How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Written by: Leslie Carmichael

Does reading piano sheet music seem overwhelming? Sometimes, it seems like there is just so much information on every single page of music! But learning to read piano sheet music is a lot like learning to read a book. First, you learn the basic symbols just like you learned the alphabet. Then you put them together, just like when you put letters together to make words.

To learn to read piano sheet music, you’ll need to memorize the symbols and what they mean. But with some practice, you’ll be able to put those symbols together into musical phrases and songs. 

In this article, we’ll explain the basics of how to read piano sheet music. We’ll also include some videos so you can get a better understanding of how reading music works. Let’s get started! 

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How to Read Piano Sheet Music 

Sheet music is like a road map for where your music needs to go. It tells you where to start, where to end, and all the stops, turns, and other essential things in between, such as how loud or soft to play, where the end of a phrase is, and what notes and rhythms to play. 

You read a piece of sheet music just like you would read a book. You read from left to right, one set of lines at a time. You read from the top of the page to the bottom. 

The Staff

Together, this set of lines is called a grand staff. The top set is the treble clef, which you’ll play with your right hand. The bottom set is called the bass clef, which you’ll play with your left hand. 

The staff is divided into measures. This is just to make reading more manageable by breaking the music down into smaller, easier-to-follow chunks. 

At the beginning of the piece of music, you’ll find the key signature, which tells you what sharps or flats to play. In the beginning, you probably won’t have any! But check out this video on everything you need to know about key signatures: 

You’ll also find the time signature, which tells you how many beats are in each measure (usually 4). The time signature looks like a fraction – most modern music has a 4 on top, and a 4 on the bottom, which means that there are 4 beats in a measure, and each beat is one quarter note. Here’s a quick video on how a time signature works: 

The beat is the pulse you feel when you play or listen to a song. 

The Notes

Each staff will have notes to tell you which piano key to play and how long to hold them. When you’re starting out, you’ll just have a few: 

  • Whole note. A whole note is 4 beats long. 
  • Half note. A half note is 2 beats long. 
  • Quarter note. A quarter note is one beat long.

Check out this video on Pianote, which explains each note value. 

Eventually, you’ll add more types of notes so you can play more advanced rhythms, but this is a great place to start. 

Now we’re going to place these notes on the staff. The notes are named the same as the 7 letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. 

The Treble Clef

The treble clef is made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces. The bottom line is E, which is the E right above Middle C on the piano. (That’s the C you find right smack dab in the middle of your piano). So as the notes get higher on the staff, the notes on the piano also go higher. 

So if the bottom line is E, the bottom space is F, the second line is G, etc. The notes continue in alphabetical order all the way from A to G, and then you start over again. There isn’t any magic formula to it. You just really need to practice and memorize this until it becomes second nature. 

The Bass Clef

The bass clef is also made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces. They just start on a different note. The bottom line is G. This is the second G below middle C. The bottom space is A, the following line is B, and the next space is C. The notes continue ascending in alphabetical order. 

Watch this video for an easy way to remember where all the notes fit into the staff: 

If you have a digital piano or keyboard, it might have a setting that lights up each note as you need to play it, so you can easily learn to associate the right key on the piano with the right note on the page. 

Now that you know some of the basics of reading piano music, you can take a look at the big picture. 

Looking at the Big Picture

When you first look at a piece of piano sheet music, you’ll want to take notice of a few things to get the big picture. Then you can put it all together. 

Written By:
If anyone knows a thing or two about pianos, it's Leslie. Having played piano for the past 25 years and teaching for the past 15 years, she has vast experience compared to most. She loves to share her honest opinions about the brands and manufacturers in the industry. In her free time, Leslie loves to play with her dogs and go on hikes.

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