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Piano Notes: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Reading Music

Pianote  /  Sight Reading  /  UPDATED Mar 25, 2024

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One of our most popular YouTube videos of all time is “How to Read Notes.” Which means lots of people want to learn how to read piano notes!

Knowing how to read sheet music is an extremely useful skill. It’s like knowing another language. If you know how to read music, as long as you have the necessary sheet music, you can play whatever you want!

But learning how to read music can be intimidating for beginners. Which is why we’ve put together this easy-to-understand article on how to master reading music for good.


Table of Contents:


If you prefer to watch a video, take a look at “How to Read Notes” Part 1 and Part 2. And if you prefer a more hands-on approach, check out our free course Sight Reading Made Simple.

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PART 1: HOW TO READ PIANO NOTES

The Musical Alphabet

The first thing you need to know is that each note has a name and that notes are ordered like the English alphabet. We name notes from A to G and then repeat from A again. These are the names of all the white keys:

Keyboard diagram with white notes labelled in red.

The black keys have names too. Actually, there are two possible names for them, but don’t worry too much about the black keys for now—focus on the white keys first. (The “♯” symbol means “sharp” and the “♭” symbol means “flat.”)

Keyboard diagram with black notes labelled two names (flat and sharp) in red.

So, there are 12 notes on a piano:

  1. C
  2. C♯ or D♭
  3. D
  4. D♯ or E♭
  5. E
  6. F
  7. F♯ or G♭
  8. G
  9. G♯ or A♭
  10. A
  11. A♯ or B♭
  12. B

These 12 notes just repeat over and over again on the keyboard.

If you’re new to the piano, here is a quick way to remember where notes are:

  • C is on the left of the groups of two black keys
  • F is on the left of the groups of three black keys
Keyboard diagram with C and F highlighted in red. White arrow points from the leftest group of two black keys to C. White arrow points from leftest group of three black keys to F.

Treble Clef and Bass Clef

Next, let’s get to know the treble clef and the bass clef.

Red treble clef: swirly symbol

First, let’s look at the beautiful swirl that is the treble clef, which is also called the G-clef. Usually (but not always!), seeing a treble clef means you play that section of music with your right hand. Treble clefs organize high notes (treble = high voice).

Red bass clef: looks like half a heart with two dots

Next, let’s look at the bass clef, which looks like half a heart with two dots. Usually (but not always!), seeing a bass clef means you play that section of music with your left hand. Bass clefs are associated with low notes (bass = low voice).

Piano Notes on Lines and Spaces

The treble and bass clef sit on five lines with spaces between them. The five lines are called a staff.

Red treble clef on five black lines, with curl around second line from bottom.
Red bass clef on five black lines, with two dots hugging second line from top.

In piano music, the treble and bass clef are joined together by a brace. This is called the grand staff:

Red treble clef against five lines on top of red bass clef against five lines with red bracket { joining them.

These lines and spaces are where our notes will sit. Notes that sit on higher lines and spaces are higher pitched than notes that sit on lower lines and spaces.

Treble and bass clef on grand staff with red whole notes. Notes higher on the staff labelled "higher."

Going from a line to a space is a “step,” while going from line to line or space to space is a “skip.” Here are how the notes from the keyboard we saw above correspond to notes on lines and spaces:

Grand staff of notes from G2 to F5 mapped onto keyboard diagram.

The first note most piano students learn to read is Middle C. Middle C sits between the treble and bass clefs. It has a line through it—this is called a ledger line. Ledger lines anchor notes that sit outside the five lines of the staff. 

Red Middle C (circle with line through) on treble clef staff just below bottom line.
Red Middle C (circle with line through) on bass clef staff just above top line.

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Piano Note Values

Two things tell you how many beats a note should be played for: the time signature and the note value.

Note Values

Let’s focus on note values first. The “biggest” note is the whole note. One whole note can be divided into two half notes, and one half note divides into two quarter notes. We can keep dividing notes like this:

Tree diagram: whole note (open circle) divides into two half notes (open circle with stem). Half notes divide into 4 quarter notes (filled circle with stem). Quarter notes divide into 8 eighth notes (filled circles with stems connected by horizontal bar). Quarter notes divide into 16 sixteenth notes (same as eighth notes joined in fours with 2 bars).

Eighth notes and sixteenth notes have flags that can be joined together. This groups the notes to make reading them easier:

Eighth Notes

Single eighth note with flag, two eighth notes joined by bar, four eighth notes joined by bar.

16th Notes

Single sixteenth note with flag, two sixteenth notes joined by bar, four sixteenth notes joined by bar.

Time Signature

If you’ve taken music lessons before, you may have learned that whole notes are worth four beats and quarter notes are worth one. This isn’t always true because how many beats a note is worth depends on the time signature.

The time signature is located at the beginning of music right after the clef. The top number tells you how many beats will be in each measure (measure = a unit of music separated by bar lines). The bottom number tells you what type of note is worth 1 beat.

As a beginner, you’ll encounter common time or 4/4 most often. In common time, each measure has four beats and a quarter note is worth 1 beat.

Three measures of notes on treble clef (whole note, 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes) with 4/4 time signature in the front with beats labelled 1234.

Want another example? Take cut time or 2/2. In cut time, each measure has two beats and a half note is worth 1 beat. Therefore, to count quarter notes, we divvy up the beats and use “and” or a plus sign to count them.

Three measures of notes on treble clef (whole note, 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes) with 2/2 time signature in the front with beats labelled 1+2+.

You can learn more about cut time here.

