Introduction to Reading Piano Notes in 5 Easy Steps

reading piano notes and sheet music for beginners

New to the piano? Want to learn how to read music? Reading piano notes is the first step for beginners to tackling a piece of music. To be able to play the piano successfully, you must start learning how to read sheet music right off the bat. Follow these simple steps, and you’ll be reading piano notes in no time!

Intro to Reading Piano Notes & How to Read Sheet Music

Step 1: Label white spaces with FACE and EGBDF for the treble clef

If you want to learn how to read music you should start by looking at the treble clef first. This is the staff that shows which notes to play with your right hand. If you are learning for the first time, you must familiarize yourself with the letter names of the lines and spaces. On your staff paper, label the white spaces with FACE starting with the first space at the bottom of the page and going up, then the lines EGBDF starting at the bottom line going to the top line. There are little tricks to help you remember the names of the lines and spaces – for example, just remember the phrase “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.” Work on memorizing this a little bit each day.

Treble clef

Step 2: Write the note letter names

Now take a piece of music you want to learn, and underneath the music notes of the right hand in the treble clef, write the letter names. (Use a pencil, that way you can erase it later!) This isn’t a great habit to get into in the long run, but it’s perfectly fine for just starting out. If there is one note you’re having a hard time remembering specifically, feel free to just write that one note letter name. Keep in mind you’re only focusing on the white notes on a piano for now. Don’t worry about the black keys, (your sharps and flats), just yet.

Step 3: Memorize letter names, and move onto bass clef

After you’ve memorized all of the letter names on the lines and spaces for your right hand (the treble clef), you can move on to reading piano notes on the bass clef, where the notes on the lines and spaces will be played with your left hand.

Step 4: Name your spaces ACEGB and GBDFA

Practice drawing the bass clef, which will start on the F line. Then with the spaces at the bottom of the page, name your spaces ACEGB (remember “All Cows Eat Grass,” and don’t forget to add your B at the top!). Next, name your lines starting at the bottom of the page GBDFA (“Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always”). Memorize these notations as well. Now transfer these letter names of the lines and spaces to your piano song from step #2, and name all the notes with your left hand in the bass clef.

Bass Clef

Step 5: Find a hand diagram and label each finger 1-5

There is another method with numbers that may be easier for you to read. Find a diagram of your hands and looking at the right hand starting with your thumb, label each finger with 1-5. Do the same with your left hand. There are many easy piano songs to begin with, such as “Three Blind Mice”, “Hot Cross Buns”, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and “Jingle Bells” that only use notes C-G, or numbers 1-5. Starting on middle C of the piano, put both thumbs on the note, and align both your hands so that your right pinky ends on 5 (G) and your left pinky lands on 5 (F). You can write in the numbers next to letter names, if that helps you more. Remember to begin with only the white notes on a piano.

finger placement piano

Now, as you read through your song, play and sing the letter or numbers while playing, which will help you memorize the names of numbers of the notes on a piano. Once you’ve practiced this for a while, try erasing the letter names and testing yourself to see if you still remember the playing pattern and tune of the song.

With these steps, reading piano notes and music will start to become natural to you. For each piece you learn, write in the letter names or fingers, and then erase them when you get comfortable enough. Pretty soon you won’t even need to write them in!

A Different Way to Read Sheet Music: The Mental Flip Strategy

One of the most difficult things about learning how to read sheet music for the piano, as opposed to most other instruments, is that there is not just a single melody to be played. Piano music requires you to play more the one part at a time. Usually these parts are interconnected; they are part of a chord that you need to be able to quickly and accurately read by octave and finger placement.

A Little History

Sheet music is read from left to right. This reasoning behind this is that music began as an exercise most focused on the progression of notes in a scale or mode in a horizontal fashion. When more than one voice was sounded together, they usually sang in unison and it was not till the 9th c. that musicians became increasingly concerned with vertical harmony and polyphony.

