How to Read Piano Sheet Music

How to Read Sheet Music in 5 Easy Steps

How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Learning how to read sheet music unlocks a world of expression and freedom on the piano. Although it takes practice to become proficient at sight reading, it is one of the most valuable skills to have as a musician. Even if your main instrument is not the piano, learning the basics of how to read music notes can be easier when you know your way around a keyboard.

Studying the piano and learning how to read sheet music go hand-in-hand. Memorizing the notes on the piano is the first step for beginners who want to tackle a piece of music and expand their playing skills. To develop your skills in the most efficient way possible, 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!

How to Read Piano Sheet Music for Beginners

Before we dive into the basics of how to read sheet music, you’ll want to make sure you have all the supplies you need. This means some blank grand staff paper, an erasable pencil (stay away from pens!), and a keyboard instrument of some kind. You don’t need a Steinway to get started — a small keyboard will do fine for learning the basics of music reading. You will, however, want at least 66 keys to play complete pieces of music. 

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

If you want to learn how to read sheet 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 (remember: 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 fine for just starting out. If there is one note you’re having a hard time remembering specifically, 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, learning how to read music notes 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 Learn How 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 than one part at a time. Usually these parts are interconnected – they are part of a chord that you need to be able to accurately read.

Although the concept of reading multiple lines of music may seem overwhelming at first, in time, you’ll find that this is what makes the piano such a powerful instrument. A pianist can carry the bassline, chords, and melody all at once, eliminating the need for accompaniment and providing orchestra-like backing for solo instruments. Many beginners prefer to use a technique called the mental flip strategy to get more comfortable with reading and memorizing the notes. Before we dive into how to use that strategy, let’s take a step back and see why sheet music is written the way it is.

A Little History Behind Reading Music Notes

Sheet music is read from left to right. The 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 it was not till the 9th century 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. 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 the beginner student of piano must learn to think about the music on the page differently from the words on a page.

The Mental Flip Strategy: Reading Piano Notes for Beginners

You must flip the orientation of the sheet music in front of you mentally, so you 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 three simple steps:

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

  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, 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 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 quickly 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 this strategy more confusing than the standard approach.

Whether 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. The important thing is to find out which learning technique works for you and then use these tools to reach your musical goals.

The best way to learn how to read music notes is with 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. With each lesson, your knowledge of the piano will grow and your music reading skills will develop. Lesson plans that are catered to your learning style and current skill level will help you stay motivated for the long term. Once you have a handle on reading music, the playing possibilities are endless!

Do you have a favorite technique for learning how to read sheet music? Let us know in the comments below!


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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50 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??

    • 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

  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?

  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

    • James Mize
      James Mize says:

      Hi Emma, I’m sorry but I don’t have much space to write in length here but the real reason I’m leaving a reply at all is I noticed we have the same last name. And it’s about “as comon as a cold day in L.A.” to quote Incubus… I’ve learned to be more aware of the simple signs that life flags me with and I think this may be one of them. If you feel like it e-mail me at

    • Rahman
      Rahman says:

      Try just doing chords without caring which hand to use. This is my style of learning and it helps that much. After that, you could move on to sheet music.

      Hope it helps!

    • Redgie
      Redgie says:

      You got this! if you play the same keys as twinkle little star, you can call it 3 small bears and you have diversity!

  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.

    • Pianorobot
      Pianorobot says:

      Hi Kayla,

      There is a great app for mobile devices called “Pianorobot” Easy to use and suitable for anyone since it uses only symbols. Very effective method learning piano notation. Don’t take my word for it, go try it out yourself! Free download on the AppStore and Play Store.

    • Jessica Dais
      Jessica Dais says:

      Hi Naresh, If you’re really struggling to read music notes, the best thing I’d recommend is to take some music theory classes for beginners. TakeLessons Live has online music theory classes that are free to try for 30 days. These classes are designed to walk beginners through the steps needed to master reading and understanding music. Hope that helps! Good luck. 🙂

  5. Artemio
    Artemio says:

    i really want to know how to play the piano especially reading notes.
    i don’t know where to start, can you give me some insights?

    • Jessica Dais
      Jessica Dais says:

      Hi Artemio! I’d recommend getting started with some free classes for beginners so you can get used to the instrument and decide if it’s something you’d want to pursue more. Have you heard of TakeLessons Live? Check it out and try online piano classes free for 30 days! These classes are a great intro to the piano and reading notes. Hope that helps 🙂

  6. champ
    champ says:

    I have been playing guitar for a number years now with no formal class, I was just taught how to read a tab, I got no knowledge on scales like how to play with it (logic behind the chords being played on diff frets) but I can pretty much tell what the sound is, esp if its out of tuned, I would like to check if the way I play using tabs can be used on piano, this turning the note might work for me though I dont know where I will start since the piano field is just way too long, I guess thats the counterpart of the frets? left is the lowest tone then the right is the highest? how am I supposed to know where on the keyboard I will start playing? the black ones are confusing as well, ive noticed that there are pedals, i hope theres a guitarist who can clarify this.

    • Jessica Dais
      Jessica Dais says:

      Hi Dailyn! That’s awesome that you can already play piano by ear. To learn how to read music, I’d highly recommend taking piano lessons with a teacher near you, or even online. Here at TakeLessons, we also offer 30 days of free online classes where you can learn more piano basics, such as how to read notes. Check out the classes here. Hope that helps! Best of luck 🙂

  7. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    Hi all, I’m a beginners. I wanted to share that there is an app called simply piano. I have paid a membership after the free trial because the app teaches you to play piano, listens to what your playing and sends you to practice modes when you make mistakes. I can keep going about the app because I’ve been learning so much and still am. Already can play songs with two hands not perfect but getting there. Try the free trial for yourself and you will be playing in no time.

  8. Elson
    Elson says:

    Hi, I’ve played piano and I gotta say it is fun to learn but it does get a bit annoying when you keep messing up on the same part

  9. Pianorobot
    Pianorobot says:

    Hi Jessica!

    I would love for you to try out this app called ‘Pianorobot’. Please try it out and tell me what you think? Several piano teachers use it worldwide and find it useful 🙂 We are always looking for feedback to enchance the learning game experience.

    Thank you

  10. Kendrick Roberts
    Kendrick Roberts says:

    This is a great material. I’ve always been interested in learning music but never had that opportunity. Big help. Really big help. Thanks.

  11. Kilian
    Kilian says:

    What you emphising on writtings you should put it into demo for more understanding especially for the beginers

  12. Elyse A
    Elyse A says:

    Am just starting to play a Yahama PSO-330 Keyboard.Had piano lessons when a teenager many years ago and now starting with this keyboard as I don`t have a piano

  13. Madeline Mattson
    Madeline Mattson says:

    I am saving up for a weighted key keyboard, and have been practicing reading sheet music ahead of time to better help my understanding. Now this is probably a stupid question, but with an 88 key keyboard, how do you know what spot on the board you are playing the notes on? Like does the sheet music tell you where, or do you just do whatever you want, major, minor, etc. I really have no knowledge of piano playing except for the letters when playing treble clef/right hand….

  14. DAN
    DAN says:

    This is a good article. I will bookmark your website. I’m looking for a music blog which talk about piano, guitar or drum for my study. Thanks

  15. Jenifer
    Jenifer says:

    For those who want to use a teacher to teach them the piano they must also accept that many will take longer to get you to master and develop the skills than other ways mentioned.

  16. profesor podgorski
    profesor podgorski says:

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    to put this content together. I once again find myself personally spending a
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