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PART 2: READ PIANO NOTES FASTER

Now that you know how sheet music works, you may be wondering how to read piano notes efficiently and effectively. The simple answer is “practice,” but there are some tricks you can use to speed up the learning process.

Acronyms

Mnemonic devices can help you memorize the names of the notes that sit on lines and spaces. Use these popular acronyms to memorize the names of notes by using the first letter of each word.

Treble Clef Space Notes 👁️👄👁️

Treble clef staff with the following letters labelled in spaces between lines from bottom to top: F, A, C, E

Bass Clef Space Notes 🐮

Bass clef staff with the following words labelled in spaces between lines from bottom to top: All Cows Eat Grass

Treble Clef Line Notes 😋

Treble clef staff with the following words labelled on the lines from bottom to top: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

Bass Clef Line Notes 🤤

Bass clef staff with the following words labelled on the lines from bottom to top: Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always

Hungry? Grab some fudge 🍫 and read on to learn about landmark notes…

Landmark Notes

Another way to read music more efficiently is to memorize some landmark notes. These are notes you know very, very well. And you can then think of other notes in relation to these notes.

Some good landmark notes on the treble clef are G and high C. You can think of other notes as steps and skips away from these notes:

Notes on treble clef staff. G (note on second line from bottom) has location flag and A is one step up from it. C (note second space from top) has location flag and E is one skip above it.

A good landmark note for the bass clef is F.

Landmark note F on bass clef with E (1 step down from F) and A (1 skip from F).
Fun Fact: The bass clef is also called the F-clef and the treble clef is also known as the G-clef. This is because the two little dots of the bass clef surround F on the staff, and the swirl of the treble clef curls around G.

You Don’t Have to Read Every Note: Intervals, Shapes, and Patterns

Here’s a secret: you don’t have to read each and every single note on a sheet of music. As you get better at reading music, you’ll notice patterns that speed up the reading process.

This is like learning how to read. We first learn how to read by sounding out letters, one at a time. Eventually, we learn to recognize words. For example, when you see the word “cat,” you don’t read each letter (c-a-t) because you can recognize the word “cat” instantaneously.

“Words” exist in sheet music too! Here are some “words” to know:

Intervals

An interval is the space between two notes. Intervals are an awesome tool to train your ear, but they can help you read music too.

A good interval to learn how to recognize is the third. If you see a line-note moving to the next line-note, or a space-note moving to the next space-note, that’s a third.

Treble clef staff with two red whole notes on the first and second lines of the staff from the bottom.
Treble clef staff with two red whole notes on the first and second spaces of the staff from the bottom.

When you see a third, you just need to recognize one of the notes. The other note is a skip away.

Another good interval to learn is the fourth. A line-note moving to a space-note or a space-note moving to a line-note like this is a fourth:

Treble clef staff with two red whole notes, one on the bottom most line on the staff and the other on the space two spaces up from the bottom.

Patterns

Music is made up of patterns. Learning how to recognize patterns that crop up again and again can help you make sense of sheet music faster.

For example, take scales. If you see a row of notes separated by steps (line to space to line to space etc.), you’re probably seeing a scale. You only need to know the first note of the pattern; everything else is just a step up or down!

Treble clef with 8 red eighth notes going up four steps and down four steps.

As you get more experienced with music, you’ll learn to recognize other recurring patterns. Such as the Alberti bass:

Alberti bass pattern on bass clef: red eighth notes going C-G-E-G C-G-E-G then G-E-B-E G-E-B-E.
Hot Take! The Case Against Sheet Music: Knowing how to read music is a fantastic skill, no doubt about it. But there’s an argument to be made about knowing how to play without sheet music. Sheet music can sometimes hamper your personal creativity. That’s why we encourage piano players to improvise, explore, and create as part of their practice routine. Don’t rely on sheet music as a crutch. Here’s an interesting lesson where we challenge a classical pianist who loves sheet music to play without it.

Chord Shapes

Note: if you’re new to chords and this section feels too advanced for you, check out How to Play Piano Chords: Triads, 7ths, Extensions & More.

Chords are the building blocks to everything in music, from classical to jazz to pop and everything in between. A chord is several notes played together at once.

Chords are an important part of harmony, but they can be intimidating for beginners to identify. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you see something like this:

Treble clef staff with whole note chords in various inverted positions.

Whew…that’s a lot of notes! Let’s take a deep breath and break things down.

A chord you can easily recognize like a word is a root position triad. With three notes stacked neatly on top of each other, root position triads like a snowman. When you see a chord like this, you only really need to identify the lowest note on the bottom. The two other notes are just skips above.

Here are three root position triads: C Major, E Major, and F Major ⛄

Triads in Root Position
C, E, and F chord on treble clef. C is CEG, E is EG#B, F is FAC.

Once you’re more familiar with chords, you’ll notice that inversions of chords look similar. You can then learn to identify first, second, third etc. inversion chords right away.

Lead Sheets: If you’re comfortable reading chord charts but are a beginner at reading sheet music, lead sheets are a great place to start. A lead sheet has the melody notated but no left hand accompaniment, only guitar chord symbols. You can learn more about these chord symbols here.

Triads in First Inversion

Same C, E, and F triads in first inversion: C is EGC, E is G#BE, and F is ACF.

Triads in Second Inversion

Same C, E, and F triads in second inversion: C is GCE, E is BEG#, F is CFA.

We hope you found this quick guide to reading piano notes helpful!

Ready for the next step? Check out How to Get FASTER at Sight Reading Piano.

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Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note. Learn more about Charmaine here.

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