Are you just beginning to learn how to play the piano? Or perhaps, you do have some experience playing music but have not learnt how to read music notation, and you want to take your playing to the next level. If any of the above is you, then you have come to right place! In this article, we will be going through how to read piano sheet and notes.
Table Of Contents
Why You Should Learn How To Read Music Notation
If you're asking yourself 'Do I have to learn how to read music notation to be a good pianist?', you will find that there will always be no shortage of examples of pianists who made it very far in pursuit of their piano skills and musicianship without actually learning how to read. To name a few, pianists such as Erroll Garner, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, were said to have not known how to read music notation. Hence, to answer the question, you don't necessarily have to learn how to read music notation to be a great pianist.
However, knowing this does not mean that you shouldn't learn to read musical notes and sheet music. There are many factors at play that influences the probability of success in one's journey to become a great pianist and musician, and if succeeding in that journey is something you want to achieve, then you'd also want to do things that increases the probability of your success. While learning to read musical notation does not definitively determine your eventual success as a piano player, it will certainly position you in a much better place to succeed. If you were able to read musical notation, it affords you a 'bird's eye view', or vantage point to consume the ideas, writings and musical thoughts of musicians who are more advanced than you. Hence, learning to read musical notation could potentially open up perceptions that you would otherwise not have if you did not learn to read sheet music. Knowing this, it shouldn't be hard to appreciate how learning to read piano sheet music could position you in a better place to succeed in your piano learning journey.
Without further ado, let's get on to how to actually read sheet music. We will break down the different elements of music notation step by step, from the most basic of elements first
Element 1: The Stave (or Staff)
The Stave (also called Staff) is made up of five lines. (See above illustration) This is where music composers conveys their musical ideas, in the form of written musical notes, to the music performer; think of it as an instruction sheet from the music composer to the music performer.
In music notation, musical notes are represented by oval shapes that can be placed on the lines of the stave or in the spaces between the lines of a stave. See above illustration.
In the above illustration, notice how the notes climb up the stave by step, in a line-space-line-space manner. The position of these notes in relation to the stave determines what note it is. For example, a note that is positioned higher up on the stave represents a note that is higher in pitch, and a note that that is positioned lower on the stave represents a note that is lower in pitch.
Element 2: Notes And Time Value
As mentioned above, musical notes are represented by oval shapes that are placed on the lines or in the spaces of a stave. Now take a look at the illustration below
The above shows an excerpt of an actual sheet music, and you will notice that there are more than one type of notes; not all notes look the same - some of the ovals are shaded in while others are not, and some ovals have stems attached to them. Let's refer to these varying looks of each note as a note's 'shape'. The 'shape' of a note determines the duration you would continue holding a note for (also referred to as the time value or beat duration of a note). The basic ones that you have to know are as follows:
Referring to the above illustration, the note shown on the left has a beat duration of four counts**, and it's also called semibreve (U.K.) or a whole note (U.S.).
**To say that a note has a 'beat duration of four counts', it means to press and hold down a note, and count to '4' before releasing it. When doing so, you would want to take note of a few things:
start counting the exact moment the note is pressed, which means to say, when counting '1, 2, 3, 4' , '1' has to be spoken the exact moment the note is pressed.
the counts should be equal in duration, which means the time taken from saying '1' to '2' should be the same time duration taken from saying '2' to '3', and so on. There should not be speeding up or slowing down
The release of the note happens after 4 counts, which means that when counting '1, 2, 3, 4' , you should not be releasing the note at the same time you say '4'; the release of the note happens after. Hence it would be a good practice to say '1, 2, 3, 4, UP', and release the note at the same time you say 'UP'.
The note shown in the middle (the one that has an additional 'stem' compared to the semibreve/whole note, and it has a beat duration of two counts. It is also called a minim (U.K.) or a half note (U.S.).
The note shown on the right (the one that looks like a minim/half note, but has the oval shaded in) has a beat duration of one count. It is also called a crotchet (U.K.) or a quarter note (U.S.)
