Did you know the piano is actually a percussion instrument?

Many people think it belongs to the string family, but because it actually produces sound by hammers hitting strings (the hammers are controlled by the keys), it’s part of the percussion family.

It’s important to remember this when reading piano notes because they tell you not only the pitch of the note, but also its rhythm. To learn how to read and play the pitch and rhythm of piano notes, try out the seven tips below.

#1: Labeling Piano Notes

One way to learn how to read piano notes is to label the treble and bass clefs. By labeling the spaces and the lines — and using mnemonic devices to remember them–you can begin memorizing which notes fit where.

For the treble clef, begin by labeling the spaces “F-A-C-E” from the bottom to the top. “Face” is the mnemonic device for the notes that fill the spaces in the treble clef.

Label the lines “E-G-B-D-F” from the bottom of the top of the treble clef. The mnemonic device for these notes is “every good boy deserves fudge.”

Look at the piece of music you want to play and label the notes in the treble clef. Note that this isn’t a good long-term practice, because you want to train your eye to read the notes and not the labels. But when you’re new to reading piano notes, labeling them can help.

Next, you’ll work with the bass clef. Label the spaces “A-C-E-G-B” and think about the mnemonic device, “all cows eat grass” –then just add a B at the end.

Next, label the lines “G-B-D-F-A.” You can remember these with “good boys deserve fudge always.” Again, label the notes in the piece you want to learn.

#2: Reading Piano Notes by Labeling Fingers

If mnemonic devices don’t work for you, or if you want to augment the note-labeling practice, you can label fingers. Start with the thumb of each hand and label one through five.

You can find a hand diagram or trace your hand onto a piece of paper so you don’t actually have to write on your fingers.

Middle-C, which occupies the middle space of the treble clef, will be the number one. Label two through five for the notes above and below. It’s best to pick a beginner piece that only includes five notes in each direction of the staff.

Place your thumbs on the middle C of the keyboard and play the tune according to the numbers.

#3: Flipping Your Music

Did you know people didn’t start thinking about polyphonic music until the eighth or ninth century? Polyphonic music is when there are two or more lines of music with independent melodies.

Polyphony is why reading piano notes can seem confusing at first–because your left and right hands feel like they’re playing two different songs.

But, if you flip your music clockwise, it might help you to identify the chord units stretched out (arpeggiated) across the bass and treble clefs. Then you’ll be reading your music vertically, or polyphonically.

#4: Sight Reading Piano Notes

Sight reading a piece of music is one of the best ways to acquaint yourself not only with the note pitches, but also with the rhythm.

Follow these steps to successfully sight-read a piece of music:

  1. Begin by practicing time signatures. For example, a time signature of 4/4 means there are four beats to every measure, and each beat is worth a quarter note.
  2. Next, look at the key signature. If there are sharps, move a half-step above the last sharp to get the key signature. If there are flats, the second-to-last flat is the name of the key signature (excepting the key of F Major/D minor, which only has one flat–a B-flat).
  3. Practice scales in the piece forward and backward.
  4. Tap out the rhythm of the piece with a metronome.
  5. Look through the sheet music and note any areas where you’re changing keys, slowing down, playing quietly (piano), repeating measures, etc.
  6. Sing the piece to yourself before you even touch the keys.

Now you’re ready to try to play through the music.

#5: Hunt for Patterns

Music isn’t written haphazardly, but rather in patterns. Chords, arpeggios, harmonic structures, and scale runs are just some of the common patterns in music.

By learning to recognize these, you don’t even have to read every single note. For example, if you have a scale run starting on a low E in the treble clef that goes up to a middle E and back down, you don’t need to read every note in between to play every note in between.

#6: Train Your Ear

It may not seem like training your ear to hear notes will help you to read piano notes, but in music, auditory and visual cues must work together.

A great way to get started training your ear is to find a piece of music that you have the sheet music to and a way to listen. Search the internet for piano performances of the sheet music you have, then follow these steps:

  1. Listen to the piece without looking at your sheet music once through.
  2. Listen to the piece again, this time following along on the sheet music.
  3. Listen a third time, and mark the sheet music where you have difficulty following along.
  4. Listen to the areas of difficulty until it’s easy to follow.
  5. Listen, look at your sheet music, and try to play along on your piano.

Training your ear takes a lot of repetition, but for auditory learners, it can be the most effective way to learn to read piano notes.

#7: Train Your Hands

Muscle memory can help you read piano notes by allowing you to focus on the sheet music without worrying about where to place or how to move your fingers.

Playing scales and arpeggios over and over again is the best (albeit somewhat boring) way to train your muscle memory in your hands.

Finishing Touches

Learning to read piano notes involves learning pitch, rhythm, dynamics, music theory, and so much more.

Give yourself the time you need to learn these wonderful skills, and if you have any questions, drop us a line. You can also subscirbe to our newsletter.