Learning piano sheet music is one of the most important skills, because it will make you independent in your piano playing. If you understand what the notes, accidentals, rests or time signatures mean, you can tackle any piece that interests you right away – without the need for a teacher. In this article you will learn the advantages and disadvantages of different methods that you can use when learning music. You’ll also get tips on how to learn to read music better, but also what the notes can’t capture – because with your interpretation you fill the piece with your own expression.
Learn to read music in earlier times
After the first look at a sheet of music you are often confused. After all, the way music is written down today has evolved over hundreds of years. And today’s system has become the standard thanks to its accuracy and clarity. On the other hand, if you look at this historical sheet of music, we can be glad that we can learn piano notes in a more modern way.
These are the notes of a litany by Jacobus Barbireau from the early 16th century. Century. It was the vocal music of the time. You can discover more about how notation and the staff system evolved in the article History of Musical Notation. And right here you’ll learn why reading music is so important when learning the piano.
reading music while listening to music
The following song Let It Be you’ll find in the advanced piano course at Skoove. Even if you can’t play it yet, the Skoove app gives you a chance to listen and follow the blue markers. This way you learn to associate the sound with the symbols. The more natural you feel this connection, the easier it is for you to learn piano notes.
Learning and remembering piano notes
There are different ways to learn piano notes, musicians use them in different ways. When learning to read music, it is useful to combine the following three methods. By varying your learning in this way, you will be able to sight-read faster. These are the three methods:
- Recognize notes and orientation notes
- Recognizing intervals
- Recognize patterns
Recognize notes and orientation notes
This method is about recognizing all the notes in the piano notation. You have to learn them by heart – and because there are a lot of notes in the staff, most students and teachers use a memory aid. Maybe you already know some of them? Look at the following picture and think of a suitable mnemonic for the names of the notes. Notice: In the English-speaking world, the B is denoted by the letter B.
- The mnemonic starts at the bottom and then goes upwards.
- They designate the notes on the lines or in the spaces between them.
Here are a few suggestions:
Bass clef, lines: Gabi Hort Die Fische Atmen (In English, "Great Bears Don’t Feel Afraid" is common because of B = H).)
Bass clef, spaces: All Clowns Eat Cucumbers (All Cows Eat Grass)
Treble clef, lines: Eine Gans Hat Drei Federn (English: B = H, hence: Every Green Bus Drives Fast)
Treble clef, spaces: Find All Computers Easily (FACE)
If you’re just getting to know the keys on the piano, you might find the article Should you label your piano keyboard helpful.
Advantages and disadvantages of learning to read music with the help of note recognition
You can designate any note at any time, even without context. Therefore, this is a good method to use when recognizing the first note of a section, learning some music theory, checking to see if you’re playing the right note, or when you want to tell a fellow musician, "we start at…".
It is tedious and time consuming. The method is therefore not suitable for reading notes if you play the piano at the same time. There are better ways to do this, which you will learn in a moment. In the long run, you won’t progress very fast in learning to read music with this technique. It is also not helpful when learning notes with intervals.
orientation sheet music
Using certain notes as a guide is now a common method. Instead of memorizing all the notes as above, simply memorize 4 orientation notes in each staff area. This is much easier and therefore increases the freedom from errors and the speed of reading. Based on this, you will be able to read the adjacent notes using the interval method (which we will come to in a moment).
Here are the orientation notes to learn. Try to remember the notes and play them on the piano.
Advantages and disadvantages of orientation notes
They are easy and quick to learn. They help you find your way around the keyboard and support a form of music reading that will improve your sight-reading skills.
It can be difficult to find mistakes. For example, you play something that doesn’t sound right and you want to check it – but what if the note in question is not an orientation note?
This is a more intuitive way to learn piano notes. It is combined with the technique of orientation notes. Determine the first note at the beginning (using one of the methods above). After that, look at where the music is moving, is it up or down, stepwise or jumpwise? Now move to the next note, based on its relationship to the note you just played. You can do all this without knowing the name of the next note. It’s almost like allowing your fingers to respond to the shape of the music.
Advantages and disadvantages of interval recognition
This method has everything you need. It is the first step on the way to fluent note reading. It encourages learners to get away from the details and read each note on its own, and therefore encourages sight-reading. Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name of the note, you can play it based on its position in relation to another note.
At some point in an exercise, you’ll hit a wrong note and then the whole following phrase will sound a note too high or too low. Your ear will probably notice this, so you need to listen actively all the time. It may take longer to learn to recognize individual notes and their place on the keyboard, but the result – more fluent note reading – is well worth it.
You can learn more about learning and reading music with intervals in the article Determining and Understanding Piano Intervals.
