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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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!
Post 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!
Photo by Basheer Tome