How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Out of all the different hobbies and activities that one can pick up and do, there are few hobbies that have as much benefit as learning how to play an instrument. Learning how to play an instrument can do far more for you than simply take up some of the empty time in your day. Playing instruments can quickly turn into learning how to recreate your favorite songs on something that you enjoy playing, and from there, that can turn into being able to perform talented pieces of work, impressing friends and family alike. There are a number of reasons why people choose to learn how to play an instrument, but one of the most common reasons is that you will want to learn how to play particular songs.

Before you can get around to being able to flawlessly recreate your favorite songs, you will first need to have an idea of what instrument you want to play. The most common instruments that people will tend to pick up include the piano and the guitar. The guitar is often regarded as one of the easiest instruments to play, and there are a number of songs that you can play with a single guitar. However, if you want to be able to play music that can stun those around you, you may want to consider taking up piano. As many pianists will note, piano music tends to be mesmerizing to listen to and it is able to captivate an audience within seconds.

If playing the piano and learning how to master the classical tunes of the ages is something that interests you, then there are plenty of ways that you can get your hands on a keyboard to begin practicing on. Owning a keyboard to use is only half the battle though, as the largest learning curve to come with playing the piano is going to be learning how to read the sheet music for pianos. More often than not, if you are planning on playing classical songs, then you are going to need to have the sheet music to know which notes to play when. There are only a handful of people in the world who can play songs by ear. Some people, though, might be worried about the idea of taking up sheet music.

After all, all of the symbols and markings on a page of sheet music can look intimidating to someone who may not know what they mean. While it will take some dedication to really be able to read the sheet music flawlessly, it is actually pretty easy to teach yourself how to read sheet music. There are a few key concepts that you will want to focus on, including learning what all of the symbols on the sheet music mean, knowing the beat of the song you are playing, and understanding your scales and how they correspond to their sheet note equivalent. Once you have a good understanding of these concepts, you will be able to combine your knowledge of sheet music with your ability to play the piano and you will be able to play songs from sheet music alone.

Understanding the Language of the Sheet Music

To someone who does not work with sheet music on the regular, sheet music can easily come across as being in another language. In some ways, it can be considered another language, as there are a plethora of symbols that you will need to get used to so that you can properly read the song that you are trying to begin. First things first, you will want to get familiar with the main parts of sheet music.

First, you will want to understand what the staff is. At its most basic level, the “staff” can be considered the backdrop that all of the notes and symbols of the sheet music are going to go on. The staff consists of five lines, numbered from the bottom line being the first to the top line being the fifth. Each space between those lines is also numbered, meaning that the first space (between the first and second line) is going to be marked as number one, while the final space (between the fourth and fifth lines) is going to be marked as number four. All of the notes and indications that will be on the sheet music will be on the staff.

The Clefs

how to read piano music the clefs bass clef trebble clef staff


Next you will want to move on to the clefs. The clefs are going to be the large symbols that you see on the staff at the beginning of every song on sheet music. There are two types of clefs to consider. There is the treble clef, which is the one that most people think of when they think of music. It is the large, swirling marking that will often reach above and below the lines of the staff. Treble clefs will usually denote that a song is in a higher pitch, which is sometimes used in piano music. When the treble clef is at the start of the song, you will have two mnemonics to know. Each line of the staff will have a note assigned to it, starting with E on line one, G, B, D, and F on line five. This can be remembered with the common mnemonic of “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” The spaces will also have a note assigned to them, starting with F for the first space, then A, C, and E on the fourth space. This can be remembered with the mnemonic of “FACE,” as this is what the notes would spell out.

The bass clef is the second clef to remember. As the name might suggest, it typically denotes a lower pitch in music. These are more common for tubas and cellos, but some lower-pitched piano songs may have a bass clef in them, making it important for you to know what it indicates. The bass clef can be identified easily, as it is a large circular swirl with two dots on the right side of it. Much like the treble clef, there are two mnemonic devices that you can use to remember what notes are on the lines and spaces of the staff. For the lines of the song, the bottom line will begin with G this time, with the second line being B, and then D, F, and then A on the fifth line. This can be remembered with the mnemonic of “Good Boys Do Fine Always.” The spaces of a bass clef begin with A, and then C, E, and G on the fourth space. This can be remembered with the mnemonic of “All Cows Eat Grass.”

Now that you have a firm understanding of what the clefs and the staff of the sheet music are, you are going to want to get a good idea of what each of the notes you will encounter indicates. There are a fair few types of notes to learn, but knowing all of them will go a long way when learning how to play sheet music for the piano.

The Notes

how to read piano music notes on the staff stems note parts


Every single standard note that you will encounter will begin with a simple oval. This oval will sit either on the space or on the line of the staff, and it can be a filled or an unfilled oval. The placement of the note head (the proper name for the oval) is going to indicate what note you are going to play. There are quarter, half, and whole notes. Quarter notes are your standard, filled-in, music note that you think of when you think of generic sheet music. There are four quarter notes in a 4/4 time signature. Next are half-notes. Half-notes are going to be the notes that are not filled in, instead having a blank center. Half-notes are held for two beats of a 4/4 time signature. Finally, there are whole notes. Whole notes are larger than half and quarter notes, and often look like a bolded and italicized “o.” A whole note will last for four beats of a 4/4 time signature.

Next are the note stems and flags. Notes will almost always have stems, unless you are working with whole notes. These stems do not have much of a meaning to the music, but if you are learning how to write music, you should keep in mind that most notes above the B line will have a downward stem, while notes below that line will have an upward stem. Aside from this, the stems only make a difference in how easy the music is to read.

Finally, there are note stems. Note stems are going to be the flag-like appendages on the end of some notes, and are often wavy in appearance. Note stems indicate how long you are going to hold that specific note for. Typically, a note stem will halve the duration of a quarter note, turning it into an eighth note. An eighth note is played on the “and” when counting out a 4/4 time signature, as shown here: “one and two and three and four.” You can also come across two note stems on a single note, which will then turn the note into a sixteenth note. Here, there would be another note played between the “one” and “and” when counting out a 4/4 time signature.

These are the most important types of notes to consider when learning sheet music. When you understand both the concept of clefs and notes, you will begin to have a firm grasp on how you can play your favorite piano songs. Before you know it, you will be able to seamlessly flip through sheet music as you are learning how to play the piano.


About the Author:

James Noble is a saxophonist and a drummer. Music is his passion and he loves to write all  about it. Read more from James at