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  • Writer's pictureAmy Taylor

How To Read Piano Sheet Music

Welcome to my comprehensive guide on how to read piano sheet music! Whether you're a beginner pianist or looking to enhance your sight reading skills, this blog is here to provide you with valuable insights and techniques.

We'll go into the fundamentals of reading sheet music, starting with key foundational steps and gradually progressing to more complex elements regarding intervals, chords, and rhythms.

Along the way, we'll explore the significance of techniques, discuss effective learning approaches, and offer helpful tips to accelerate your progress. Get ready to embark on a journey that will sharpen your musical abilities and deepen your appreciation for the art of piano playing. Let's dive in!

Getting Started

Learning to read sheet music is a combination of understanding the keys, notes, chords that make up the music along with good technique for practicing. Here are this list of topics that I cover in this blog.

Beginners Guide To Reading Piano Sheet Music

Both when starting off and as an experienced pianist, it’s valuable to maintain an appreciation for the arts and patience with yourself. Understand that any artistic pursuit is a life-long pursuit. There is no arrival point; you can always grow and deepen your understanding of music.

A friend made the analogy that learning the arts is like climbing a large mountain. It’s essential to stop and take breaks at the vistas, to look back over your work and see how far you’ve come. So as you progress in learning how to read piano sheet music, celebrating your accomplishments, it will help keep you driven in the pursuit of music.

It’s also important to cultivate your love of the arts in general. Go to concerts, plays, and ballets and watch artists in their element. This will inspire you to find your own element.

What Is Sheet Music?

Sheet music is the paper that songs are written on. There are lines that move across the page 5 at a time. This set of lines is called a staff. For piano music, you usually see two staffs of music, the one on top is usually for your right hand, and the one on the bottom is usually for your left hand (with few exceptions)

Understanding Piano Chords

Piano chords consist of two or more notes that are played at the same time. The most common piano chord is the triad which is 3 notes stacked a third apart from each other. After people learn triads they often move to seventh chords. While there are only 4 types of triads, there are many types of seventh chords each having 4 notes in them.

All chords in music operate the same way, whether they are being played by one instrument or by an entire orchestra. The structure and the notes are the same.

Sheet Music Symbols

Each symbol on the page tells a student to do something specific. We have a symbol called the treble clef/G clef which tells a student they need to play higher up on the keyboard. The bass clef/F clef symbol is the opposite; it tells the student to play lower on the piano. The key signature tells which of the black keys to play and which white keys should be played a step higher or lower. The time signature tells us two things, 1st, how many beats are in a measure, and 2nd, what kind of note gets one beat.

How To Practicing Reading Piano Sheet Music

When you are just starting to learn piano, practice for as long as your attention span will let you. In the beginning, if that’s just 20 minutes, that’s fine! I encourage my students to try 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon, and 20 minutes in the evening. That is until you can tolerate being at the piano for an entire hour.

You will excel immensely if you have more than an hour per day to devote to the piano. But aim for an hour a day, and you will see steady progress.

During your lessons, I will be teaching you how to practice. We will go through the songs, and I will show you what to listen to. I will give you specific assignments for each song. In some songs, you may need to work on your articulation (staccatos and legatos). In other songs, you may need to practice vibrant dynamics, while others may need to focus on timing and rhythm - keeping a steady beat. There are so many balls to juggle when learning a piece, and repetition is the Mother of learning. Go over and over the songs until they sound smooth and clean.

Learning How To Read Sheet Music

Reading piano music begins with the skill of identifying all the names of the keys of the piano. This process takes a few weeks for fluency, but once you know all the names of the notes and can point them out quickly - you’re ready to go!

Start Small And Build

It’s important to start small. I usually only teach one note at a time so your eyes can adjust to seeing where the note is on the staff. Every line or space on the staff represents a specific key on the piano. If you learn how to play a song that just has middle C in it, you get used to recognizing that note. I usually follow that up by adding G above that and having you play various songs only using those two notes. Once they are solid, I add D, E, & F in the middle and introduce the idea of 2nds (moving from one note to another without skipping).

Sometimes it takes a while to be able to step up and down using just five notes, but once you’ve gotten the hang of that, I usually introduce 3rds or what we call “skips” (where you literally skip over one note). This adds one more layer of complexity to the sight reading as the notes are now not right next to each other.