Element 3: The Clef
The positioning of the notes on the stave alone, is not enough to determine what pitch a note is; one has to also consider the clef, which is a symbol that appears on the far left of the stave. In the above illustration of an actual piece of sheet music, you will see two different kinds of clefs labelled: 1) treble clef, and 2) bass clef. There are other clefs apart from these clefs but we will only concern ourselves with these two clefs for now.
Refer to the illustration above. Notice how the position of the note on the stave is exactly the same (third line from the bottom), but they refer to different notes. The note on the left is a "B" note, while the note of the right is a "D" note. This is because the note on the left is read in treble clef, and the note on the right is read in bass clef; notes on a treble clef and bass clef are read differently. We will now learn how to read the notes on each of these clefs.
Reading Notes On A Treble Clef
The first note that you want to get to know on a treble clef is a middle C. This is shown in the above illustration. By knowing where middle C is on a treble clef, you can figure out all the other notes on the stave by counting up or down the stave in steps. Refer to the illustration below
Notice how, as the notes climb up the stave by step, in a line-space-line-space manner, each subsequent note is the next alphabet in the alphabetical order, with the exception of 'G', which is followed by 'A' instead of 'H'.
If you are brand new to music and are having trouble understanding why letter 'G' is not followed by 'H', then you'd want to know that there are only seven basic notes in music, and they are represented by the seven alphabets that run from 'A' to 'G' . Hence, after letter 'G', the sequence resets back to 'A'
Up till this point, you should have enough knowledge to figure out any Treble clef note written on a stave. Let's try to put this into practice. Take for example the following sheet music excerpt:
If you are brand new to reading music notation and are trying to determine the first note shown in the above sheet music, here's a way that you can do it.
Step 1: Copy the note in question to an empty stave and write a middle C note beside it to compare.them side by side (See below)
Step 2: Climb up the stave to get from middle C to the note in question. Be sure to do this by step, in a line-space-line-space manner; be careful not to skip steps! (see below)
Step 3: Label each subsequent note according to the alphabetical order (see illustration below), not forgetting to 'reset' to 'A' after every 'G' note.
As you can see from the illustration above, the note in question is 'G'. Hence, by counting up from middle C, you can figure out any note you want as long as they are on the stave.
However, this method of figuring out notes can be a bit tedious, especially when you are trying to figure out the notes that are further up the stave and far away from middle C. As these further notes take more steps to count to, it takes a longer time to determine what notes they are, and the longer counting process also means that there is more potential for mistakes to occur. There is however, a faster way to figure out notes for those who are just beginning to learn to read sheet music, which brings us to the next part.
Reading Treble Clef Notes A Little Faster - "FACE in the SPACE"
To make this counting process less tedious for someone who's just starting to learn to read sheet music, it would be helpful to remember more reference points (other than middle C) to count up or down from. For treble clef, it would be helpful to remember that the notes in the spaces spell out the word "FACE". (See below)
Hence, many teachers and online resources commonly teach students to remember "FACE in the SPACE". Knowing this, you now have a total of five reference points (four new ones on top of the initial reference point, middle C) to count up or down from when trying to figure out a note
Let's put this into application to see how it shortens the process of reading our notes. Let's refer once again to the music excerpt from before
Step 1: Copy the note in question to an empty stave and write the notes 'F', 'A', 'C', 'E' and middle C beside it to compare them side by side. See below illustration
Step 2: Determine which reference point is nearest to the note in question. In this case, the nearest note in question is 'E'. See below illustration.
Step 3: Climb up (or down) the stave to get from the nearest reference point to the note in question. Be sure to do this by step, in a line-space-line-space manner. (see below)
Step 4: Label the notes accordingly. If you are counting up the stave, each subsequent note is the next letter in the alphabetical order (or if you are counting downwards the stave, the order of the alphabets will be reversed). Refer to the illustration below
From the above illustration, you can see that the note in question is two steps away from our reference point of 'E'. Hence, counting up two steps from 'E', we would arrive at the note 'G'.
It shouldn't be hard to appreciate, then, that by remembering 'FACE in the SPACE', we have more reference points to count from, and this would shorten the counting process when trying to read a note.
With that, we conclude Part 1 of how to read piano sheet music and notes like a pro! In Part 2, we will continue with the Bass Clef and more!