Sight-reading can be intimidating to a lot of beginner musicians, but by learning the basics of reading music and practicing this skill, you naturally will get better at it. I will be teaching you the fundamentals of reading music so that you can apply the knowledge to your everyday practice and eventually become fluent in sight-reading music while playing the piano.
The Bass And Treble Clefs & Their Pitches
When coming across sheet music for the very first time, you’ll come across two different groups that contain several lines with funny-looking symbols, pitches, and rhythmic notation.
In this section, we’ll be focusing on these lined areas specifically. These are known as staves, and because of its range, the piano will contain both of them which are known as the bass and treble clefs.
These clefs correlate to the notes that are placed on, and in between these lines and it will be different between the two. As you become more advanced, you will have to work with them simultaneously!
Thankfully, with those strange-symbols we can distinguish between the two:
Each of these staves corresponds to a specific set of pitches that require some memorization.
However, rather than listing them out individually, this is something that’s best explained with a visual aid.
To approach this, let’s draw our attention to that middle-C. In my guide to learning the notes on the piano, I went over the significance of this pitch and mentioned that it is a meeting point between the two clefs.
The bass clef ends at middle-C, and this note becomes the beginning of the treble clef.
If you know where middle-C is on your piano, you’ll know that all notes above it will be treble and below it will be bass. On the keyboard, this just a matter of moving left or right, depending on what the music says.
Now for the other pitches, let’s start from the bottom a build up from there.
The notes on the lines of the bass clef are G, B, D, F, and A while the ones in between are A, C, E, and G.
With the treble clef, the notes on the lines are E, G, B, D, and F, and the inside ones are F, A, C, and E.
Over the years, people have created many mnemonic devices to make it effortless to memorize these pitches. You can also make your own if that works for you, but here are some of the most common ones that have passed the test of time:
On The Lines: Good Boys Do Fine Always
In Between The Lines: All Cows Eat Grass
On The Lines: Every Good Boy Does Fine
In Between The Lines: Just remember the word FACE – pretty easy, right?
The B and D notes that are sitting above and below the bass and treble clefs, respectively, generally aren’t accounted for in these little phrases but just be aware that they are there next to middle C.
Before moving on, it’s also good to know that a lot of the time, the notes on the bass clef will be played with your left hand, while the treble ones will be with your right.
There will be times where the notes will go off the staff and ledger lines can be placed above or below it when you start to ascend or descend to pitches that are outside of the original 5 lines.
Ledger lines can be scary for many beginner musicians – the small lines can gradually add up and appear overwhelming.
Thankfully, there are methods to make learning them less burdensome.
The main thing you should know is that they will continue to go in chronological order and they still follow the same rules as the staff. While the ledger lines, you will start to see familiar patterns that you’ve learned before from the regular staff.
Eventually, you’ll automatically be able to identify most of these notes through memory. For example, you’ll know that the first ledger line at the top of a treble clef will be an A. If you familiarize yourself with the skips on the staff, you’ll know that C will be on the next line, then E, G, B, D, etc.
This video shows you how learning the skips will be essential to learning ledger notes and finding them with little to no counting:
All music has rhythm, and without any notation for it on sheet music, you would be completely lost when trying to learn how to read music. You would not know how long a note is supposed to last for without rhythmic notation, and your timing will be totally off.
Let’s begin by introducing you to the necessary notations that you will come across. This chart will give you an overview of the main ones:
Each note can be divided up into what are called subdivisions and have specific values assigned to them. This illustration shows that a whole note is worth two halves, and a half can be broken down into two quarters. Although four quarter notes are equal to one whole note, in terms of total beats, they will be counted and played differently on your piano.
The rest can also be broken down and also have the same equivalencies (I.e., eighth 8th notes = four Quarters)
This pyramid demonstrates just that:
32nd notes aren’t really used too often so they won’t be focused on here, but now that you know a bit about rhythm and how the most basic symbols are valued, it’s time to go over how you’re supposed to count these things!
Here’s yet another illustration that shows you how to count basic rhythm (disregard the actual pitches):
Each of the numbers represents a counted beat whether you play the note or not. The whole note will sound like a very long “One,” but you’ll still be counting it as 1-2-3-4.
All of the measures will start and close with a bar, and as for the ones that have 8th and 16th notes in them, these ones are just as simple but are only a little bit different because they have sounds that are in between the beats.
Every one of these must sound even, and should also be counted as such. You can try to rely on your own rhythm, but one of the most helpful practice tools for all musicians is the metronome.
A reliable metronome will keep a steady beat for you at all times and help you develop your rhythm skills. If you aren’t playing in time, you will know because you have the metronome as a reference.
Some other notations you will come across are dotted notes and triplets. A dot increases the value of a note by ½ of its normal value. This might sound kind of confusing, but maybe this breakdown will clear things up:
Dotted notes can be kind of tricky to count sometimes, and certain ones will be harder than others. However, as long as you are aware of their values, you’ll get the hang of them.
