Piano Sheet Music

How To Read Piano Sheet Music? Simplifying Sheet Music


Music is often said to be a ‘universal language.’ But if it is a language, then music notation is its script. This is how we have been able to record and communicate music from the past to other people in the future. Being able to read notation allows us to accurately play music written by other people.

Several people were involved over the course of history to develop music notation as we know it, but it is often commonly attributed to the efforts of an Italian Benedictine monk named Guido of Arezzo. He came up with the idea of a four-line staff (which later turned into the five-line staff we have today) and a line to consistently represent a single pitch, either F or C. Until then, pitches were indicated relative to each other but lacked a consistent fixed starting point. He created a way to organize pitches according to ‘hexachords,’ which enabled music to be read by distinct intervals. This was a defining step toward the staff system we use today.

Today, there are many online resources for learning piano songs, and several of them don’t use sheet music to teach how to play a song. Midi piano videos, for example, are a popular way to learn songs on the piano without reading sheet music. While this may initially be easier than learning to read sheet music to play a song, it will ultimately be limiting, because you won’t be able to apply the skill of copying piano notes to other songs that aren’t available in that format. Playing piano without learning to read music is like learning a language without reading. While it is definitely possible, it is much more efficient and productive in the long term to learn both.

What Does Music Notation For Piano Look Like?

Piano music is written in a grand staff, which consists of two five-line staffs stacked on top of each other. Bar lines separate measures and run from the top of the treble clef to the bottom of the bass clef. Image

The Clefs

The top staff contains the treble clef or G clef, and the bottom staff contains the bass clef, or F clef. The end of the G clef curls around the second line from the bottom of its staff, which is also the line for the note G. The end of the F clef curls around the second line from the top of the staff, which is also the line for the note F. This may help you remember these notes as anchor note when you are first learning how to read sheet music.

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Time Signature

The time signature tells you what the song’s meter is. The top number tells you how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom number tells you the value of the beat. A 2 indicates a half note, a 4 indicates a quarter note, and an 8 indicates an eighth note. So in the example above, there are 4 quarter notes in a measure. This is a very common time, so much so that it is literally called ‘Common Time’ and sometimes indicated with a ‘C’ where the time signature goes instead of 4/4.


The piano is a large instrument and is able to produce a large number of different pitches. This is why two staffs are used in the form of the grand staff, in order to be able to show all the different notes. Notes are shown on the lines and spaces of the staff. A note one step higher than a line note would be in the space above it, and one note above that would be on the next line. Obviously, there are more notes than there are spaces and lines, so notes that are higher or lower than the limits of the staffs are indicated with ledger lines. These are short lines that act as placeholders for notes outside the lines and spaces of the staff.

Middle C is the ‘meeting note’ for the bass and treble clefs. This is where the clefs overlap. Middle C is one ledger line above the bass clef and one ledger line below the treble clef. Image

From middle C, the notes either ascend into the treble clef or descend into the bass clef.

Sometimes notes that are usually written in the bass clef are written in the treble clef and vice versus, using ledger lines. This is often done to indicate playing the notes with the left hand if they are written in the bass clef, and the right hand if they are written in the treble clef.


In the example above, the first measure contains the notes C, B, A, G, in both clefs. The second measure contains the notes C, D, E, F. Both clefs are showing the exact same notes, but in the first measure, the treble clef notes are written with ledger lines because they are lower than the treble clef. In the second measure, the bass notes are written on ledger lines because they are higher than what is usually written in the bass clef. The only difference is that the bass clef is usually played with the left hand and the treble clef is usually played with the right hand.

Intervals and Chords

Once you have learned the notes of the treble and bass clef, you can start working on interval recognition. This is what will really help you read music quickly. An interval is a distance between two notes. If you are able to tell where a note is based on where a previous note is, you will be able to read music more quickly than if you just figured out each individual note. Image

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Second Third Fourth Fifth

The easiest intervals to recognize are seconds, thirds, fourths, and fifths. If you remember the notes in these patterns, you will be able to recognize them in music and easily figure out notes. For example, a third above middle C is E. Here is what that looks like on the piano.


If you see a note a third above middle c, you can know that it is E without having to decipher the note by itself. Similarly, if you know what seconds, thirds, and fourths look like in sheet music and the piano, you will be able to find the second note relative to the first note easily.

This also applies to chords. Here are examples of two and three note chords. Image

This shows a second, third, fourth, and fifth. Memorize these patterns, so that you can recognize them in music. For example, if you see a fifth and the bottom note is C, you know that the top note will automatically be G. If the bottom note is D, then the top note will be a fifth up from D, which is A, and so on. Image

Using intervals to read chords with three or more notes is also very helpful.

The first chords is a C chord, and it is made with two thirds stacked on each other. This is what it looks like on the piano.


A 3-note chord with 2 thirds stacked together is also called a triad. If you were to see a triad in music with the bottom note E, you know that pattern for a triad on the piano. As long as the first note is E, you know the second note is a third above E and the third note is a third above the second note.

Rhythm and Rests

Notes look different depending on how long they are to be played. Here is a basic description of the note values and their corresponding rests. Rests are places in the music where there is not a note playing. These periods of brief silence are important to the sound of music.


Whole Half Quarter Eighth

A whole note is worth four beats. A whole rest looks like a black rectangle hanging down below the second line from the top of a staff. The bass staff here contains four measures of whole rests.

A half note is worth two beats, or half the value of a whole note. A half rest looks like a black rectangle sitting on top of the third line from the top of a staff. (A whole rest is longer, so imagine it being ‘heavier’ and hanging down under the line, while a half rest is ‘lighter’ so it floats above the line.)

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A quarter note is worth one beat, or half the value of a half note. A half rest looks like a squiggly line in the middle of the measure. There is a quarter rest in measure 3 and two quarter rests in measure 4.

An eighth note is worth half of a beat, or half a quarter note. An eighth rest looks like a 7 with a circle at the tip. There is an eighth rest in the last measure.

Why is Reading Sheet Music Important for Playing Piano?

Some people do play piano by ear and can play quite well. But they will always be limited in that if someone hands them a song, they won’t be able to play it because they can’t read music. It’s like being able to speak a language without being able to read it. You may be able to order coffee, but you won’t be able to read complex text like a book or magazine.

Reading sheet music is the way that musicians have been able to record their music and have other musicians learn and study what they have done before audio recording technology was developed. Even with audio recordings, there are still limitations on how much someone can learn. The finer points of dynamics, accent marks, and tempo markings are just a few examples of details that are difficult to discern from a recording.

How do you Practice Reading Piano Music?

There are several ways you can practice reading music. Here are some tips to start:

  • Use flashcards with notes on them and try to play the note that each card has
  • Practice figuring out intervals starting on each note (i.e. find the note that is a second above A, then a third above A, then a fourth above A, etc.)
  • Practice playing intervals apart and together as chords
  • Find a song you like and see if you can recognize the intervals between the notes
  • Make sure to practice reading the bass clef as much as the treble clef, since many people make the mistake of favoring their right hand and under practicing the left hand and bass clef

Final Thoughts

Reading sheet music is an extremely important skill that all pianists should know. Some people are able to pick up piano by ear and later feel that learning to read music would be too difficult and not worth the effort since they can already play a little bit. However, if you take the time to learn how to read and understand the ‘language’ of music, a whole world of possibilities will open up as you will be able to read and learn any piece of music you want, limited only by your playing ability.

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