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How to Read Music for Piano – Basics of Music Notation

How to Read Music for Piano – Basics of Music Notation
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Can you play the piano? Can you read sheet music? Do you need knowledge of sheet music to play the piano?

By the term playing the piano, many people think of a few things. For the most part, they imagine laying hands graciously on the white and black keys of this instrument.

However, the idea of playing the piano is more than using your hands. The legs are also involved in playing the piano. This is conducted via the actions of the pedals.

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Furthermore, you need mental coordination, as well as good knowledge of music theory. These will enable you to play Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention effectively

How Relevant Is Sheet Music for Pianists

Many people are intrigued by the piano. At various points, they make an effort at learning this instrument. If you belong to that class, you are welcome on board.

You should understand that the knowledge of music is in 2 dimensions. You need both bits of knowledge of the practical and theory parts.

More often, what intrigues people is the practical end of learning the piano. For instance, you see a pianist graciously playing Beethoven’s fur Elise. You feel goosebumps and you are thrilled, to say the least. As a result, you decide you want to be like that pianist.

After enrolling for training, you are introduced to sheet music. Most likely, you are disappointed because you think all revolves around the piano itself.

Well, while we understand your frustration, your tutors are right on track. Knowledge of sheet music and other theory of music is important in becoming the ideal pianist.

What Is Sheet Music

Sheet music is the roadmap to understanding piano pieces. Without personal knowledge of the composer, you can play the exact thing he plays via sheet music. In the defined term, it tells you what to play, how to play, the pace, among other features.

For such pieces, characteristics such as the pace, octave, melodies, harmonies, dynamics, and name of the composer, are all inscribed in this documentation.

Sheet music is also known as notated music. With the aid of the music staff or stave, all these features are instilled and implemented by a pianist who can make sense out of them.

Sheet music is the reason music trends of the previous generations can be replicated in the present time. For example, Singing and playing Handel’s hallelujah chorus is a Christmas tradition in many climes.

This music was composed and performed at a time when there were no digital privileges.

Regardless of these constraints, the knowledge of sheet music is the reason these old pieces have been passed down over centuries.

If you prefer a visual explanation of this article, below is a detailed and helpful video.

Video: How to Read Music for Piano (Basics of Music Notation – Part 1)

Can You Play the Piano Without Knowledge of Sheet Music

Well, that is a yes from us. It will interest you to know that a lot of piano players do not know how to read and play sheet music.

These musical tendencies are very common among contemporary genre players. For example, players of blues, jazz, RnB, and a host of other Afro—American inclined music genres mostly fall under this category.

The value of sheet music is more prevalent and esteemed among classical musicians. This is because they need to evaluate, perform, and compose music in predated patterns. These patterns include baroque, classical, and romantic styles.

For instance, you cannot play regular romantic piano pieces without knowing how to read sheet music. In this light, classical pianists are more inclined to understand the value of sheet music than any other sort.

On the other hand, contemporary piano players are driven by aesthetics that may not be informed by notation. As a result, they may just need to combine some spectacular chords without knowing how to transcribe or notate them. So, in plain terms, let us ask that question in a definite way.

Can contemporary players play without knowledge of sheet music? Yes, it depends.

Can classical players play without knowledge of sheet music? A definite no.

Importance of Knowing How to Play Sheet Music

As explained earlier, sheet music is a theoretical part of learning the piano and music at large. With knowledge of sheet music, you can replicate the composer’s piece or song.

Imagine that you would love to play John Legend’s All of Me or Beyoncé’s Hello. As one who can read sheet music appropriately, all you need to do is to source for the sheet music. You could get it online or via various means.

The sheet music will enable you to play the song on the appropriate key, pace, octave. Also, the specific chords, slurs, melodic contours, harmony, and other peculiar features will be unveiled by the sheet music.

On the part of the composer, sheet music is like having an intention and writing it out. The ability of the other party to read enables him to understand what you have thought. In the same vein, the ability to read sheet music enables you to understand the peculiarities and dynamics of a music piece.

How to Read Music for Piano

There are a couple of symbols and words used in music at large. Some of these terms and signs are used outside of music.

