I’m often asked how to read sheet music, but if you’ve spent some time on my website or YouTube channel, you might have been surprised to see the title of this post. I’m pretty openly in favor of a simpler, chord-based approach to read piano. The main appeal of my resources isn’t how to read sheet music, it’s how to avoid it!
Regardless, this topic does come up a lot in relation to piano. And fairly often when I open my email inbox, I find messages like this:
“I want to know how to read sheet music. Can your course help?”
While I don’t focus on sight-reading or sheet music in my resources, I understand that some people do feel this is a worthwhile addition to their music studies. And that’s why I find myself posting about how to read sheet music here, even though I’d be the first to say it’s not my favorite thing!
My Thoughts on Sheet Music and Sight Reading
Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano!
Okay – while that quote might seem a bit excessive, I think a lot of us can relate to sitting at a piano and feeling despair! A long while ago, I was one of the millions of kids whose parents signed them up for traditional lessons. It was cool when I got to eat cake at my very first piano recital, but I wasn’t super excited about the rest of the process. Especially when I could see my friends playing around outside while I had to sit at the piano and practice!
As I got older, I improved a bit from a technical standpoint. I did learn to read sheet music, and my teacher had me work my way up from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to the “Maple Leaf Rag.”
Fast forward to me in high school, realizing that I only knew a few more songs (that I didn’t even like), despite being able to read sheet music.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
So as you can see, I haven’t had the greatest experience with learning how to read sheet music! And I honestly think that most people don’t really need to learn sight reading in order to play piano. (I’ve got plenty of posts about that, if you’re interested.)
But I do understand that there are people who have their hearts set on learning to read sheet music. Do any of these goals sound like yours?
- Being able to sight-read is on your bucket list
- Your favorite songs are classical compositions or works by modern composers (1)
- You place a high value on playing extremely accurate covers
- You want to be able to play in an ensemble or band that plays traditional songs
- Deep down, you know that playing from sheet music is the only thing that will make you play like you’re playing piano “properly
I can’t say I relate, but that’s okay! I won’t judge you for going the harder route, and you won’t judge me for preferring something simpler. Sound like a plan?
Now that we’ve agreed about that, let’s get into the good, the bad, and the ugly of how to read music. I promise I’ll keep this as simple as I can.
Reading Music: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Just like anything else you learn, there are some ups and downs to the process of building your piano (2) skills. And if your heart is set on sight reading, you need to prepare yourself for the good, the bad, and the ugly of this process.
The Good News
Here’s the first bit of good news: It is possible to learn how to read music. Does that sound underwhelming? Well I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to invest time in something, I want to know there’s a chance my efforts will pay off and improve my quality of life (3).
The next piece of good news? There are thousands of books and videos available on this topic. And there are probably of tens of thousands of piano teachers in the U.S. alone. So (in theory at least), there’s no lack of resources and information for you on your quest of how to read sheet music.
The Bad News
You already know there’s a flip side to every coin, so let’s be real here. I just told you there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands or books, videos, and teachers out there. And they’re all geared toward teaching piano, sight reading, and sheet music. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing’s wrong with that. 😉 But the fact is that no matter how many sheet music resources there are out there, you still have to do the work. There is no magic bullet or lightning bolt to suddenly grant you the power of reading sheet music. What you see on a piece of sheet music takes time to understand, and even more time to play with ease.
The Ugly Truth About Reading Sheet Music
Still with me?
I bet you can count them on one hand.
The ugly truth about reading sheet music is this: most people either never get good at it. Most people don’t enjoy learning it, most people have a hard time remembering what they’ve learned, most people don’t ever get to the point where sight-reading is effortless or enjoyable.
But enough with the negativity. If you’re still dead set on learning how to read sheet music, I can at least fill you in on the basics and help you get started.
How to Read Sheet Music: Key Words to Know
There are some important terms you’re going to need to learn if you want to know how to read sheet music. Here are a few to get you into the swing of things.
On sheet music, you’ll see at rows of lines and spaces. That’s the music staff – the notation composers use to indicate which notes to play. Technically speaking, each line and each space represents a different pitch. When notes are indicated on the higher sections, they represent higher pitches, and vice versa.
Treble and Bass Clefs
At the start of each new music staff on piano sheet music, you’ll typically see two symbols: the treble and bass clefs. These are ways to communicate a reference point for the pitch of the notes that follow.
There is a lot of technical information I could share with you here, but let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, the treble clef is for higher pitches – the notes you’ll usually play in your right hand. The bass clef is for lower pitches – the notes you’ll play with your left hand.
The Notes Themselves
Even the most basic sheet music will have notes on it. These are the spots, ovals, lines… it can be a bit overwhelming! These notes are ways to indicate different pitches plus how long they should be played.
For example, a whole D note and a half D note will have the same sound, but the half note will be played for less time. A quarter C note and a quarter F note will sound different from each other, but will be played for equal lengths of time.