Triplets are just three-evenly spaced notes, and depending on which kind you encounter, that will tell you how they fit in relation to the beats.
Eighth note triplets are by-far the most common type you will come across, and they are also the easiest to work with. Three 8th notes with a triplet sign will fit in between one beat, just like this:
Rests are another rhythmic aspect that you will need to know about when learning how to read piano music or just any kind of sheet notation in general.
In music, the rest is just a portion of silence. Depending on what kind of rest you are dealing with determines how long you will pause for.
Sadly, rests don’t share the same exact symbols as the ones that we went over, so you will have to learn and identify these rests in a piece of music, but it’s not so bad. They’re just as easy to pick up, and luckily, they’ll be counted the same as their sounded-counterparts.
Refer to this chart to learn the basic rests:
Now, when you start reading and playing from sheets, the music won’t always be this straightforward – you will have a mixture of all these, and that’s why understanding how rhythm works is crucial.
Luckily, rhythm practice can be isolated, and you can perform exercises and drills that focus exclusively on it. The Rhythm Bible by Dan Fox is an awesome resource for honing in specifically on rhythm. There are over a thousand examples in it that are suitable for beginners and experts.
Time signatures are important because they tell us how many beats fit in the measure as well what note is assigned to be the beat.
You might have noticed the numbers next to the clef on a couple of the previous examples. All pieces of music will have one of these designated right at the beginning of it.
Regarding time signatures, the top number signifies how many beats there are while the bottom one corresponds to the value of the beat.
For example, in 4/4, also known as common time (sometimes denoted with a letter “C”) the beats consist of 4 quarter notes. 6/8 has six 8th notes, 3/2 will have three half-notes, and so on and so forth.
In music, 4/4 is the most frequently used one, and it’s quite easy to get used to – even non-musicians probably know how to feel it, but might not know the name for it.
Some other common time signatures you’ll run into are 3/4 and 6/8, which commonly used for waltzes. These two might feel similar and can be counted alike, but when reading them on sheet music, they will appear differently. Another one you’ll see is a “C” with a line through it from top-to-bottom; this means “cut time” and just means 2/2.
Odd-time signatures are also something to be aware of, but most beginner piano music will not dive into these. They tend to be used for more progressive music as well. Some examples of odd-time signatures are 5/4, 6/4, 7/8, 9/8, 5/16, etc.
Once you know how time signatures work, figuring out odd-time isn’t terribly tricky, but you might have to come up with some elaborate ways to count them out, since they may sound syncopated and be accented in unusual places.
Finally, the last part you need to know about when learning how to read sheet music is the key signatures.
Key signatures, as you’ve probably already guessed, tell you what the key of the song is in. Without them, you would have no idea which pitches are supposed to be sharp or flat. They are also necessary because the staves only have room for the 7 natural pitches.
The key signature of a song is typically indicated to the very left of the time signature, and if there are supposed to be any sharps or flats, they will be placed on the appropriate space or line to let you know those particular notes must be altered.
The example above also lets us know that the piece of music is in A-major because the key signature tells us that the notes C, G, and F need to be sharp. Each key has a predetermined amount of sharps and flats in them, and it’s possible to memorize each of them so that once you see the accidentals, you immediately know what key the song is.
On the flip side, if someone asks you how many sharps and flats are in a key, you’ll be able to answer it.
One way to memorize all of the key signatures is through the Circle of Fifths. I’ll save some of the technicalities of this tool for a later guide, but to summarize, it is a diagram that moves clockwise in the interval “fifths” (or fourths if you go counterclockwise).
Starting from C which has no sharps or flats and going right, you will add one sharp to G. The key of G-major contains one sharp. A fifth from G is D, and D-major has 2 sharps, and so on and so forth.
Some other useful things to know are that the Cs are always at the extremes. While C-major has nothing, C# major and Cb major both have seven sharps and flats, respectively.
Additionally, each major key has a relative minor. For example, C-major’s relative minor is A-minor. They have the same exact notes, but they have a different starting point if you play their corresponding scales.
Lastly, there is an order of sharps and flats, and they’re not arbitrarily placed, but this is not something to worry about right now as a beginner pianist. Right now, just start memorizing these key signatures so identifying the key of any piece of piano sheet music will be effortless.
Congratulations! You’ve learned all of the basics to reading sheet music. Not only will you be using this knowledge for reading and practicing the piano, but you can also apply it to any type of instrument.
Have a favorite song that wasn’t written for piano, but you still want to try learning it? You can try to find the music for it, and adapt it to your instrument. Perhaps you might even come up with a cool piano arrangement one day!
Nonetheless, sight-reading is a handy skill that every great pianist will need to know, and it will take a lot of practice to become very fluent with it. With mastery, you will be able to handle whatever piano sheet music is thrown at you.