Piano notes 101: complete beginner’s guide

02.02.2022 Ben Maloney Piano

This blog has already posted a series of articles touching on interaction with piano sheet music. Together they approach the subject in a range of ways, identifying and tackling different focus areas, such as interpreting staff notation and developing sight-reading skills.

The article aims to bring all these topics into one space, giving you a comprehensive and accessible guide to reading, learning and playing notes for and on the keyboard. 

We’ll be looking at these various questions in context and detail and providing links to these other articles where appropriate, so that you can concentrate on whichever skills you want to hone. 

Here it is, then: the complete guide to piano notes.

What are the notes on a piano?
 

Look at a piano keyboard and you’ll see a recurring pattern of black and white keys. Below you can see a graphic of this pattern, indicating the pitch that each key sounds. 

Wherever this grouping appears on the keyboard, the notes will have the names that you can see above - A through G. This is because the pitches and their names cycle round and round, even though any given note will still be higher or lower than another with the same name. This phenomenon is to do with the construction of sound waves and the way our ears perceive them.

The gap between one note and the note above or below it with the same name is called an octave, because one is eight steps away from the other. So, you can think of the image above as a piano octave.

Piano sheet music tells us which keys need to be struck and when, in order to play a particular piece of music. It does this through notes, which correspond to the piano keys depicted above. In order to read and play music, you need to understand the relationship between notes and keys.

The article on piano keys for beginners explores keys in far more detail, so if you’re unsure about anything to do with the keyboard, it should clear things up for you. 

How does that correspond to sheet music?
 

The image below shows you how notes appear on a musical stave, what pitches they indicate, and how that all relates to the keyboard you saw above.

Middle C, which is circled above, is the C closest to the centre of the keyboard. From there you can work your way up or down - one white key, and one note, at a time. 

That image will serve as a useful reference tool if you simply want to know how notated pitches relate to a piano keyboard, but if you want to learn how to read a piece of sheet music, then we’ll have to delve a little deeper.

Learning to read piano notes
 

Reading and playing through piano sheet music involves more than just identifying notes and playing the corresponding keys. So we’re going to break down staff notation further, so that you can develop a comprehensive ability to read notated piano music.

Staves and clefs
 

As you can see in the image above, the notes are written across five parallel lines, known collectively as the stave. Particular musical pitches are fixed to its lines and the spaces in between them. What those pitches are depends on the clef that appears at the far left of the stave.

Piano music is written across two parallel staves of music, known as a grand staff. The upper stave utilises the treble clef, the lower stave the bass clef. There are other types of clef, but pianists will only really need to know these two. The right hand plays the notes that appear on the treble stave, and the left plays those on the bass stave. 

The image above outlines the pitches fixed to each stave by each clef. The two staves run into one another, with middle C positioned halfway between them, as the image above indicates. 

The image below illustrates the corresponding pitches of notes placed on the lines and spaces of a grand staff. By learning the mnemonics shown, you can more quickly commit the notes to memory. Bear in mind that notes can be written above the top stave and below the bottom one - these are written on floating ledger lines.

Accidentals and key signatures
 

The notes shown above only take into account the white keys on a piano, which have the standard note names shown. But in between some of the white keys there are black ones. The gap between each black key and the white keys either side of it is a semitone. These can also be referred to as half notes or half steps.

Note that white keys positioned right next to each other - B and C, and E and F - are also just a semitone apart. Gaps of two semitones are known as whole tones - also known as whole notes or whole steps.

Black keys come into play when one of the white notes we’ve already looked at is either raised or lowered by a semitone. This is indicated with symbols known as accidentals. Notes are raised - or sharpened - with a sharp (♯) and lowered - or flattened - with a flat (♭). A third type of accidental, called a natural (♮), cancels out previous sharps and flats.

Looking back to the piano octave above, you can see more clearly how this process works. You’ll notice that each black key can be referred to in two ways - whether it’s a sharp or a flat depends on the musical context.

In sheet music, accidentals appear next to the note that’s to be played, but they can also appear next to the clef at the far left of the stave, as part of a key signature. The image below shows you what key signatures look like, and which keys they refer to. These are arranged in a diagram known as the circle of fifths, which also outlines the relationships between the signatures.