Chords in Sheet Music
If you take a look at sheet music for almost any song except kid’s tunes and lullabies, the notes can look kind of complicated. Some have different shapes or extra symbols around them. They’re all over the place too – and what are those groups of notes attached together?
Those are chords! While you don’t need to understand sheet music to play with my chord-based approach, you do need to understand chords to play sheet music. These groups of notes will need to be played at the same time, and there are usually three of them.
The dreaded scales! Even if you aren’t sure what they are, you probably have heard of them. That’s because scales can mean a few different things, and what you’re probably thinking of is a type of piano exercise.
Scales are typically sets of notes that go well together in compositions. In Western music, they are usually in sets of about 7 notes, and they start with low notes, go up higher, and then come back down. On the way back down, they might follow the same pattern in reverse, or there might be differences.
Playing scales means repeating those patterns – up and down, over and over again. And over, and over again! At least, that’s what a lot of us remember from our past experiences with traditional lessons.
Octopus, octagon, octaves! What do they all have in common? You got it – they all are related to the number 8 in some way. On a piano keyboard, every set of 8 white notes contains the notes from C to G, and then they repeat again. Each of those sets of consecutive notes is called an octave. On sheet music, there will be 8 pitch lines/spaces on the staff between each new octave.
Learn to Read Piano Music Quickly
So after all that, you might be wondering how to read sheet music as easily as possible. Is there even a way to learn to read piano music quickly? Well, you need some basic music knowledge if you want to speed through some of the more repetitive aspects of learning this skill.
Learn the Basic Terms
You’ve already done this first step! Learning some of the basic terminology for piano sheet music is a good place to start. This will make it much easier to understand instructions and communicate about what you’re learning.
Learn the Order of the Notes
Reading sheet music is centered around interpreting the notes on the page. So you need to know your notes! The good news is that there are really only 12 notes you need to know. All the keys on your piano or keyboard are just the same 12 notes repeated over and over. Say them with me:
“C, D, E, F G, A, B.” Got that? I know it’s strange to start with C, but that’s what we need to do for piano purposes. And it isn’t too hard once you get the hang of it.
“But wait Jacques,” you might be asking. “You said 12 notes, but you only mentioned eight. Where are the other notes?” The answer lies in the way your instrument is set up. Take a look – see those black keys? They are sharp/flat keys, and they get their names from the keys they are between. The black note between C and D can be called both C sharp (C#) and D flat (Db). With those black notes included, you have your set of 12.
Learn to Identify Notes on Sheet Music
Again, this won’t fit here today, but it’s important that you memorize where the notes appear on sheet music. Each different note belongs in a different place on the music staff, either on a line or in a space. Notes that are many octaves away from middle C will be noted as such with special markings. Speaking of middle C…
How to Find Middle C on Sheet Music?
This is kind of a trick question, because how you find middle C on the piano is ridiculously easy. Go ahead, take a look at your piano or keyboard. If you’ve already learned your notes, you know that every 8th white key is a C note. Stand right in front of the middle of your keyboard, and choose the C note that is closest to the middle. Tada! You’ve found middle C. 😉
Learn the Basic Symbols of Notation
The next step is to learn basic sheet music notation, because without that skill everything you see is going to be just a bunch of confusing symbols that mean nothing to you. It would take way too long to explain all the different note types here, but this is something you will be working on a lot if you pursue learning how to read sheet music.
Is That All?
Of course, all of this is just an introduction to how to learn sheet music. If you continue on this journey, you’ll need to know more, including:
- Key signatures
- Time signatures
- Dynamic markings
- Pedal markings
- How to play with both hands
Practice, Practice, Practice!
The last thing I have to say about how to learn sheet music should surprise no one. After all, if you want to sit down at a stranger’s piano and play Beethoven (4), there is a lot of work required beforehand. And even after you put a lot of time and effort in…
… there is only one Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven
So let’s keep our expectations reasonable, okay? 😉 That said, practice is the most important thing you can do once you know the basics of reading sheet music.
Now You Know the Basics of How to Read Sheet Music
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
Over 2,000 years ago, Plato gave voice to this great idea – that music is something a lot more significant than just a bunch of sounds. Somehow, music inspires and uplifts people in a way that random noise never could. So it’s super-cool that you want to be a part of making music yourself!
By now you have a lot of good starting tips on how to read sheet music. You also know what you’re getting yourself into if you decide to focus on playing from sheet music notation. But even though our tastes may differ quite a bit, I am rooting for you on this journey to sight reading from sheet music. Good luck!
- Clemency Burton-Hill, Who are the 20th Century’s 10 Best Composers? http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20141015-20th-centurys-10-best-composers
- Wikipedia, Piano. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano
- Seinfeld, Figueroa, Ortiz-Gil and Sanchez-Vives, Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00810/full
- Michelle Gant, 18-year-old pizza delivery guy asks to play family’s piano, wows with Beethoven sonata. https://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/18-year-old-pizza-delivery-guy-asks-to-play-familys-piano-wows-with-beethoven-sonata