Learn to read piano music in in shapes and patterns. Here you'll learn how to become a better note reader by using musical and intuitive tools, not just music theory.
When starting to read music, all beginner pianists have to learn the names of the notes. It’s also important to learn how to count note values and the rhythm.
Both these skills are fundamental for being able to read and play sheet music, and this theoretical part of learning to read piano music is also what most piano students are acquainted with.
But it’s also important to understand that when actually playing and practicing; trying to decode each note name as you play, as well as trying to count the exact value of a note- will actually stop you from playing well.
This is where another kind of note reading comes in handy, and which we'll be using to read piano music more fluently in the longer run.
This practical part of note reading is like “shorthand”. A tool for making reading more intuitive. And it involves finding and identifying patterns; melodic and rhythmic patterns.
A melody is in essence pitch and rhythm combined.
When learning a melody as a beginner, it’s helpful to focus first on the pitches (the note heads):
then the rhythm (stems, flags or beams and rests etc.):
and finally to combine it:
As you become more skilled to read piano music, you’ll be able to do this simultaneously. (Except perhaps sections of the music that are really difficult. Then the method that you'll learn here will be useful as well.)
First of all you need to learn the note names. A B C D E F G, (or Do/Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La Si, depending on where you are in the world). Yes it’s important. Basic. And actually rather easy.
However, as you do the above, you will soon notice that it’s impractical and difficult to name each note as you play. Especially when you have learned it a little faster.
And you shouldn’t!
This is where the more “practical” approach to note reading comes in.
And it’s simple:
Notes in a melody move up and down. Sometimes next to each other in steps:
and sometimes with spaces in between, also called skips:
Notes are also repeated:
So, when learning a melody you should practice to recognize the melodic outline and how it moves. The shape of the melody.
Now you are reading the melody more fluently as you also will read piano music later on; as shapes and patterns.
As you'll notice, there are only 3 melodic patterns. Always.
And two are really easy- steps and repeats.
Skips or leaps, are intervals. They need a little extra effort, an can be learned as patterns as well. You can practice to identify and play intervals quickly here.
Learning to count the rhythm and the beat in music is essential as you learn to read piano music. You start by learning the basic note values: Whole, half and quarter notes. These notes and their rests, are worth whole beats.
Next, learn about the alterations you can make with dots and ties.
Continue to learn the note values and rests that are shorter than a beat: Eight notes, sixteenth notes and so on. They are often combined in different patterns, and lots of fun to play!
The time signature (the two numbers at the beginning of the staff) tells you how many beats you have in each measure (top number). And it also tells you the type of note that’s worth one beat (the bottom number symbolizes a note value).
Ex. The most common time signature is 4/4. It tells us the beats in the piece are grouped in 4 (top 4). And the quarter note (bottom 4) is worth 1 beat.
In this example you'll see how a basic rhythm is counted based on the time signature (the number of beats per measure):
This way of counting the notes is very important to practice as you read piano music, but there comes a time when counting with numbers like this becomes very "clunky", and may actually stop you from playing fluently.
In this example, you'll see how counting the beats (top) become rather unmusical. The rhythm syllables (below it) however, will make you learn the rhythm much faster and more musically so:
Please note that there are more than one way of counting and using rhythm syllables. This is a method I use with my students since it works very well.
So, as we saw above, when you come upon more complex melodic rhythm patterns with notes shorter than a beat, mixed up, rests etc., counting with numbers becomes rather clumsy.
But if you learn to use rhythm syllables, you will have all the tools you need.
Rhythm syllables is a way of sounding the rhythm before you play. It’s simple and easy to use, and will make tricky rhythm patterns super easy and fun to play.
You can learn this rhythm by counting the numbers of the beats in the measure (1 and 2 and 3 and and and 4 and etc), or by chanting syllables:
You might notice that using syllables makes it almost too easy!
But for isolating tricky rhythms in a melody, rhythm syllables wins every time!