Are you just starting out with learning piano but have no idea how to read sheet music? Never fear, you can learn how to read sheet music in no time!
Many people wonder, is learning to read sheet music hard? Not really, once you know a few basics. You should be able to teach yourself by just following some simple steps.
- Learn basic music notation symbols
- Learn rhythms and symbols
- Label both hands in a diagram
- Know your scales forwards and backwards
- Use free tools available on the Internet
Once you have mastered these basic steps, you should be able to build on that and play actual music. Next, you can learn how to get better at sight reading on piano. This involves playing a piece of sheet music the first time you see it, without having seen it before. You will learn to:
- Practice sight reading all types of music
- Thoroughly examine the sheet music and make helpful annotations
- Sound out the piece of music in your head
- Once you start, don’t stop even if you make mistakes
Learn the Basic Music Notation Symbols
You can’t be expected to read in a new language unless you understand it, right? Well, that’s what the basic music notation symbols are in sheet music- its language. If you understand these, it will be much easier to learn how to read sheet music.
The staff in sheet music consists of five lines and four spaces, with each line representing a different note/letter. For example, for the treble clef staff (which represents notes you will play with your right hand), the white spaces should be labeled F-A-C-E and the lines are labeled E-G-B-D-F.
The bass clef is the notation for what your left hand should be playing on the piano. Its staff looks a bit different, with A-C-E-G on the white spaces and G-B-D-F.
Both the treble clef with its notes labeled and the bass clef with its notes labeled can be seen below:
The vertical line, called a bar, that you will see on sheet music indicates a measure. We will discuss measures further in the section on rhythm (below).
You’ll also need to learn about the value of notes, which indicates how long you hold each note. Notes have a head (the round part) and a stem (the line). The round part will be either filled in or white. If it’s filled in, it usually indicates a quarter note.
In a 4/4 time signature piece (we’ll discuss time signatures next), you would play that note for one beat. A white round part of the note may indicate a half note or whole note. If the note is white and has a stem, it is a half note, indicating in a 4/4 time signature that you would hold that note for two beats. If the note just consists of a round white note with no stem, this is known as a whole note. In a 4/4 time signature, you would hold this note for four beats.
There are many other types of symbols for note values that you must learn, including eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and notes with a dot (indicating that you hold that note a bit longer than usual) or a tie to the next note (indicating that you extend the note to the next note).
Rests in sheet music do just that – tell you when to rest from playing anything. No, this doesn’t mean you sit back and take a nap. A rest tells you how many beats of silence should be in a particular place in sheet music. There are whole rests, half rests, etc...
A great resource for learning about note values and rests in more detail can be found here.
The key signature tells you in what key the musical piece is written. It also lets you know how many sharps and flats you will be playing in the piece.
Each key has its own scale. For example, the C major scale is written in the key of C.
The key signature is indicated at the beginning of a piece of music and identified by sharps and flats. Sharps (♯) look like a hashtag symbol, and flats resemble a lower case “b” ( ♭) . For example, a F ♯ indicator at the beginning of the piece means it is written in the key of G Major or E Minor. No sharps or flats tells you that the piece is written in C Major or A Minor.
A handy guide to key signatures and what major and minor keys they correspond to can be found here.
Learn Rhythms and Symbols
The next key to learning to read music is to learn rhythms and the symbols for those rhythms.
The time signature of a musical piece will indicate its beat, or meter. It looks like a fraction and comes just after the clef sign on sheet music. The top number of the time signature will tell you how many beats there are in a measure (remember the vertical bar from above indicates a measure in a piece of sheet music). The bottom number of the time signature indicates the note value for one beat. So a whole note in a 4/4 time signature would be held for a total of four beats, a half note for two beats, and the quarter note would be held for one beat.
Various types of time signatures include:
- 4/4 time – also known as common time, four beats per measure
- 2/2 time – also known as cut time, two beats per measure
- ¾ time- also known as waltz time, three beats per measure
- 6/8 time- six beats per measure
The tempo of a musical piece consists of its number of beats per minute. This will tell you how quickly or slowly you should play the piece. Some musical pieces will have this spelled out at the top of the sheet music, i.e., 60 BPM means one note per second. Most musical pieces, however, will use Italian words such as Adagio (meaning 70 BPM, or “at ease”), Allegro (meaning 120 to 160 BPM, or “quickly and brightly”), and Presto (meaning 180 BPM, or “very fast”).
Using a metronome can help you to keep track of a song’s tempo. If you’re in the market for a metronome, here is a great one that I constantly recommend.
In the image below, the time signature is in blue and reads ¾, which means there are three beats per measure (indicated by the vertical line) and each whole note is held for four beats:
Check out this post for more information on learning to play piano.
Label a Hand Diagram
Now, how do you correlate what you’ve learned about playing sheet music to your fingers?
Using a hand diagram of both hands, you can label each finger from 1-5. On each hand, 1 would indicate the thumb, 2 the forefinger, 3 the middle finger, 4 the ring finger, and 5 the pinky.
To practice correlating your fingers to the notes on sheet music, check out some easy pieces that only use the notes C, D and E. Put your thumbs on middle C, and the other fingers will correspond to the right notes. Now it will be easier to put your hands to the music. An example, Mary Had a Little Lamb starts out E-D-C-D-E-E-E which on the right hand would be played with fingers numbered 3-2-1-2-3-3-3.
