If you want to learn how to read sheet music for piano, you need to have a firm grasp of the basics of music notation.

That’s right, even though we’ve all had that fun music tutor who teaches us to play our favourite songs without any theory, that’s not going to help us learn music and hit our goals.

Unfortunately, whether you think it’s tedious or not, reading sheet music is an integral part of mastering any instrument.

After all, if you don’t learn to read sheet music then you’ll be very limited in what you can do with the instrument.

That’s not to mention everything you can learn from getting to grips with sheet music. Learning to read music can teach you more than just what the symbols and notes are called, but also critical elements about music such as tempo, pitch, and rhythm.

Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of piano sheet music so you can get started on your journey to musical mastery!

piano with sheet
The piano is a tough instrument to learn without a basic grasp of sheet music. Unsplash
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What are the Basics of Sheet Music?

First things first, you need to get familiar with the various notes associated with reading sheet music.

We’ll do our best to break down each of the notes and note values so you can see at a glance what’s what, and the purpose each note serves.

The three most important symbols in music are the staff, the clefs, and the notes themselves.

Staff

The staff refers to the lines on the page of sheet music.

More specifically, the staff is made up of five horizontal lines, but it isn’t just the lines you need to pay attention to, but the four spaces in between them too.

There are two staves on a sheet of music, which combined are referred to as the grand staff.

Within the individual staves, you’ll find the music alphabet from A-G. These are the notes which you’ll play when you see them pop up, and they start at the bottom left-hand corner going up and to the right.

The notes can be either on the lines or in the spaces between them, and their positioning on the vertical axis will tell you how high or low the pitch should be.

Before you begin playing, though, you have to know which staff to pay attention to. The two staves are distinguished by the clefs.

Clefs

What are clefs?

The clefs are funny-looking symbols that you’ll see to the left of the staff on a sheet of piano music.

There is a bass clef and a treble clef, and each one indicates a different register to be played. The different clefs are suitable for different instruments, too.

Bass Clef

The bass clef looks like the number 9 with a colon to the right of it.

To make piano sheet music easy, just remember that the bass clef tells you what keys you should be playing with your left hand. As such, whenever you see the number 9 and the two dots, you know it’s a portion to play with your left hand.

There are a couple of mnemonics that can be especially useful for getting to grips with the bass clef and the location of the music alphabet on it.

  • GBDFA (Good Boys Do Fine Always)
  • ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass)

The first mnemonic lets you know that the G note kicks things off in the bottom left-hand corner of the staff, which is closely followed by a B note. This continues all the way up to the A note which resides at the top of the staff to the right-hand side. However, the spaces in between each of these notes are occupied by those indicated in the ACEG mnemonic, starting at A and ending with G.

Treble Clef 

The treble clef looks like a variation of the ‘&’ symbol, so it should be easy enough to recognise quickly.

WIth piano sheet music, you should start to associate this symbol with playing notes on your right hand.

Again, like the bass clef, there are a couple of mnemonics that can accelerate the learning process and help you write and learn sheet music in piano in no time.

  •  EGBDF (Every Good Boy Does Fine)
  •  FACE

The first mnemonic, which you can remember with the mantra ‘every good boy does fine’, refers to the first five notes you’ll see on the treble clef. It starts with the E note in the bottom left-hand corner of the staff and ends with an F note at the top right-hand corner. In between each of these letters, you’ll have to remember the simple mnemonic ‘face’.

Hitting the Right Notes

music notes on sheets
Musical notation can be just like a language you don't know yet, waiting to be discovered! Unsplash

There’s a lot to know about notes, from their values to what lines and spaces mean for them.

First, though, what are sharps and flats?

A sharp note refers to a note that is played with a slighter higher tone and is labelled with the ‘#’ symbol. A flat note is a note played with a slightly lower one and is represented with a symbol that looks a lot like the letter ‘b’.

The black keys on a piano are sharps and flats, but you can also play them using the white keys too.

Each note is made up of several elements, which are as follows:

Note Head - The note head is the circle of the note, and can be open or closed.

Stem - The note stem is more of a visual aid than anything else, so you don’t have to worry too much about its purpose.

Flag - Some notes will have a flag, which looks like a curve coming off the stem. The flag tells you that you need to hold the note for longer, and sometimes connects notes to each other.

What Comes Next?

Ok so now you have a grasp of the basics of piano sheet music, there are a few more things we need to fill you in on.

Fingers and Numbers

For example, you need to know what number corresponds to each finger when playing the piano. When you first start playing, it’ll be difficult to track what your fingers are doing without watching them closely, but just like with touch typing, you want to work up until the point that you can do it without looking down.

An easy way to remember what number goes with each finger is to think of the thumb as one because it’s close to rhyming, and then from there you just count up to five from the index finger.

Time Signatures

Another important element in piano sheet music is timing.

Time signatures are essential for getting your timing just right, so you’d do well to pay attention to them each time you sit down to play.

A time signature looks like a fraction, with two numbers separated by a line.

It lets you know how many beats there are in every measure since sheet music is separated out into a unit of measurement called measures.

The number at the top tells you how many beats there are in the measure while the number at the bottom lets you know which note you need to consider as one beat.

In the beginning, the time signatures you’re most likely to see will be 4/4, 2/2, ¾, and 6/8.

Patience

This isn’t a technical skill, of course, but patience is crucial to success with piano sheet music.

Why?

Because learning to read not one but two different staves at the same time and coordinating what you read with each hand and each individual finger is challenging. You’ll make a lot of mistakes at first, and you can feel deflated.

As such, it’s important to trust the process and go into it knowing that you won’t play like Mozart.

Working with a tutor can be a great idea for easing your nerves, as they will have done it all before.

With Superprof you can find local tutors to practise your piano skills with, and you can even choose to take classes online should you wish to.

How Can you Learn Piano with Pop Songs?

playing piano
Pop songs are a fun way to learn the piano. Unsplash

If you want to learn how to play piano sheet music with letters through pop songs, then here’s what you need to do.

  1.  Learn the 12 essential keys for the piano, which encompass the musical alphabet of A-G. You should also brush up on the black keys, with the sharps and flats.
  2.  Now, learn the most popular majors and minor chords, since these are what will allow you to play pop songs.
  3.  All that’s left to do is to look up the piano chords for your favourite song et voila!

The same goes for guitar sheet music and drum sheet music. Learning how to read sheet music for guitar and learning to read music, in general, can be made much easier and more enjoyable with similar resources.

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