How to Read Piano Music

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Would you like to learn how to read piano music better? Here is a piano lesson which will help to make note reading easier.

Improve Your Note Reading!

Learn how to read piano sheet music.

The skill of reading piano music fluently is important to master as you are studying a piece of music. This is a process that starts with decoding the notes, or the patterns of the notes in the piece.

Remember that this process of learning the notes is just one of many, and knowing how to read the notes of a piece doesn’t actually mean you know the piece yet.

But we do want to master learning the notes of a composition as quickly as possible, so we can focus on expression and how to interpret the piece...

How to Read Piano Music 

Reading Patterns

The good news are that there are "tricks" to learn how to read piano music easier. This is what some piano students seem to grasp instinctively, that notes should be read as patterns, or clusters of patterns.

Each pattern represents a certain hand or arm movement, as well as a typical fingering. Much like reading words- when you scan through a text, you read words not letters and sentences more than each word at a time.

Seeing the notes as groups, as “words” or “sentences”, makes it easier for your brain to quickly decode what it means to play this pattern. Reading note by note (letter by letter) makes learning slow, and gives you no sense of context.

OK. So Give Me a Concrete Example

When learning how to read piano music we can observe that piano music consists of three basic groups of patterns:

  1. Scales
  2. Chords
  3. Intervals

That is only three groups. Each group of patterns represents millions of possibilities, of course, but it is still just three groups.

Learn How to Read Piano Music
Step By Step

  • Start by studying each group separately as technical exercises and learn about the fingering and how the pattern of each scale, chord, arpeggio and interval looks like both with the notes, and on the piano keys.

Tip: A "scale pattern" has only steps* moving up or down, a repeat here and there is OK, but end where there is a skip which is an interval. (*Unless it is not a diatonic scale.)

  • Then pick an easy piano piece, and look at the patterns you see. If you have a photo copy you can be ruthless in marking with color all you see.
  1. I would suggest picking one color; let’s say green, for scales.
  2. Circle, or mark clearly the beginning and end of any scale patterns that you can find.
  3. Mark or circle all intervals with say, blue.
  4. Finally, circle all chords, broken, blocked or arpeggios with red.
  5. Now, identify each scale, chord or interval.

I have done that to show you in this famous sonatina in C major by Clementi: (Click here to get a free PDF).

All of a sudden you will see the piece in a new “light”. Instead of a bunch of unidentified notes in a “forest” of black and white - you can see patterns and shapes of only three concepts; scales, chords and intervals!

Your brain will "like" this very much, and apart from making it easier to learn how to read piano music, it will be easier to memorize later as well.

Now play and practice each “color”. Try to find repeated patterns of exactly the same thing (Yay, bonus!), or similar patterns that you still play using the same technique.

But wait! Music is rhythm too, and all those other little markings everywhere and the pedal, and, and…!!

True. But you can’t do it all at once can you?

When you learn how to read piano music, you need to prioritize.

The shapes, patterns and outlines (and what fingers to use) in the piece is what you need to get literally your hands on first, since these will be stored in your “motor memory”- controlled by a part of your brain commonly called “reptilian” brain, where they actually can be put on “auto pilot” when you learn more intellectual concepts like dynamics, tempo etc. (Very cool!)

So secure these movements (including the fingering) first. Rhythm is your immediate next step, and then other areas added for each repetition.

How to Prioritize What to Focus On First

Since you can't do it all at once, you need to prioritize. Here are suggestions on two levels for the order that is best to work with when learning how to read piano music:

For first beginners starting out in five finger positions, first work on:

  1. Notes. Observe how they move in steps (part of a scale), skips or leaps (intervals) and repeated notes.
  2. The rhythm.
  3. Dynamics, loud or soft.
  4. Articulation, staccato or legato.
  5. Piano pedaling.
  6. Character of the piece; happy, sad, funny, dreamy etc.

Start practicing a piece focusing on one aspect at a time:

  • The note names should be sung along, the rhythm should be clapped before playing, and counted while playing (after learning the notes).
  • At first practice slow, legato and mezzo forte (medium loud) as it gives you a more secure playing.
  • Then add dynamics, articulation, pedal if used and finally start playing in the correct tempo.

I've written a review  about a helpful software that can help you to learn to play and read piano music easily. Read more here.

For a bit more experienced players prioritize like this:

  1. Notes and how they move in patterns of scales, chords and intervals. Immediately you must also decide on the best fingering. This gets stuck at once, so make sure it is the best fingering for each pattern!
  2. Rhythm, clap and count or better yet, use rhythm-solfege (spoken rhythm like; ta-titi, etc) for shorter note values than quarter notes.
  3. Articulation: Staccato, Legato, Portato etc.
  4. Dynamics..
  5. Pedal.
  6. Phrasing.
  7. Tempo, and tempo changes.
  8. Ornamentation, if used.
  9. Interpretation, style etc.

At first practice slow, legato and mezzoforte (medium loud) as it gives you a more secure playing.

Then add each new “ingredient” gradually as you master the previous; of course sometimes you do more at once, like when you work on phrasing it is interconnected with dynamics.

And all the above is interconnected in the interpretation and expression of the piece. Integrating the parts into a whole is the whole idea ;)

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