Eventually, I introduce 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths (usually in that order), and it all happens so gradually that you barely even know you are learning it! All of a sudden, you can play it.

The Rhythm Of Sheet Music

Rhythm is an important factor in reading music. In the beginning, you want to keep it simple and pick music designed for beginning pianists. Even if you know the notes, an overly complicated rhythm can make a song almost impossible to play. This is why I lean towards using method books designed to introduce ideas sequentially instead of just picking random pieces to learn how to play.

Most method books start with quarter notes (1 beat), half notes (2 beats), and whole notes (4 beats) to keep things simple. Once you master those rhythms with both hands, method books introduce 8th notes, dividing the beat into ½’s and playing two notes per beat.

Helpful Books For Learning To Read Sheet Music

Method books can be helpful, here are a few of my recommendations. I use Piano Adventures by Nancy and Randal Faber and the Celebration Series from the Royal Conservatory. While working their way through method books, I also take my students who have an aptitude for composition through a series of books called Music by Me, and together we compose our own music, learning more about theory as we go.

Keep in mind though, the best place to start learning is with a teacher who can set you up so you don’t develop bad habits. You’ll need to learn the names of the keys and be able to scramble their order so you can identify any key correctly at the drop of a hat

Common Issues When Reading Sheet Music

In the beginning, reading sheet music can be challenging for many reasons. You have to look at two staffs, and sometimes this means focusing on one more than the other.

Reading the notes can be challenging also until you get familiar with each one. This takes a lot of playing.

Once skips are introduced (intervals of any size), then it becomes much more demanding. This is why it’s important to play a lot of easy music first and get a strong foundation before you begin adding intervals and chords to the mix.

How To Learn Piano Keys

One mistake people make when learning piano keys is recognizing the bottom key on the piano is A. Then they count up from A (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) to get to the key they are trying to identify.

I also see people make this mistake with middle C. They memorize where middle C is on the piano, but they don’t memorize anything else, so they have to count up or down to the correct note. This is a very slow way of learning, inhibiting you from memorizing the notes properly.

The best way to memorize the keys is with a piano key chart. Do not put stickers on your piano with the names of the keys. This will create a permanent impediment to learning the notes because you will come to depend on your stickers.

Instead, use a chart. Pick a note at random and look carefully at where it is positioned between the white and black keys. This is spacial recognition and is precisely what you need to memorize the keys.

Supposing you chose E, play all the E’s from the bottom of the piano to the top saying “E” out loud as you go. The next step would be to pick another note, specifically a random one. You should never go in order - like from E to F to G to A, etc.

Mixing them up will force your brain to recognize their unique place on the piano and strengthen your memory of each key. It is very important to jump from note to note when doing this exercise.

This exercise should be done several times daily to stay fresh in your mind. Over a period of just a few weeks, you’ll have expertly memorized all the keys on the piano.

How To Learn Piano Notes

One little trick to remembering the lines and spaces on the staff is to memorize their acronyms. The treble clef spaces spell the word FACE (going from bottom to top), and the treble clef lines use the acronym Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (EGBDF). The bass clef spaces us the acronym All Cats Eat Goldfish, and the bass clef lines use the acronym Great Big Dogs Fight Animals.

For students who are younger and have a hard time memorizing or remembering the acronyms, I usually turn it into a game with a small reward - like chocolate chips for example. I pick a word from the acronym like “cat” and have the student guess the entire acronym. They get a chocolate chip for guessing and one more if they can guess correctly whether it's treble or bass, lines or spaces.

After that, I usually just call out “Bass clef lines” and the student gets rewarded with a chocolate chip if they call out the correct acronym.

Using Flashcards And A Notebook

I recommend that my students keep a notebook so that I can write important information for them to practice and think about. The student can add anything they believe will be helpful in the notebook and keep it for their review. If a student struggles with recognizing notes, flashcards can be a useful tool to strengthen memorization.

Tricks For Learning Piano Notes

Writing in letter names is a valuable way of remembering the notes, and my students who have used this assignment have shot up high in their ability to read notes.

Memorizing acronyms, flashcards with pictures of individual notes on them, and another helpful tool is taking a music book that you will never play out of and simply writing the letter names under each note. Do that for 20-30 pages and your note recognition will be off the charts.