How to Read Music for Piano
Photo Credits: Gavin Whitner, flickr.com

For instance, the word “rest” is engaged in music. It means a period of silence in music. That seems somewhat similar to its real-life meaning. Also, the term “sharp” is used to describe the sign “#.”

These terms and signs are very important in grasping the whole idea of music notation. As a result of that, let us examine some of them from the basics.

Video: How To Read Notes (Beginner Piano Lesson)

Below is a video explaining the basics of reading piano sheet music

Music Keys

The music keys are the various tone range that music is played or sung. You can play or sing a song on different keys. These keys are divided into 2 kinds. The 2 kinds of keys are evident in the piano.

There are 7 major keys in music. These keys are the first 7 letters of the English alphabet. The letters A – G are the major keys in music. In the parlance of music, the letters A – G are not called letters or alphabets. Rather, they are known as keys.

Rather than saying letter C, you would say key C Major. In plain terms, the 7 letters are known as keys. On the piano, the major keys are the white-colored keys.

Minor Keys

As you may have rightly guessed, the minor keys are the black colored keys on the piano. They are 5 in total. To understand them, you have to understand the concept of accidentals in music.

What are accidentals?

Accidentals consist of 3 main signs. At the preliminary level, you should pay attention to 2 of the signs. The 3 signs are:

# – Sharp

♭- Flat

♮ – Natural

The Sharp (#)

This sign raises any note or key by a semitone. It is more like moving forward in music. For instance, if you were on key A Major and used a sharp, you would move forward to Key A#. That is pronounced as Key A sharp.

The Flat (♭)

The flat is directly opposed to the sharp sign. It means that the key or note is lowered by 1 semitone. This is like moving one step backward in music. For instance, if you just played key B major and applied a flat, that would take you back to key B♭.

The sharps and flats are the basis of the minor keys. There are minor keys between major music keys, except in between B – C and E – F. In plain terms, let’s go over the minor keys in between the major keys.


A – B     =            A# or B♭

C – D     =            C# or D♭

D – E     =            D# or E♭

F – G     =            F# or G♭

G – A    =            G# or A♭

These are the 5 minor keys in between the major keys. You either call them by their sharp or flat names. For example, you could either say F# or G♭. Either way, you would be saying the same thing. In light of the aforementioned, there are 12 music keys; 7 major keys and 5 minor keys.

Major Keys Minor Keys
Key A A# or B
Key B C# or D
Key C D# or E
Key D F# or G
Key E G# or A
Key F  
Key G  

As regards to sheet music, these keys are situated on the music staff. The location of the keys on the staff is dependent on the clef sign on the staff.

For instance, the placement of Key C Major on Treble clef is different from the Bass clef. Also, as earlier mentioned the musical notes can be played in all 12 keys.

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Solfa Notation

The musical notes are also known as Solfa notation or Tonic Solfa. They consist of 7 major sounds with some minor sounds in between them. The 7 major sounds are also called the Diatonic Scale. The entire sounds beyond the 7 notes are called the Chromatic scale. As with the major and minor keys, we have 7 major notes and 5 minor notes. These sounds are:

Major Notes Minor Notes
Doh De
Ray Ri
Mi Fe
Fah Ze
Soh Toh

The diatonic scale also has what is called technical names. These terms are the technical manner we refer to the solfa notation. Below is a tabular illustration of the solfa notation, degree, and technical name.

Solfa NotationDegreeTechnical Name
Tee7thLeading Note
Doh8veHigher Octave

From the diagram above, you can see the technical name for each of the solfa notations. Sometimes, music personnel would rather describe the diatonic scales using the technical names. This informs the need to know them by heart.

For example, we could say the dominant note of Key C Major is Key G. This means on the solfa notation of Key C Major; the solfa note soh can be found on key G.

The Musical Staff

As stated earlier, lots of regular words are used in music at large. This is one of such. Outside of music, the word staff connotes “a stick used to guide a large breed of animals” or “a worker in an organization”. However, this is not its meaning in music.

What is staff in music?

staff is also called a stave. It is a platform where notated or sheet music is written. It consists of 5 horizontal lines and 4 horizontal spaces. These lines and spaces are joined at least by 1 vertical line at the left side. The musical notes are written inside, above, and below the staff.

