How to Read Piano Notes for Beginners

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Learn to read piano notes! Here is a crash course in basic music theory and how to read sheet music for piano quickly for beginners.

How to Read Piano Notes

Musical notes and symbols are what we use to write down sounds and silences.

Did you know that a single musical note can show us two things?

  1. How high or low (pitch) the sound is.
  2. How long or short (duration) the note is.


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

Musical Pitch

Note Names

In western music notation we have 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.

When you learn to read piano notes, you need to know that the basic notes are the white keys on the piano keyboard, and written on the music staff as the notes without any sharps (#) or flats (b). 

Piano keys layout
C major scale with notenames


The color of the note head and the stem and flag 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

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The Musical Staff

Grand Piano with Sheet Music and Metronome

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 by for example the viola.

C clef staff

The range of for ex. a viola is focused in the middle of the treble and bass staff, 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 or help lines which would make it harder to read the notes.

So, an alto clef solves that problem by showing the notes that are in this range on the staff.

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 (duration). 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 lasts for two beats: 

Half note

A quarter note for one beat: 

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 8th notes equals 1 beat): 

Eighth note

A sixteenth note lasts only for one quarter of a beat (So four 16th notes 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:


Musical Meter

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.

The Time Signature

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 of the time signature tells us how the beats are organized in groups, or how many beats there are in each group or measure.

Time Signature

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 groups 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:

Note values in a measure

How to Modify the Notes

Altering the Note Names

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

  • 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 on the piano keyboard 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!

Altering the Note Values

It is also 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.

Dotted Half Note

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.

Tied Notes

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 (lower pitch) side of the piano, and one with the G clef for your right hand and the right (higher pitch) side of the piano.

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

Grand Staff

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