats, so do the letters.

On a keyboard, this gap spans seven white keys – those you see in the image above. The black keys in between are separate notes, meaning that each octave in fact contains twelve notes, but we’ll come back to that. The image below depicts all the notes between middle C, and the C an octave above it. 

The notes in between


Now that we understand how the white keys correspond to notes on the stave, we can come back to the black keys - the notes in between. As we covered, these five keys bring the number of notated pitches within an octave to twelve.

Each one sits halfway between two white keys, and the gap between a black key and its neighbours is known as a semitone. Sometimes in a piece of music notes are lowered or raised by a semitone, and when this happens the black keys are called on.  

Notes are lowered with a flat (♭) and raised with a sharp (♯). These symbols are known as accidentals, and they appear next to the note to be played.

If you refer back to that octave diagram, you’ll see where the flat and sharp notes are located. It’s worth knowing that notes that are two semitones apart, such as A and B, or F-sharp and G-sharp, are separated by a whole tone.

Looking at the diagram, you might also notice that the notes B and C, as well as E and F, are right next to each other. Although they’re not separated by a black key, they’re also a semitone apart. 

It’s worth knowing that Bs and Es can be sharpened, while Cs and Fs can be flattened, even though a B-sharp is the same tone as a C, an F-flat is the same as an E, and so on. This only happens in certain musical situations in order to accommodate the way that Western classical music is tonally constructed.

Key signature


Most pieces of music are written in a key, which is indicated by a key signature at the far left-hand side of a music staff.

At its simplest, a key is a group of notes that forms the framework of a piece of music. Usually, there are seven notes in this group and they can be expressed in a scale. Scales are arranged in a particular sequence of whole tones and semitones that can begin and end on any of the twelve notes within an octave.

The notes of the C-major scale, shown in the image above correspond to the notes of the C-major key. Pieces in that key will focus on those notes, while pieces in the key of A major mostly use the notes of the A-major scale: A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, and G♯.

The key signature, a group of flats or sharps – or none at all – next to the clef, indicates the key of the music. When playing, it’s crucial to remember the key signature because it will apply the key’s sharps or flats to the notes of the piece automatically. The symbols won’t always appear next to the sharpened or flattened notes.

Below is a diagram that matches keys to their corresponding key signatures. It's imperative to commit these relationships to memory as soon as possible - it'll boost your progress massively.

Time signature


Stepping out of the static vertical world of tones, we enter a horizontal one. Music is a phenomenon that only comes to life with movement in time. So we’re going to take a look at how to navigate the notes of a piece of music, one after another. 

Most pieces of music sound to a pulse, which can be broken down into a repeating group of beats. Usually there are three or four beats in a group, but not always. On sheet music, these are written as bars or measures, which come one after the other from the beginning of a piece to its end. Each is separated by a vertical line - a bar line.

Next to the clef and key signature you’ll find the time signature, which indicates the composition of this group of beats, or the metre. It comprises two numbers, one sitting on top of the other – shown below. The top number indicates how many beats there are per bar.

The bottom number indicates the note value to which each beat is equivalent. Note value refers to the duration of a note, relative to the beat. That’ll be expanded on soon. 

The speed of the beat and the piece is dictated by the tempo. Tempo instructions are found above the clef and the key and time signatures. Sometimes it’ll specifically define the beats per minute, which a metronome can help you to interpret. 

It might also offer a verbal indication, such as ‘slow’ or ‘allegro’. These terms define the tempo more loosely, but do carry particular meanings, which you can learn about here

Bear in mind as well that time signatures (and key signatures, for that matter) can shift in the middle of a piece.

Rhythm


With time, beats and tempo in mind, the next logical thing to focus on is rhythm. This brings us back to the concept of note value. 

Let’s imagine that a piece is in 4/4. It’ll begin with a time signature, like the one above. The top four tells us that every bar – that’s every repeating group of beats – contains four beats. The bottom four tells us that each beat is what’s known as a crotchet, or a quarter note

You can see what crotchets and the other note values look like on the diagram below. The crotchets are the four notes on the third stave. 

Now, the real-time duration of a crotchet is relative to the tempo of the piece, and it isn’t always equal to one beat, but one thing that never changes is the value of each type of note relative to each other.

Think of the image above as a bar, which contains four crotchets – as our time signature indicates. Four crotchets can be broken down further into eight quavers (or eighth notes), sixteen semiquavers (sixteenth notes), or 32 demisemiquavers (32nd notes). 

Going up, four crotchets are equal to two minims (half notes) or one semibreve (whole note). The rhythm of the music in a bar can be written out using any kind of combination of these note values – as long as their combined note value doesn’t exceed the limit set by the time signature.

If any note is dotted, appearing with a small dot to the right of the notehead, then you should add half the value of the note. So the duration of a dotted crotchet is equal to that of a crotchet and quaver combined.

Reading sheet music: An example


Enough talk – let’s take on some real-life notation and put into practice what we’ve covered so far. Below you can see a few bars of music, which we’re going to work through. We’re going to stick with just one stave to keep things simple.

Clef, key and time


The first thing we can see is a treble clef, which tells us the pitches that the noteheads indicate. Secondly, the time signature tells us that every bar is composed of four beats, each equivalent to a crotchet. 