Labeling your fingers can make it much easier to think of them in terms of notes on a page.
Know Your Scales
After learning the basics of reading music, it’s important to practice your scales. (For more information on why this is important, see this post.)
Practicing scales, forwards and backwards, will help you to get your fingering correct and learn your notes in your head as you play them, over and over again. If you would like a free printout of scales sheet music for both hands, they are widely available on the internet at websites like this one.
Remember, you already know some key signatures, if you know the scales. For example, the C major scale is in the key of C, the A major scale is in the key of A, etc.
Use Free Tools Available on the Internet
Speaking of the Internet, there are many free tools available to help you learn sheet music. (If you decide you’d rather use something that you can purchase to help you, this combination of book and streaming video lessons on Amazon can help you learn the basics).
Tools that you can find on the Web include:
- MusicNotes.com- This site offers free sheet music and information that can help you learn to read it as well
- PracticeSightReading.com – This site offers practices on rhythm and melody. A free trial is offered.
- MetronomeOnline.com – If you don’t have access to a real metronome, this online version works well. There are free and paid versions.
Practice Sight Reading All Types of Music
Once you have learned the fundamentals of reading sheet music, you should be ready to sight read sheet music. This involves taking a new piece of sheet music that you’ve never seen before and trying to play it. If you are a good piano player, you should be able to sight read a piece of music pretty well. Sight reading can be a bit daunting, but also fun!
When you are sight reading, you should attempt to do so with all types of music, not just within your preferred genres. Familiarize yourself with how jazz pieces are written, classical pieces, and pop music. After you have played a variety of types of music, it should be much easier for you to attack a new piece of sheet music that’s given to you and compare it to ones you’ve played before.
While learning to sight read, you might want to play one hand at a time (for example, learn the treble clef and right hand before the bass clef/left hand). Starting with books that offer sight reading exercises is also a good idea. You can teach yourself to be a better sight reader in this way. The Faber series of books at Amazon are a good example of sight reading books that are published at various levels, so you can progress through the books as your sight reading improves.
Thoroughly Examine Sheet Music/Make Annotations
Before you even sit down to play a piece of sheet music, thoroughly examine it. Make sure you know and understand the notes, rhythm, and layout of the song. Look for any parts that you think might be troublesome to play so that you can concentrate on them when you first sight read the piece. Note any tempo changes, key changes and the like.
Make marks on the sheet music (if the sheet music is yours and you can write on it). You should mark the areas that you think might give you trouble. You can also mark the fingering that you need to use in certain areas of piece that are tricky for you. Circle troublesome areas that you think will need further concentration.
Sound Out the Music in Your Head
After you have thoroughly examined the sheet music, think about how it will sound. Mentally think of the melody. You might even hum it to yourself or out loud.
Also, if you have access to a recording of the piece of music you’re looking at, you should give it a listen. This way you’ll know what the piece should sound like once you play it. Don’t expect to be able to play it perfectly at first, however, like it will sound in the recording. It takes practice to sound that good.
Once You Start, Don’t Stop!
Once you begin to sight read and play a piece of music, don’t stop, even if you make mistakes. Just try to play through the piece a few times, mistakes and all, noting the areas that are giving you trouble. Start slowly, and don’t expect to be able to play the piece up to its intended tempo when you are first starting out with it. The more you practice the piece of music, the better a musician you’ll become!
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is there an easy, quick way to learn to read music? Yes, there are some memory tools (otherwise known as mnemonics) that you can use to remember where the notes go on the lines and in the spaces of each clef.
- For the treble clef staff, remember to label the lines: Every Good Boy Deserves Food (EGBDF) and label the spaces, FACE.
- For the bass clef staff, remember to label the lines Go Buy Donuts For Anthony (GBDFA) and label the spaces All Cows Eat Grass (ACEG). Simple, right?
How can I identify what key a piece of music is written in? There are a few tricks you can use:
- If there are no sharps or flats – you know that the piece is written in C major/A minor
- If there is one flat – you know that the piece is written in F major/D minor
- If there is more than one flat – you know that the piece is written in the key of the next to last flat in the key signature
- If there are sharps in the key signature – look at the last sharp in the key signature and go up one note, and that’s the key the piece is written in
- Do I have to learn to read sheet music in order to be able to play piano? The answer to this one is, probably. There are some lucky, talented people who can learn to play any piece of music by ear. However, some of these people have no idea how to read sheet music. If you want to be able to play different types of music at different levels of difficulty in various situations, you must learn to read sheet music.
- Should I look at my hands while playing piano or just the sheet music? Beginning piano players should look at their hands while playing music. This will help you to learn to correlate your proper finger placement with the notes on the page.
- Should I read ahead in sheet music? It is important to know what’s coming up in a piece, so reading ahead is a good idea. It does take time to learn how to read ahead in a piece of sheet music, however, and only comes with repeated practice.
- Should I try to learn more than one piece of music at a time? Yes, this is perfectly fine. Most piano teachers will give you more than one piece to practice each week. You might need to give more attention to one piece over the other, especially if it is troubling you.