Keyboard instruments, such as the organ, the harpsichord, and ultimately the piano were instruments developed to satisfy this changing aesthetic and the increased importance of vertical harmonies, but they were adapted into a notation that had been developed to address primarily horizontal concerns (i.e. what note comes next). This is not to say that sheet music cannot be read for the piano, but rather that the beginning student of piano must learn to think about the music on the page differently than they might read words on a page or read a single melody line.

You must flip the orientation of the sheet music in front of you mentally, so you they can read the vertical orientation of the notes.

In order to begin to think about and practice this mental flip there is an extremely helpful strategy you can use. You can actually turn the sheet music so you are reading the notes down the page. Doing so allows you to more easily understand the spacing between the notes and more intuitively grasp where your fingers should be placed on the keys. This technique is also incredibly helpful for visualizing the grand staff as a whole and where the octaves on the keyboard are located.

In order to properly perform this strategy and learn how to read sheet music for piano, follow these 3 simple steps:

  1. Take your original sheet music and flip it clockwise. It should be the case that the line of music you’re working on playing can be read down the page, from top to bottom, instead of across the page.

  2. Begin to identify chord units and think about each measure in terms of chordal units. Most bars or measures of beginning piano music contain one or two chords. Sometimes these chords are arpeggiated, other times there is an alternation pattern of notes in the treble and bass in quick succession. Your success with this technique depends on your ability to identify which chord is being outlined. To do this, simply name the notes; in beginning sheet music you’ll most likely see either major or minor triads.

  3. Match the notes on the page to your fingers on the keyboard. Notice how, with the sheet music turned, the sheet music is actually a diagram of the intervals between each note and how this realization helps you to visualize where to place your fingers.

Here’s how it looks on your sheet music:

Mental flip strategy for learning to read sheet music for piano

With music, there are many different strategies that can help you move on to a better understanding. Everyone approaches music differently. Some beginners intuitively grasp complex concepts, others need a little help along the way. Some may even find the strategy more confusing than the standard approach.

Whether or not this technique is right for you depends largely on whether or not it yields a type of “aha” moment, where you can better visualize the spacing of your fingers and their placement on the keys. With anything you ever try with music, or anything else for that matter, don’t be afraid to move on to a new way of looking at it if a technique is not a helpful one.

If you need further instruction on learning how to read piano notes, consider taking piano lessons. A professional piano teacher can walk you through these steps and ensure that you’re building your skills on a solid foundation of music theory.

LizTPost Author: Liz T. teaches online singing, acting, and music lessons. She is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a B.M in Vocal performance and currently performs/teaches all styles of music including Musical Theater, Classical, Jazz, Rock, Pop, R&B, and Country. Learn more about Liz here!

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Photo by Basheer Tome

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12 replies
  1. emmanuel balogun
    emmanuel balogun says:

    Nice one for a beginner..But as a learner of keyboard, my challenge now is on ear-training-ie how to distinguish clearly soh sound for instance from lah or fah on a given key!.. How can u help??

    Reply
    • Brooke Neuman
      Brooke Neuman says:

      Hi Emmanuel-Thanks for the kind words. Check out this comprehensive beginner’s guide to ear training for some help: /blog/ear-training-guide-z02

      Reply
  2. Michael C.
    Michael C. says:

    Hi I’m trying to learn a song from a piano book for my graduation but I’ve only taken basic right hand piano lessons. I do not know how to play with my left hand but I also really want to play this song. Is there some way I can learn the song in time?

    Reply
    • Brooke Neuman
      Brooke Neuman says:

      Hi Michael-Thanks for reaching out. Depending on your time frame, we can help set you up with a piano teacher near you. Or you can try searching YouTube for a tutorial.

      Reply
  3. Emma Mize
    Emma Mize says:

    This is still confuseing I don’t know how to play but twinkle twinkle little star and that’s what I taught myself and I am a beginner tryed many methods and tryed them each day but still didn’t work

    Reply
  4. Kayla Fisk
    Kayla Fisk says:

    I’ve been playing piano for about 2 years, self taught and go purely off sound and can get complicated songs, but I can’t read piano music at all. I need a song done in 2 weeks and its intermediate level. Do you think I’d be able to learn it from the sheet music? I’m having a lot of trouble.

    Reply

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