Key signatures can either take the form of a group of sharps, a group of flats, or an absence of either. They not only indicate the key of the piece but also tell you which notes should always be flattened or sharpened in a piece of music - unless a natural symbol cancels this out.

Time signatures and rhythm
 

You’ve learned how to read the pitches notated in a piece of music - now you just need to know when to play them. Now we’ll look at how to work and play through notes one after another in real time.

Music is usually played to a pulse, which can be divided into a repeating group of beats. In most cases, there are three or four beats in a group. These beat groupings are written out as bars - or measures. Each bar is separated by a vertical line - a bar line. Below you can see bars and bar lines in action. 

At the far left of the stave, next to the clef and key signature, you’ll see a time signature. This tells you how the beat grouping is constructed, through two numbers. The number at the top indicates how many beats are in one bar, while the bottom number assigns a note value to each beat. We’ll learn more about note values soon. 

The tempo of a piece controls the speed of the beat, or the frequency of its recurrence. This is set above the stave at the beginning of the music. Sometimes, beats per minute - bpm - will be defined exactly, but you’ll also come across tems such as ‘moderato’ that set the tempo more loosely. You can find out more about these terms here

Rhythm refers broadly to a piece’s pulse and beat, but it can also describe how long notes sound for against that beat. The term ‘note value’, which we encountered above, refers to the duration of each note relative to the beat. In other words, it indicates how long each note lasts within a bar. 

The diagram below shows you the most common note values, and how their durations all relate to each other. If you ever see a dot next to (and not above or below) a notehead, just increase the length of the note by half its original value.  

With those note values in mind, we can now interpret a time signature. If a piece’s time signature is 3/4, for example, the upper three tells us that there are three beats in a bar, while the bottom four tells us that each beat is equivalent to a crotchet - or a quarter note. That means that there are three crotchets in a bar.

If the bottom number were eight, then there would be three quavers - or eighth notes - per bar. If it were sixteen, there’d be three semiquavers - or sixteenth notes - per bar, and so on. This is just how time signatures work, despite the fact that quarter notes aren't always equivalent to a quarter of a bar.

By bringing the concepts of time signature and note value together, you can interpret a notated rhythm. And by applying what you know about pitch to a sequence of notes, you can begin to fully interpret passages of notated music.

How to read piano sheet music
 

This information amounts to the building blocks of reading piano notes, but this other post on how to read piano sheet music not only explores these concepts in more detail, but will also introduce you to a few new aspects as well. It’s definitely worth checking out if anything you read above wasn’t totally clear to you. 

On a slight tangent, something that can really help you to get to grips with notes more easily is composing - you’d be surprised how much it accelerates the learning process. If that’s of interest to you, then find out more about it in this article on how to write piano sheet music.

How long does it take to learn piano notes?
 

Reading sheet music is something that anyone can learn to do at any time, but it can be a long process. In effect, it involves becoming fluent with a completely new communication system. It can take years to go from familiarising yourself with the basic principles of musical notation, to being able to quickly interpret and play an entire piece of sheet music.

But that process might also just take a matter of months. Ultimately, it comes down to what exactly it is you want to learn, how quickly you can absorb it, and how much time you can devote to it. It’s woefully cliché, but - as with any other skill - developing this ability requires practice. 

If you’re able to dedicate regular and focused time to learning the notes, it’s possible to commit them to memory fairly quickly, maybe even in a matter of weeks. But developing an ability to instantly interpret piano music, and potentially to play it on sight, will take a lot longer. It takes some players years to get to that kind of level. 

This article - how long does it take to learn to read music - goes into more detail on this, taking into account a range of contexts and objectives. In any case, the most important thing to remember is that it’s a skill that you can acquire by yourself and that’s never too late to turn to. All that’s needed is a bit of determination. 

Reading piano notes faster
 

Once you’ve come to terms with the basics of reading sheet music, you’ll be in a position to start working towards being able to comprehend it without thinking. 