When the notes are not written inside the staff, it is called a ledger line. The ledger line is a note or key situated above or below the staff. The ledger lines exist, but they are treated like imaginary lines or spaces. Below is an example of staff or stave.

The lines and spaces are counted from the bottom upwards. So, the highest line is the 5th line, as against the lowest line which is the 1st line. As regards the spaces in between the lines, the highest space is the 4th space, while the lowest space is the 1st space.

You count the staff upwards. The lower you go, the deeper and thicker the sound is. On the contrary, the higher you move on the staff, the more sonorous and thinner it sounds.

The Clef Sign

The clef sign determines what every position means on the staff. For instance, the 1st line on treble clef is Key E Major. On the other hand, the 1st line is Key G Major on the bass clef. Treble clef and the Bass clef are the two kinds of clef available.

Treble Clef


The treble clef is also known as the G clef. The name G clef is because the drawing is started from the location earmarked for Key G. On something known as a grand staff, the treble clef is higher than its counterpart.

The normal feminine voice ranges are located inside the treble clef. The very high and sonorous sounds are found on the ledger lines above it. On the conventional piano, the treble clef is the sign at the right-hand side of the piano. 

Bass Clef


Bass clef is also known as the F clef. This is because the drawing is started on the location earmarked for Key F Major. On the grand staff, bass clef is situated lower than the treble clef.

The masculine voices are located around the bass staff. Very deep sounds are found on the ledger lines below the bass clef.

Space 4
Space 3
Space 2
Space 1

As seen above, the spaces are labeled. The line below space 1 is Line 1. The line in-between space 1 and 2 is line 2. And on and on it goes that way.

The Clef sign is usually written at the extreme left-hand side of the staff. As stated earlier, the type of clef determines the position of each key on the staff. In a tabular form, let’s identify the positions of each key on the treble staff and bass staff.

Treble Clef or G clef
Bass Clef or F clef

If you need to write any of the minor keys, you should simply draw the accidental sign in front of the key.

The use of acronyms has also turned out useful in learning music. To remember the keys on the lines and spaces of each clef, there are conventional acronyms that are helpful. Let us explain the acronym in the diagram below.

Treble Staff Acronym

Treble Clef or G clef
Line 1KEY EEvery
Line 2KEY GGood
Line 3KEY BBoy
Line 4KEY DDeserves
Line 5
KEY FFavor

Space 1KEY FF
Space 2KEY AA
Space 3KEY CC
Space 4KEY EE

The table above explains the acronym for the keys on the lines and spaces of the treble clef. Starting from Line 1 – 5, we have the acronym every good boy deserves favor.

As simple as the acronym is, it helps remember the keys on the treble staff. In the same vein, let us look at the bass clef.

Bass Staff Acronym

Bass Clef or F clef
Line 1KEY GGood
Line 2KEY BBoy
Line 3KEY DDeserves
Line 4KEY FFavor
Line 5
KEY AAlways

Space 1KEY AA
Space 2KEY CC
Space 3KEY EE
Space 4KEY GG

As earlier stated, keys and notes are not only written inside the staff. You can find them above or under each staff. These types of notes or staff are known as ledger lines. Let us briefly talk above ledger lines.

Ledger Lines

The term ledger line is used to describe notes or keys outside the staff. If a note is not within the 5 lines and 4 spaces of the staff, it is drawn with an imaginary line. This imaginary line or space is what is called a ledger line.

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The Grand Staff

This is a very important musical concept for pianists at large. The grand staff is also called great staff/stave. It is the combination of two staff: the treble staff and the bass staff.

The bass staff is usually beneath the treble staff. Unlike the regular staff that has 5 lines and 4 spaces, the grand staff has 10 lines and 8 spaces.

Furthermore, the great staff has something called a middle c in between the 2 staff. The middle c is strategically placed above the bass stave and beneath the treble stave. For the treble staff, the only key separating the middle c from its first line is the key D Major.

On the other hand, the only key separating the middle c from the last line of the bass stave is the key B Major.

Musical Notes and Symbols

The musical notes and symbols are the basis for beats in music. On sheet music, the difference between a 4-beat note and a 2-beat note is the music note inscribed. The notes have varying features which include flags, stems, colored note heads, and blank note heads.