It might look like there isn’t a key signature, but there is. The key just contains no flats or sharps, which means that it will be either C major or the minor key that shares the same signature, known as the relative minor. In this case, it’s A minor.

Bar 1


Placed in the third space up, the first note of the first bar is C. It’s a semibreve, meaning it’s equivalent in value to four crotchets, so it’s going to fill the entire first bar. Starting on C will also ground the key in C major as opposed to A minor.

If you have a piano nearby, then you can go ahead and strike that C one octave above middle C, which is the closest C to the centre of the keyboard. Hold it for four beats at whatever tempo you’re comfortable with.

Bar 2


Moving over the bar line, the next note is a B. The hollow notehead and stem tell us that it’s a minim, and is to be held for two crotchet beats.

Held for the next two crotchet beats is another minim, this time on middle C, seven white keys below the B. If there was any doubt about the key of this passage, it should be firmly settled now.

Bar 3


The music on the far side of the second bar line might look a little more daunting. The new time signature immediately changes the beat grouping. The top number indicates that there are two beats in the new grouping, while the bottom number tells us that, like the preceding bars, that grouping comprises crotchet beats.

That means the bar is half the length - a simple division. The first note is a crotchet on the second F above middle C. Hold that for a beat.

The second beat of the third bar contains three notes. The first is an A, six keys below the F. It’s also a quaver, as the opaque notehead and single flag tells us (quavers can be beamed as in the diagram above or alone like this one), so it’s to be held for just half a beat. 

The final two notes are the F-sharp and E-flat below the A. They’re both semiquavers, so each is half the length of the previous quaver. Together, those final three notes will last for the same amount of time as the high F that comes before them.

That’s our passage – and that’s reading music. Hopefully it wasn’t too difficult to follow. As mentioned before, there are a few things that set music for piano apart from that for other instruments. Let’s run through that next.

Bonus tips for reading piano sheet music


Familiarising yourself with all the nuances of piano sheet music is a long journey. But there are few things that are still worth getting your head around, even at this early stage.
 

Reading music on a grand staff


We’ve already touched on how piano sheet music combines two staffs (almost always using the treble and bass clefs) to form a grand staff. So when playing piano, you’re going to have to keep an eye on two staves of music simultaneously, with your left hand covering the lower staff, and your right the upper.

There’s no magic technique that’ll make this challenging aspect of piano-playing easier, but it can be helpful to focus on how notes are positioned relative to each other as opposed to where they appear on the stave itself. The article on how to read sheet music faster goes into this subject area in a bit more detail.  

Thinking vertically as opposed to horizontally, a key principle to remember is that notes positioned in line with each other across the two staves should be played together. On the other hand, notes that don’t appear in line – such as the three quavers underneath the minim in the first bar above – are not played at the same time. 

Soon you’ll come to intuitively understand all of this, and eventually you’ll reach the point where you can scan both staves at once and quickly register the placement of all the notes. Like all things, practice makes perfect. 
 

Fingering


Looking towards the wide world of extended notation, it contains far more than we can cover here, but you should get acquainted with a couple of things.

The first is fingering. On that extract of music above you’ll notice that some numbers appear by some of the notes. You’ll see a lot of these, particularly in pieces of piano music for beginners. These are fingering instructions, in place to demonstrate the most efficient way to play by indicating which finger you should use to strike each note. 

That first D in the right hand has a one above it, so you should use your thumb. The ‘2’ below the penultimate note in the left hand tells you to use your index finger. ‘3’ refers to the middle finger, and so on. The numbers match the same fingers in the left hand, too.
 

Pedalling


Another thing to be mindful of is pedalling. If you have a piano, you’ll have noticed that it has pedals. The one used most frequently is the sustain pedal, usually the one on the right.

By lifting all the dampers away from the strings, it allows notes that you play to endure after you’ve lifted your finger from the key. This creates a smoother and more resonant sound, and can help to fill in the gaps between notes.  

You’ll find instructions detailing when the pedal is to be depressed and lifted under the stave, like in the musical excerpt below. The ‘Ped’ symbols indicate that the pedal is to be used, while the asterisk-like icons indicate that it is to be lifted.

Next steps


It’s been stated a few times already, but when it comes to learning to read piano music, this is only the beginning. It’d be great to guide you a little further, but there’s only so much that we can cover here. 

You should definitely check out this music theory cheat sheet, which offers a helpful, accessible summary of what we’ve covered, while introducing a range of new concepts. Download it, keep it to hand and let it support you in your journey to becoming a great piano-player.

Moving forward, spend some time getting to know about dynamics and articulation in particular. They’re common to music written for all instruments, but no less important to piano-playing. 

At the risk of sounding boring, practice makes perfect. Keep working on it, and before long reading piano sheet music is something that you’ll be able to do without thinking. It might seem tough at first, but you will get there. 

Keen for similar content? If you’ve ever felt like getting creative with your playing, then you might find this guide to writing piano sheet music of interest. There are also a few articles that are geared towards beginner pianists but have a slightly different emphasis. Check out piano notespiano keys and piano chords for beginners. 

There’s only so much that you can learn from text though. Of far greater importance is the sheet music itself, and your learning to read it. You’ll find a world of piano sheet music on nkoda. Get discovering, and put all this theory into practice. 

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