At that point, reading notes on the stave will come as naturally to you as reading the words in this sentence. You might want to reach this stage simply so that you can glean musical information as fluently as possible, or you might be looking to hone your sight-reading skills, which would allow you to read and play through a piece right there in the moment. 

In either case, the more time you spend with sheet music in front of you and keys under your fingers, the quicker that knowledge will become cemented. Practice, practice, practice, and before long it’ll all be second nature.

There are a few tips and tricks that you can try out, though, which may encourage faster progress, with regard to reading and to the learning process itself. You can read about these in this article on how to read sheet music faster

So far, we’ve focused on basic note recognition, a method that forms the foundation of proficient reading for many musicians. But if this is something you struggle to do at pace, particularly when it comes to piano music written across two staves, then it might be worth trying out some alternative methods to supplement your progress.

Landmark method
 

This well-known system of reading music involves focusing on prominent fixed pitches across the grand staff. Centering on middle C, these pitches become the focus of your practice, and you make memorising them your first priority.

They consequently become the anchors on the page and on the keyboard, so that when you see a note in a piece of sheet music, you can identify it based on its position relative to those landmark pitches you can play unthinkingly. You don’t calculate the position of every note, you simply let your visual anchors guide you to notes around them.

Interval recognition
 

Interval recognition is a technique used in combination with the landmark method. It works by judging the relationship between one note and the next based on the space, or the interval between them on the page - in other words, the actual shape of the music. 

Once again, you won’t need to hone in on each successive note and identify it. It’s a more intuitive approach, encouraging your fingers to respond to the contour of the material rather than processing individual notes. Crucially, you don’t have to zoom in on the details. By scanning the music instead, you can figure out what it’s saying far quicker and move on.

Pattern recognition
 

This approach can be thought of as an extension of interval recognition. It’s based on a similar technique -  you pay attention to the spacing of notes in a passage of music, as opposed to the specific placement of each one. 

But you’re not just looking at the gap between one note and the next - you’re looking at a whole sequence and instinctively understanding what to play based on the shape of the phrase. Certain gestures appear very frequently in sheet music and by focusing on their broader form you’ll soon learn to recognise them immediately.

How to remember piano notes
 

Two hugely important things that will help you to commit piano notes to memory: practice and perseverance. Spend time at the keyboard, with sheet music, with the images above - or even diagrams and memory aids you’ve made yourself - and keep practising until it all begins to feel natural. 

Those mnemonics are absolutely crucial - you can see them again below. The sooner you learn those, the sooner you’ll be able to remember your notes. You won’t need them for long - before you know it, you’ll be looking at lines and spaces on the stave and thinking of their associated pitches instantaneously. 

Once you develop a degree of fluency in reading sheet music, you might be looking to remember fuller musical passages rather than individual notes themselves. You might even want to memorise an entire piece, from the first note to the last. 

There are a few useful things you can try in order to memorise music more easily. We’ll cover key techniques below, but you can discover others in this post on how to memorise music

Break the music down
 

A great way to try and remember longer sequences of notes - and even entire pieces of music - is by breaking the material down into sections, and learning them one at a time. It seems obvious, but simply by physically marking and dividing the material, you’ll be helping your brain to process it all more easily. 

Moreover, this method allows you to give equal focus and attention to each section, and the boundaries between them function like checkpoints, serving to guide you through the music. It allows you to get into the finer detail of every part of the music.

Practise to know, not to memorise
 

It seems counterintuitive, but trying too deliberately to memorise a passage of music can sometimes slow the process down. Many musicians say that by instead placing emphasis on really knowing and understanding a piece of music when they practise it, they find that it happens to become lodged in their mind far quicker.

An added bonus of this approach is that by getting familiar with all aspects of a piece of music, you’re in effect practising it in a complete and rounded way. So, when it comes to performance - if that is what you’re working towards - you’ll be able to play the music to an even higher standard. 

Play when you’re not at the piano
 

You don’t just have to practise during the time you set aside for piano practice. Each day is filled with little opportunities to visualise the notes and the keyboard, and work through your material. Then, when you’re back at the piano, you might find yourself remembering notes far more easily.