Also, these notes have their American and British names. These musical notes also have equivalent rest signs. These rest signs carry the same beat value of the main note. Let’s take a look at the various notes with their counts, beats, and rest sign.

Musical Note
American Name or ValueSymbols
Rest Sign
SemibreveWhole Note – 1o?4 Beats
MinimHalf Note – ½ d?2 Beats
CrotchetQuarter Note – ¼ ?1 Beat
QuaverEighth Note – 1/?Half Beat
Semi-quaverSixteenth Note – 1/16?Quarter Beat
Demisemi-quaver32nd Note – 1/32
?1/8 Beat
Hemidemisemiquaver64th Note – 1/64
1/16 Beat

Dotted Notes

There is the possibility of dotted notes in music. A dotted note carries the original value plus half of it. The dot increases the note by half its value.

For instance, let us use a dotted minim as an example. The minim (d) has 2 counts. When the dot is added to it, it carries the original value and half of it.

d – original value = 2

d. – dotted value = 2 + 2/2 = 3

From the example above, you can see the difference between the regular minim, as against the dotted minim. While the minim carries a count of 2, the dotted minim increases it by half. As a result, the dotted minim has a count of 3.

The same principle applies to other musical notes. In that light, the dotted notes will be as follow:

Regular NoteDotted Note
Semibreve = 4 countsDotted Semibreve = 6 counts
Minim = 2 countsDotted Minim = 3 counts
crotchet = 1 count
Dotted Crotchet = 1½ count

This is just an illustration of the first 4 musical notes. As for the quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver, as well as the hemidemisemiquaver, the dotted note is also relevant.

In the same vein, rest note equivalents can also be dotted. They will simply carry half their value added to the original value.


Do you know why many piano keys have the same name?

For instance, you can come across 7 types of Key A Major on the acoustic piano. What does that mean?

The difference between the octaves is evident in the tone pitch. When the same key is on a higher octave, it would have a higher pitch. On the other hand, a lower octave of the same key would mean a lower pitch.

Time Signature

This is a very important part. This has to do with the rhythmic side to sheet music. If you look closely at any sheet music piece, you will see a couple of features. First, at the extreme left side of the staff, you will see a clef sign. This may be either the treble or bass clef.

Second, you would see the time signature. The time signature is usually represented with 2 numbers that look like a numerical fraction. However, the numerator and the denominator are not separated by a line.

The Music Bar

The bars are the vertical lines used to separate parts of the staff from each other. Each bar carries the same count and value. For instance, if the 1st bar has 4 beats, the 2nd, 3rd, and subsequent bars will possess that quality.

There may be variations in the kinds of musical notes in each bar, nonetheless, they all have the same number of counts or beat.

As stated earlier, the time signature consists of 2 numbers. The number below represents the value of note used in each bar. The number above represents the number of times it is used. For instance, let’s examine the ¾ time signature.

On the ¾ time signature. The number below is 4. This number (4) represents the value of the note used. If you look at the table below, you will observe the row tagged American Name and Value.

As for the number below, the value (4) can be sited in the same row with the crotchet. In order words, the crotchet has a value of 4, but a count or beat of 1.

For the number above on the time signature, it represents the number of times the number below will take effect in every music bar. For the ¾ time signature example, the number above is (3).

This means you will have the value of 3 crochets in every musical bar, on that sheet music piece.

Musical Note
American Name or ValueSymbols
Rest Sign
SemibreveWhole Note – 1o?4 Beats
MinimHalf Note – ½ d?2 Beats
CrochetQuarter Note – ¼ ?1 Beat
QuaverEighth Note – 1/?Half Beat
Semi-quaverSixteenth Note – 1/16?Quarter Beat
Demisemi-quaver32nd Note – 1/32
?1/8 Beat
Hemidemisemiquaver64th Note – 1/64
1/16 Beat

Other kinds of time signature include the 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, 6/12 and a couple of others. These time signatures come with varying beat patterns that are used in sheet music pieces.

By and large, we have 2 kinds of time signature: the simple time signature and compound time signature.

Categories under the simple time signature are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The compound time signature has the likes of the 3/6, 6/8, and 6/12.


