How to read music notes: The beginner’s guide

23rd October 2020


While some musicians are blessed with the ability to play music by ear, most people need to learn how to read music notes to play the piano.

Without having formal training, the notes and bars can all seem like an incomprehensible jumble, but with a bit of support and a bit of practice, you will soon be able to decipher music notes.

If there is a song that you have always dreamed of learning to play – or your life-long ambition has been to learn to play the piano, what are you waiting for? With the dawn of the internet and the development of easy to use apps, there is plenty of support to be had whether you already have piano lessons or not.

How to read music

The basics of reading music are relatively simple to get your head around. To start with, on the most basic level, all music is set out on a stave, which features five lines that the music notes sit in or on.

The stave is then broken into bars that give the music its beat – how many beats are played in each bar. This is always indicated in the number at the beginning of a piece of music. Very often, this is 4/4, especially when you are learning. That means each bar is worth four beats, and the notes need to equal 4 beats.

Piano music is set out for either the right hand or the left and this is again indicated at the start of a bar of music. The treble clef sign is a signal that you will be playing higher notes (usually with your right hand), while the bass clef signals that lower notes on the left-hand side of the piano will be played.

How to read music notes for piano?

The notes are placed on the stave that indicates which key you should play – these are different for the right hand and left hand.

Using simple mnemonics, it becomes much easier to memorise which order the notes go up or down in and which letter/ key they represent on the keyboard.

The Grand Staff

The first notes you're supposed to learn to read in music are on the grand staff. The grand staff is the mixture of two staves, usually the bass and treble clef. The combined staves are played simultaneously by one person. Therefore you must know how to read both clefs.

Purpose of the Grand staff

The piano has many clefs; using one isn't enough. For example, if you decide to use bass clef, you need about 11 ledger lines whenever you want to play the note C1.

Since the piano is played with both hands, switching back and forth between clefs is impossible. Your right hand needs to play up high while your left hand has to play down low. Using grand staff makes things easier since it has two staves, one on top of the other. The top staff is usually the treble, and the under staff is the bass clef. This allows you to play music as high as you want in the right hand and as low as you want in the left hand, all at the exact time.

The grand staff is important in most music situations, from rock, pop to classical music, etc. The instruments that need the grand staff include pianos, electronic keyboards, church organ, Hammond organ, and many more.

The Treble Clef

Every Green Bus Drives Fast (for notes sitting on the lines beginning with E on the first line)

FACE – the word is spelt out with the F sitting in the first space and the remaining letters following.

The Bass Clef

Good Boys Do Fine Always (starting with the G sitting in the bottom line)

All Cows Eat Grass (beginning with the A sitting in the first space)

Ledger Lines

Ledger lines are those uncertain characteristics of reading music that can be a bit confusing. These lines located outside of the grand staff's normal range extend above or below the normal lines to include other notes that are not found on the normal staff. Sometimes you can also have ledge lines in between the treble and bass staff.

Ledger lines above the treble staff and below the bass staff can look confusing and challenging to learn. They'll take some time for you to master, but they are not too difficult because they follow the same pattern when reading them.

When reading ledger lines, take your time. Remember your patterns, and don't get frustrated if you fail to do so.

The First Ledger Line Note - Middle C

Middle C is one of the first notes you learn on a piano, and many people don't realise that it is a ledger line note until they fully understand the piano.

Note C is down below and can't be written on the stave. Therefore, a short, horizontal line is drawn through the note as a kind of extension of the stave. This line going through the middle is called the ledger line.

Why is C the first note?

The 7 musical notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) correspond to the white keys on a piano. When these notes are played one after the other, starting from C, they create what we call the major scale, a very common scale in western music. The piano was designed the way it is for this particular reason, to make it easier and obvious to play.

For example, if the 7 notes started from A, there would be a different scale that sounds less sad, and it is the natural minor scale.

Playing the 7 notes the way they are will generate 7 different scales; three are major scales (C, F, and G scale) and 4 minor scales (D, E, A, and B).

How do I memorise notes?

People understand and relate to music in many different ways, and because of this, there are also many ways you can use to memorise notes in a piece of music. Below we have listed the fundamental steps you need to follow to remember notes:

  • You must learn the basic structures used in piano music
  • These structures can be identified using the music sheet
  • Sight read the piece
  • Try and learn each significant part in the piece
  • Learn each the musical phrases within the major parts
  • Practice every day and be patient in memorising the notes.

What are the 7 musical notes?

When learning how to read sheet music, the first important thing to know is the "musical notes". These musical notes are simply seven letters, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, used to name the notes you see on sheet music.

Sheet music uses the staff to organise music notes. The staff has five lines and four spaces, and each line and space stands for a different letter (A-G), which in turn represents a note.

Music notes for kids

The mnemonic tricks are an excellent way to help kids and adult learners alike remember the piano notes.

Developing as a player means memorising the notes or working out how many keys to move up relative to the notes on a page – i.e., up to one line.

Once you have mastered the basics of which note is which, you can move on to establishing timing through crotchets (worth one beat), minims (worth two beats), quavers (worth half a beat) and semi-breves (worth four beats as a general rule), as well as incorporating sharp and flat notes.

Memorising the notes in a bar is undoubtedly the best place to start your journey as a piano player.

Pianos for sale

Broughton Pianos is a family business that sells a wide selection of pianos from its base in Stourbridge in the Midlands. This includes grand pianos, acoustic piano, digital pianos and second-hand pianos.

If you are looking to begin your journey as a piano player, talk to us about beginners' best choices.

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