The key is to never use that book for playing because your eyes will default to the letters you have written in - instead of to the notes themselves. This will undo all your hard work and make it useless.

Common Mistakes With Reading On Sheet Music

For note reading, the two most common mistakes I see people making are learning the notes in order instead of at random and putting stickers on their keys with the names of the notes. Both of these techniques will handicap any aspiring musician.

How To Read Piano Chords

Piano chords should only be learned after a student has a solid grasp of the notes on the staff. A teacher should be able to point to any note on any line or staff and the student should be able to identify it immediately.

Once this is in place, students should start learning triads (chords with only three notes in them) and learning them by looking from the bottom of the triad to the top. Always begin with identifying the bottom note; it will ground you and center your hand in the right place. If you try to place all three fingers in their correct place simultaneously, it will just be confusing.

Chords should be taught alongside songs in a particular key. It’s popular to start in C, learn 1-3 basic chords, then move to the keys of G or F and so on, eventually adding the keys of D, A, E, etc. Minor keys can be taught alongside the major keys. The second type of chord to learn is the seventh chord. This chord has four notes, but for beginners, we usually remove one to make it easier to play fast.

Learning Triads

When it comes to triads, you can always re-arrange the 3 notes so that they stack themselves in thirds. Once you’ve done this, you’ve placed the chord in root position. You look at the bottom note for the name of the chord like “C” or “A flat”, then you look to see what types of thirds you have.

If the bottom third is a minor third (3 half steps) and the top third is a major third (2 whole steps) you have a minor triad. Flip that order (major third on bottom, minor third on top) and you have a major triad. So you can say C major or A flat minor - depending on the structure of the thirds in the chord.

Learning Chords

Learning chords takes time. It can be tedious to just study chords themselves, so I encourage my students to study songs that have chords in them. That way they are playing beautiful music while learning chords gradually.

Some people try to focus on too many things at the same time. I recommend you focus on and master just one key, then move to a new key - with a new set of chords. Do this until you’ve played through all the major and minor keys. This way the learning of the chords will feel effortless and you won’t have a bunch of unnecessary details to remember or hold in your mind.

Learning To Read Sheet Music Quickly

The fastest way to read sheet music is to memorize all the acronyms for the lines and spaces and then apply that knowledge by writing in letter names inside a book. Make sure the book is at your playing level. Fill up the book, and you’ll be a fast reader of music. (hint: don’t play the book you’ve written in because your eyes will only see the letters you wrote and not the notes themselves)

Faster Learning Method For Reading Piano Sheet Music

The speed of learning to read piano sheet music is directly related to the amount of time you put into studying. If you want to read notes fast - fill out 10 pages of music in a book per day. After 4 or 5 weeks of that, your sight reading skills will be in fantastic shape.

My advice to my students is just be kind to yourselves. Everyone learns at a different pace, you’ll get there. Remember the tortoise won the race.

There is no normal speed for learning to read sheet music. As an adult you should aim to spend at least an hour a day studying music. Those hours will add up fast and you will be a spectacular pianist in no time.

Don’t rush the process of learning the keys. Remember that repetition is the Mother of learning. Also, when you are writing down letter names in a book, go slowly, take your time, think. Ask yourself, does this note have a flat or a sharp on it? etc.

Literally the only thing that will speed up your learning is increasing the amount of time you put into it. If you really want to learn fast, take lessons twice a week and double or triple the hour that you would normally put into practicing.

Do I Need A Teacher To Read Piano Sheet Music?

Reading music is complex, there are a lot of moving parts. A good teacher will see exactly where you are struggling and will come up with a creative solution tailored to your needs that will help you learn. Sometimes, I invent games or incentives to encourage note reading. A bad teacher simply won’t provide this type of support, and they won’t bring the creativity needed to the lesson.

How To Find A Good Piano Teacher

Ask your potential piano teacher to describe their process for teaching piano and for teaching students to read notes specifically. A good teacher will already have a thought out process on the tip of their tongue that they find easy to explain. Ask them how they help struggling piano students. Ask them to tell you stories about students who have overcome some sort of obstacle and ask how the teacher helped them to overcome it.

Next Steps

If you are interested in taking your skill to the next level, I've been teaching piano for over 20 years and would be more than happy to meet with you and discuss your goals for learning piano. Contact me to today and I'll take your music reading ability to the a new level.

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