What’s more, visualisation itself is a really valuable technique that aids the memorisation process. Gaining independence from images and learning materials equates to musical information becoming ingrained in your mind and memory.

Identifying piano notes by ear
 

This is something that a lot of musicians look to do when they’re learning piano notes. Being able to recognise notes by ear is a nifty trick, and for certain types of performing musicians, it can actually be a really useful and important skill. 

As far as aural ability goes, it’s probably most practical to be able to hear some music and either work it out what it is fairly quickly, or identify whether it’s out of tune. For many, this skill is founded on being able to identify the individual notes themselves. 

This is one of those things that some people can just do naturally. These lucky people have absolute pitch, and this is something that’s developed at a young age. 

However, it is possible to work towards this ability and develop what’s known as relative pitch. This is the ability to identify or sing pitches based on their relationship to a fixed pitch that you can remember, known as a reference tone.

You can do this through sustained music-making - prolonged exposure to and interaction with music. But it’s also possible to work on it in a more focused way. 

You can do this by figuring out a reference note that you can remember reasonably easily and accurately, and calculating the interval between that note and any other given pitch. That said, it’s easier said than done to remember an unmoving reference note reliably.

It’s helpful to work with intervals, because it’s easier to define the distance between two notes relative to each other, than to place one lone note against a fixed pitch that you have to imagine. That’s why, for most musicians, exercising relative pitch involves the use of intervals.

It’s even easier to identify intervals that you can actually hear. All you need to do is figure out the relationship between them - there’s no need to imagine any fixed reference note. 

In time, intervals will become more and more familiar, but thinking of pieces of music that you know can help you to spot them. If two notes sound just like the opening gesture of the theme from Star Wars, for example, then you know they’re a perfect fifth apart.

These abilities can give you a secure footing on the road to understanding and recreating longer, more complex sequences of notes. But this too can be practised purposefully - spend some time listening to fragments of music and trying to reproduce them on the piano. In time, you’ll be able to play what you hear more accurately, more quickly.

But, as we said, you will also gradually develop the ability to work out and recreate music by ear simply by spending time engaging with music practically, whether that’s through practice, performance, listening or composition.

Piano notes practice for beginners
 

It’s been mentioned a few times already just how important practice is. If you’re learning about piano notes for the very first time through this article, the only way you’ll absorb and retain what you’ve read here is by practising.

That involves re-reading what you’ve learned, spending time with the graphics provided, and trying to memorise the information, as well as sitting at the keyboard and attaching the theory to the actual physical motions. This last step will allow you not only to transfer this knowledge into piano-playing but also to consolidate the knowledge itself. 

Start with the notes themselves, learning how to recognise them on the stave and play them on the piano. Then learn how to interpret time signatures and rhythms, before then taking on basic pieces of piano sheet music. 

Practising in the right way is so important - it’s not enough to just look at the notes and press the keys. That alone won’t get you to where you want to be. You have to have the right mindset, maintain concentration, utilise the right materials, and structure your time and activity effectively. Practising smart is an art in itself.

There’s a variety of things that you can do and bear in mind in order to maximise your practice and make progress as fast as possible. You can find out what these are in this article on sheet music practice.

For instance, it’s really important to make the most of learning materials. Keeping to hand some of the graphics you’ve seen already will boost your development - they’re there to support and guide you on your journey. But you can also create your own to suit your own unique way of learning and playing.

One thing that might come in handy is this music theory cheat sheet. It’s a great point of reference, explaining some of the things we’ve covered in a more accessible way. And by getting to know the theory, you should more easily understand new musical concepts that you’re bound to encounter later on in the learning process.

The key to learning piano notes
 

Just as vital to all this as practice and perseverance are the piano notes themselves. And you can find a whole world of those, in all the wonderful musical permutations imaginable, in nkoda’s collection of piano sheet music.

Whether you want to learn classical or pop, jazz or rock, and whether you want to find some easy playbooks or peruse some mind-blowing concertos, you can do all that and more on the app.

The best advice that can be given to someone who wants to learn to read piano sheet music is: live, breathe and practice it. Find the music that gets you feeling inspired and don’t stop playing it. Start your free trial, and your journey, today.

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