Trying to learn how to read piano notes? It can be a bit difficult at first, so don’t be disheartened if you struggle a little at the beginning. What you have to keep in mind is that musical notation is a language. Just as learning Chinese takes time if all you have ever spoken before is English, you cannot expect musical notation to ‘click’ perfectly on the first try.
There are various attitudes towards the best way of learning musical notation. Most of the traditional schools will teach you by showing the notation first, then the corresponding sound and finger positions. This works for most people, but you can actually look up other teaching methods if this does not suit you.
For example, Robin Hall’s Piano For All instructional method swings the order around. It matches finger positions and sound first, then matches those to the actual notation on paper. In that school of thought, the student learns by fixing tactile and aural cues in his memory first. They become the base instead of the written notations/symbols.
Whatever method you do end up following, the basics of reading notation stay the same. You still have to learn how to associate a symbol on paper with a note in your ear and a movement of your fingers.
The Essentials: Staff, Notes, Meter, and More
All musical notation begins with the staff. The staff is where you write notes, and is basically composed of 5 parallel lines running horizontally on a page. Each line in a staff — and the spaces between lines themselves — represent notes.
All people learning how to read musical notation have to memorize the notes for which each of those spaces and lines stand. On the Treble Clef staff, for example, the spaces are the notes F, A, C, and E, going from the bottom space to the top one. As for the lines in that staff, they are the notes E, G, B, D, and F, again from bottom to top.
Note that we said “on the Treble Clef staff”. The Treble Clef staff is recognized by the Treble Clef symbol, an extremely ornate ‘G’ written at its head. It signifies that the notes written on that staff are higher ones, as opposed to ones written on a Bass Clef staff.
The Bass Clef staff holds lower notes. When you get a piece of sheet music, it’s common to find a Treble Clef staff up top and a Bass Clef staff below it. The top usually plays the melody while the bottom plays bass and lower-note support in the song. The Bass Clef and Treble Clef are symbols you will find in every musical notation guide, by the way, and are very easy to learn once you have seen them.
Now let us go back to the point on memorizing notes. While you can do it as simply as repeating the letter names of the notes again and again, you can also use mnemonics for it. For example, the EGBDF note series for Treble Clef staff lines can be signified by a mnemonic like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” (a very popular choice).
If you have trouble with that, though, you should definitely feel free to make your own mnemonics. There is nothing to prevent you from turning that into something like “Every Good Boy Douses Fire” if you remember that better.
The next thing you learn in musical notation is the note. Notes can be filled or open, can have stems or not, and can have flags or even beams. All of those things (or just about all of them) have an effect on the manner in which a note is played:
- A closed note (one with its head/oval completely filled or blacked) with a stem is a quarter note, which means you play it for 1 beat.
- An open note (one with its head/oval empty) with a stem is a half note, which means you play it for 2 beats.
- An open note without a stem is a whole note, which means you play it for 4 beats.
- A flag on a note’s stem means the note is halved.
- A dot next to a note extends the note by half its normal duration (the duration it would have if the dot were not there, that is).
There is a whole medley of symbols that you learn over time for this. There are ties, for instance, which tell you that should extend a note across a measure. There are half-rests and whole rests that tell you when to have a moment of silence. Associating all of those things with sound and finger movement is your task in learning musical notation.
A Few Tips That Can Help
There are certain things to be done if you want to learn to read piano notes more efficiently. Try the following tips and tricks, for example:
- Print out manuscript paper patterns. You can find patterns with a musical staff online and print them out as practice sheets. You can even look for music notebooks and use those instead. They are useful for practicing writing rhythms and notes.
- Learn to sight sing. It does not matter if you have a less-than-stellar voice. Trying to vocalize notes helps you remember them better in your head, and it aids you in associating each symbol with a set sound.
- Read key signatures. When reading sharp key signatures, look at the last sharp before it and just go a half-step up that one. For example, if the last sharp was a C sharp you can safely expect the key signature to be D major since D is the next semitone.
- Keep a personal copy of each sheet of music. You can safely write on your copy with pencil if you need to make annotations to help you remember certain parts.
- Read all sheet music before playing it. All musicians do this: playing it in their head first, tapping out the rhythm with their fingers, and practicing in the mind before getting to it in reality.
- Learn to find patterns. Most musical pieces are composed of easily-identifiable patterns, and knowing them helps you anticipate the coming notes. This makes reading easier, as you have a general idea of what symbol (or, in a book, what word/sentence) comes next.