Read Piano Music Better

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.

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Read Piano Music

Read Piano Music in Theory vs Practice

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.

How to Learn a Melody

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):

Melody pitches

then the rhythm (stems, flags or beams and rests etc.):

Rhythm of a melody.

and finally to combine it:

Melodic movement: Rhythm and pitches combined.

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.)

Pitches vs the Melodic Outline 

 In Theory

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.

  • When first starting to play the piano, make a habit to always point and spell out each note before playing, and then as you play for each hand separately. 
  • Also make sure to practice random notes on the staff by spending a little time each day identifying all the notes on each staff, treble/G-clef and bass/F-clef. You can print my free handy flash cards to practice with here: Treble clef notes, Bass clef notes.

In Practice

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: 

Melody in steps.

and sometimes with spaces in between, also called skips:

Melody moving in skips.

Notes are also repeated:

Repeated notes.

That’s it!

So, when learning a melody you should practice to recognize the melodic outline and how it moves. The shape of the melody.

Try this:

  • Focus on a part of your melody, whatever hand is playing it. 
  • Then with your hand in front of you, follow and imitate how the melody moves up and down in steps, skips/leaps and repeats.
Melodic outline.
  • Next, as you play slowly, focus on how it feels and sounds as you play the 3 patterns; steps, skips and repeats. Listen attentively to the sound of the pitch going up and down. 

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. 

Rhythm

In Theory

Basic Note Values

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 valuesWhole, half and quarter notes. These notes and their rests, are worth whole beats. 

Alterations

Next, learn about the alterations you can make with dots and ties. 

  • A dot behind the note prolongs a note with half its value. For example a dotted half note is (usually): 2 beats + 1 beat (half of 2)= 3 beats long.
  • A tie is a line between two notes of the same pitch. This makes the note longer with the combined note values. It’s like gluing two notes together. (Must be the same pitch though.)

Note values shorter than a beat

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!

Counting

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):

Counting rhythm.

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:

Counting the meter vs using rhythm syllables

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.

In Practice

Rhythm Syllables

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.

For example:

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:

Rhythm syllables.

You might notice that using syllables makes it almost too easy!

However;

  • For simpler rhythms and longer note values it’s still more useful to count with numbers.
  • You'll also need to count with numbers while playing both hands  having different rhythms at the same time.

But for isolating tricky rhythms in a melody, rhythm syllables wins every time!

In summary

When learning a melody you need to learn both the pitches, melodic movement, counting and rhythm patterns.

Learning the pitches

  • Theory: Learn the names of the notes.
  • Practice: As you play focus on the outline of the melody, and how the notes move in 3 distinct patterns; steps, repeated notes and skips/leaps.

Learning the rhythm

  • Theory: Learn how to count the beats in each measure.
  • Practice: Learn to use rhythm syllables, especially for places where the rhythm gets more complex and uses note values shorter than a beat.

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