How to Read Sheet Music (Quiz Included)

Are you new to piano and wanting to learn how to read piano sheet music? Then read this article to learn how to read sheet music and how to memorise the notes quickly.

 

how to read sheet music

 

Sheet music might seem complicated to read at first but you’ll see it’s actually very logical. Once you understand the basic concepts, you’ll be set!

 

The Grand Staff

Reading piano sheet music is a little more challenging because it is written on two lines. This two set of lines, or “staves”, as we call them, is known as the grand staff.

 

grand staff

 

Notice how the symbols, or “clefs”, on the staves differ from top to bottom. That is because, in piano, we have a wide range of notes to represent and fitting these on 5 lines would not be practical.

 

The treble clef is used for the top half of the piano, that is, the higher register. It is also known as the G Clef because the symbol wraps around the second line from the bottom, which represents note G.

 

treble clef

 

The bass clef is used for the bottom half of the piano, the lower register. It is also known as the F Clef because the two dots beside the symbol for the second line from the top represents note F.

 

F clef

 

Generally, the RH will play notes in the treble and the LH notes in the bass, but this is not always the case. But what remains the same is that the top staff is always for the RH and the bottom staff for the LH.

 

 

Both staves are made up of 5 lines.

 

Notes

The notes are either written on the line or between the lines. These are called line notes and space notes, respectively.

 

When the notes move up or down by step, that is, from a line to space, like in the following example, we call them steps.

 

steps

 

When the notes skip a note, that is, a space note or a line note (as shown by the crosses) like in the following example, we call them skips.

 

skips

 

The higher the note is on the staff, the higher its pitch. This means that in the following example, the notes go up in pitch:

 

notes moving up

 

In English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Britain and Australia, the notes are named after the alphabet. Since there are only 7 pitches in music, only the first 7 letters of the alphabet are used, namely A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

 

Here are the notes in the treble and bass. Notice that Middle C, the C which is roughly in the middle of the piano, appears in both the treble and bass, above the staff in the bass and below the staff in the treble.

 

treble and bass notes

 

As a side note, in other countries, syllables are used instead of the alphabet. For example, in parts of Europe, the following syllables are used: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol (or So), La, Si (or Ti), corresponding to C, D, E, F, G, A and B, respectively.

 

If you’ve ever watched the film “The Sound of Music”, you’ll know what I’m referring to. Using syllables instead of the letters of the alphabet makes it easier to sing and remember the notes.

 

How to memorise the notes

Mnemonics

There are mnemonics you can use to help you memorise the space notes:

 

mnemonics for the space notes

 

And the line notes:

mnemonics for the line notes

 

While these mnemonics are commonly used, they don’t offer the best solution to quickly identify notes. This is because, for each note, you have to think of the sentence (for example, “every good boy deserves fruit”), then the word (say, “boy”), then think of the first letter of the word (“b”) to finally identify the note!

 

Landmark notes

A more useful approach, which does not use mnemonics, is to learn the landmark notes.

 

Here is what I mean by the “landmark notes”:

 

landmark notes of the piano

 

Notice how middle C (the note in red) is the common note, and the notes on either side of middle C are a mirror image (the black and the green notes respectively). But beware that while the treble C’s are a mirror image of the bass C’s (in the second example), the treble G’s are a mirror image of the bass F’s.

 

Notice in example 3 that F to C and C to G are intervals of a 5th.

 

If you have trouble remembering which is F or G, think of the order of the alphabet, that is F comes first, then G. So F’s in the bass, and then G’s in the treble. 

 

Here are the landmark notes with the other notes. Notice how the notes in the treble are a continuation of the notes in the bass. This is how you should think of the keyboard, i.e. as one unit.

 

landmark notes and other notes of the piano

 

The most efficient way to learn the notes is to learn them in reference to the landmark notes with an app like Note Quest. For example, if you know that the note in the second space in the bass is C, then you’ll know that the next note on the line is a D. Likewise if you know that the note on the 4th line is F, you’ll know that the note before it is E, and after it is G. And so on.

 

Before attempting to read both clefs at the same time, learn the notes so that you can name each one and know which notes correspond to which keys on the piano. The more notes you can recognise immediately, the easier it will be to read each clef and ultimately, both clefs at the same time.

 

Note Drills

Try these note drills:

Treble Clef

 

Bass Clef

 

Treble and Bass Clef

 

Ledger lines

Lines appearing outside the staff to extend the upper and lower ranges of the staff are called ledger lines.

 

notes on ledger lines in the treble

 

notes on ledger lines in the bass

 

LEARN MORE >> How to Read Notes on Ledger Lines (Drills Included)

 

For notes with more than 3 ledger lines, we typically use the octave sign (which is an abbreviation of “ottava” meaning “octave”) to avoid too many ledger lines. The symbol is written above the notes to be played one octave higher than written, that is 8 notes above in the next register, like in the following example:

 

example with the octave sign

 

If used below notes in the bass clef, the notes will be played one octave lower.

 

Here are drills for notes on ledger lines:

 

Accidentals

Symbols appearing in front of a note are called accidentals, probably because they happen “by accident” – they are not part of the key signature. (For more information on key signatures, see How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part I.)

 

the accidentals

 

The accidentals are written on the line or in the space corresponding to the note.

For example, F-sharp, B-flat and A-natural are written like this:

 

example of accidentals

 

Keep in mind that within a bar, these accidentals apply to all the notes of the same pitch, not just the one it is next to. For example, in the following excerpt, the sharp applies to all three C’s because they are all within the same bar. We only write the accidental on the first note.

 

accidental in a bar

 

 

A sharp will make the note one semitone (or half step) higher (on the piano, a semitone is the distance between two adjacent keys). For example, an F-sharp will be played with the next key above F, which is a black key.

 

white and black keys showing the sharps

 

A flat will make the note one semitone lower. For example, a B-flat will be played with the next key below B, which is a black key.

 

white and black keys showing the flats

 

A double-sharp will make the note two semitones higher. For example, F double-sharp is equivalent to G.

F double-sharp and G

 

Similarly, a double-flat will make the note two semitones lower. For example, E double-flat is equivalent to D.

E double-flat and D

 

What to do next?

Now that you’ve learned how to read sheet music on the piano, I suggest you head over to this article to learn How to Read Basic Rhythms.

 

And to revise what you have learned in this article, why not take this quiz?

 

 

 

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.

 

 

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  • Sara Booth says:

    Great points.Also what do you recommend, to get to read the rhythm faster?

  • Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.

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