How to Read Piano Notes

How to read piano notes! Here is a compact music theory lesson about the very tools we use to read and write music with.


Musical notes are what we use to write down sound with.

A note can show us two things; how high or low the sound (pitch) is and how long or short the note is (duration).

Pitch:

Music pitch means how high (treble) or low (bass) sound a note has. The higher up the note is written, the higher the pitch is and the other way around:

Musical Pitch

In western music notation we have only 7 different basic notes. They are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet:

A B C D E F G

or as syllables (in the same order as above):

LA SI (or TI ) DO RE MI FA SOL

These notes are repeated higher and lower in the same order over and over again. These are the white keys on the piano, and the notes on the staff without any sharps (#) or flats (b).

Duration:

The color of the note head and the stem of the note tells how long or short the note is, this is called duration or the note value. White notes lasts longer, and the more "flags" a note has the shorter it is:

Note values

The Musical Staff:

Music notes are written on a music staff. A staff consists of five lines, with four spaces between. When you read piano notes, they are written on the lines and in the spaces:

Musical Staff

The Clefs:

Musical Clefs

To be able to read piano notes you have to know where to find the exact note on your instrument.

A clef is written in the beginning of the staff. A clef points to one particular note, so we can use it as a "landmark" to find all the other notes.

The musical clefs also show the general range of the notes on a staff.

There is one clef for the high pitched notes, the G or Treble Clef, one for the mid range notes, the C or Alto Clef (which is also movable), and one for the low pitched notes, the F or Bass Clef.

The G- clef tells us where G is. This is a treble (meaning high pitch) clef, so we will use it when we read piano notes from the middle of the piano and to the right. This is mostly played with our right hand:

Treble staff

The F-clef tells us where F is located. This is the bass (meaning low pitch) clef, so we will use it when we read piano notes from the middle of the piano and to the left. This is mostly played with our left hand:

Bass staff

As pianists, we don't really need the Alto, or C clef. This clef shows exactly where "middle C" is. It is used for example by viola players.

The range of a viola is in the middle so it would be impractical to have to switch between a G clef and an F clef all the time, or to have to use numerous ledger lines which makes it harder to read the notes.

Ledger Lines:

The piano has 88 keys. How can they fit on 10 lines and 8 spaces?

They can’t.

When the notes get higher than the staff, we simply add help lines, like a ladder to continue getting higher. The same with the low keys, as well as in between the staff. These lines are also called ledger lines:

Ledger lines

Note Values:

Note values refer to how long or short a note is. Actually we read piano notes and rests, or sounds and silences. A whole note generally lasts for four beats, or counts:
whole-note
A half note for two:
half note
A quarter note for one:
quarter note
Then we have even smaller note values by breaking up one beat in two, four or any number of smaller notes. One eight note generally lasts for half of a beat (So two 8ths equals 1 beat):
eight note
A sixteenth note for one quarter of a beat (So four 16ths equals 1 beat):
sixteenth note
There are also smaller note values: 32nds, 64ths and 128ths, but as a beginner you will probably not meet them yet. All note values have an equally long rest, or silence. These note values:
Note Values
Have the same number of beats, of silence, as these rests: rests

Read more about note values and rests here.

What is Beat?

Beat is the pulse you feel in music.

It is like your heart beat, regular, but can be faster or slower. It is what makes you want to dance – or not! - to a piece. It is what makes you recognize different styles as well.

The beat is organized in groups, this is called musical meter.

When you read piano notes, the meter is written as the two numbers in the beginning of the staff. This is called the time signature.

The top number tells us how the beats are organized in groups, or how many beats there are in each group or measure.

The bottom number tells us what note value we count as one beat. Often this will be a number 4, which means a quarter note is worth one beat.

On the staff the spaces where the notes are written in groups of beats, are called measures or bars. The lines dividing them are called bar lines.

In each measure the note values can be combined in any way- this is what is called rhythm- but the combined sum of them must be what the time signature tells us.

Note values are fractions, and are rather easy to count together:

How to Modify the Notes:

There are many ways to change the notes. First you can change the basic notes (the white keys) with

The sharp sign (#) raises the note to the next black key to the right. We call this a half step higher. The flat sign (b) lowers the note to the black key on the left, a half step lower. If the note needs to go back to “normal” again we use the natural sign.

So what if you are at the place where there is no black key (between e-f, and b-c)?

No problem, just use the nearest white key half a step higher or lower. This changes the note name with a simple “sharp” or “flat” after its letter name, for example C sharp, (the black key to the right of C) or B flat (the black key to the left of B).

Piano Keys with Notenames

-See how the keys can have two names!

It is possible to alter the note values. There are two tricks to do that.

First, you can use a dot. The dot after the note makes it longer with half its value, or the note that is the next shorter.

For example the dotted half note generally lasts for three beats. And the dotted quarter note for one and a half beats, and so on.

We can also use a tie.

A tie is a line that connects two or more notes; they must have the same pitch for example c and the same c, so when you play you just hold the note longer.

In this way you can combine any note values you wish, as well as continue over many measures if you want.

The Grand Staff:

When you read piano notes, you read two staffs at the same time, one with the F- clef for your left hand and the left side of the piano, and one with the G clef for your right hand and the right side of the piano.

This is called a grand staff. The two staffs are connected with a brace:

Related Pages:

Great Resource:

Music Reading Made Easy

Learning to read notes doesn't have to be hard. Here is a great online method:

Music Reading Made Easy.



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