The subject of tempo is very related to the time signature. Also known as pulse, the tempo is the pace of a music’s beat. In plain terms, it is either how slow or fast a music piece is.

If the music’s beat is fast, you say the tempo is fast. If the music is slow-paced, you say the music’s tempo is slow.

The tempo can be measured. A universal scale is known as BPM. The BPM is an abbreviation for Beat Per Second. There are various degrees of tempo used in piano piece music and music at large. We would explain some of them.

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Many Italian words are used in music at large. The word adiago is one of such words.

The term is used to instruct players to maintain a slow pace at that juncture. It is one of the most popular dynamics embedded in many classical inclined pieces.


This term implies that the player or singer maintains a moderate pace. It is faster than adiago, however, it is slower than a couple of others. The Moderato is slow-paced, but it is not sluggish. It maintains a slow pace in a lively manner.


This is an Italian word that means cheerful. In that light, allegro implies a fast-paced manner of playing or singing. The allegro is not the fastest-paced playing dynamics but is a great deal in this regard. This is especially when compared to the moderato, adiago, and a host of others.


The term presto is the Italian word for quickly. It is not the fastest playing dynamic but is very fast. Pieces with this dynamic quality is a nightmare for newbies. Piano pieces of such nature are a true test of dexterity on the piano.


By a margin, this is the fastest playing dynamic. If a player can try such dynamics on the piano, such a player is a great one indeed. A couple of classical and romantic pieces have this playing mode instructed.

Key Signature

Just as with the time signature, the key signature is written on the left-hand side of the staff. The key signature is an indication of the sheet music’s key. By taking note of the key signature, you can tell the key of the music piece.

As stated earlier, there are 12 music keys. All these keys are used in various piano sheet music. The various key signatures carry different numbers of sharps or flat keys.

In this segment, we will identify the number of keys each of these 12 keys has. Also, an acronym that will help you understand is used.

There are 2 kinds of key signatures. There are sharp key signatures and flat key signatures. The sharp key signatures indicate the key signature using the sharp key(s). On the other hand, the flat key signature indicates the key signature using the flat key(s).

There is only one music key that does not indicate a key signature. It is the Key C Major. It is sometimes regarded as a natural key. This implies that when you play the diatonic scale on Key C Major, you would not need to play a black key.

The remaining 11 keys are embedded with varying numbers of sharps or flat as key signatures. Let us discuss the sharp and flat key signatures.

Sharp Key Signatures

We have 7 music keys that belong to this category. They are also known as the circle of fifths. This is because there is a fifth distance between them. The sharp keys with the specific sharpened positions are:

G – F# = 1

D – F#, C# = 2

A – F#, C#, G# = 3

E – F#, C#, G#, D# = 4

B – F#, C#, G#, D#, A# = 5

F# – F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E# = 6

C# – F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B# = 7

From the illustration above, you can see the 7 sharp keys on the extreme left. These keys have different numbers of sharps positioned in different places on the staff.

For instance, the Key G Major has one sharp. That sharp is positioned on the space allotted for F on the top of the staff.

For Key G major, the staff sign (#) is written on that spot for key F. So, as a pianist, when you see one sharp on the top left corner of the staff, the key is Key G Major. That means that anywhere allotted for Key G will be the tonic. By tonic, we mean it will read as Doh which is the first degree of the solfa note.

Flat Key Signature

As with the sharp keys using sharps, the flat keys are indicated using a varying number of flats. The flat key signature is also known as the circle of fourths. This is because of the fourth distance between them.

The number of flats tells in clear terms, the precise flat key used in the sheet music. Let’s see the various flat keys as illustrated below.

F – B = 1

B – B, E = 2

E – B, E, A = 3

A – B, E, A, D = 4

D – B, E, A, D, G = 5

G – B, E, A, D, G, C = 6

C – B, E, A, D, G, C, F = 7

From the illustration above, you can see the various types of flat key signatures. If you observe carefully, the first key on the list of Key F Major. Key F Major has one sharp which is situated on B.

On a Final Note

Learning sheet music is a process. With the required study and practice, you become better as the days go by.

The article has identified some of the basics of learning how to read sheet music. However, we cannot exhaust all the basics required. In light of this, be proactive about learning the various phases from time to time.

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