Time for an exercise: reading music with intervals
Use the song Only If, to practice reading notes with intervals. The Skoove app will wait until you play the right note. So take your time to get a feel for the spacing between notes in this initial stage.
If recognizing intervals is the first step on the way to learning piano notes and reading them fluently – then pattern recognition is the next one. Think about how you read a text. When you see the word "note", grasp it in its entirety. You don’t read N – O – T – E and then merge the sounds into the word "note". It is the same in music.
When you’re able to read from one note to the next using interval recognition, it’s time for the next challenge: catching patterns of three or four notes at once to form little musical "words".
Time for an exercise: pattern recognition
Love Me Tender II is a good start. Try to grasp the pattern of a whole bar. For example, look at the third bar, the pattern there is: stay on the same note, play 2 notes down, then 1 note up. The Skoove app listens to you and gives you immediate feedback. When you feel more confident, choose a more difficult piece or try reading several notes at once for both hands. This is how the professionals do it when reading music.
Which method is best?
You’ve probably noticed that each technique has advantages, and it’s a matter of recognizing when which way is better. Knowing the different methods can advance your note reading: Even if you haven’t gotten to pattern recognition yet, it can motivate you to approach learning piano notes with intervals and patterns. More ideas and exercises can be found in the article Learning to read piano sheet music.
The point of this powerful concept is that for learning piano notes and remembering notes, there are many other skills that can help your learning process. So if you ever get stuck reading music, it may be because you need to improve these skills.
Recognizing these skills promises a broader, more cohesive learning experience. Here are 4 to get you started:
- Get an understanding of the keyboard
- Key feel
- Active listening
- Increased attention to the fingers
Understanding the keyboard
This is about getting good at finding your way around the keyboard, for example, knowing that if you start on middle C and play three notes up, you’ll end up at F – preferably without looking.
Practice this when learning scales, it makes the whole thing even more fun. Stop at any point and try to name that note without looking at the keys.
Feeling for the keys
This refers to the tonal language of your music. The article Understanding Piano Scales offers you a good introduction to the subject of keys.
The feeling for the key is important because someone who can read music fluently not only recognizes the notes quickly, but can also use the knowledge of the keys to know in advance which notes are most likely to occur. Simple example: a piece in G minor will most likely end on the note G.
Even though you may still you don’t have this key knowledge to "predict" the notes – the benefits definitely motivate many students to stick with it and acquire this knowledge.
This should not be forgotten, after all, it is an indispensable skill for musicians. Unfortunately, between processing all the new information and coordinating finger movements, it is easily overlooked.
Practice listening by first looking at the first four measures of the song below before listening to it. To what extent can you imagine what the piece sounds like from the notation? The Skoove app won’t play the song until you start it, so take your time to try it out. In the initial stages, it is enough to just look at the rhythm and general shape of the music. Learning here is not about how accurately you guessed the sound, but about the process and what insights you gain from it.
Increased attention to the fingers
Directing your attention in a specific direction is often the most crucial step in learning. For interval reading to work when learning piano notes, the fingers must automatically hit one note at a time. It sounds simple, but at first it feels rather unnatural to spread your fingers and cover more than a span of five notes.
If you’re having trouble reading the notes correctly or think you’re making slow progress, this could be a reason why.
Learning piano notes, reading notes – and then?
Although notation is important and reading music gives you autonomy, remember that a sheet of music only reflects a limited part of the final performance. Intention and emotion, communication and connection: none of this shows up in the notes.
"Play not the Notes; play the Meaning the Notes." – Pablo Casals, cellist and composer.
Imagine you are giving a speech in a foreign language. You don’t know the topic or content of the speech, but you have learned the basic rules of pronunciation and stress of that speech. You can probably use it to make yourself more or less understood. However, your uneven sound, inflection and rhythm would make it difficult for your listeners to understand. Now imagine you’ve taken the time to learn the language thoroughly, translated every word, and the speech is about something close to your heart. If you give this speech now, it will make a bigger impression. And here’s how you can probably easily see where the limits of just reading notes lie.
When learning, take the time necessary to become familiar with the song you want to play and what you want to express with it. Try out pieces you’ve played before to develop your piano playing skills.
You can learn more about interpretation and how to translate the notes on the sheet of music in your own way in the article Seven Essentials of Artistic Interpretation or also here.
Learning sheet music with Blue Moon
For me, the lyrics of this song always sound encouraging and the music relaxing. How do you feel about this piece? What expressive elements will you use to enhance the impact of your performance? By the way: With the Skoove app you have the possibility to practice with the left hand and the right hand separately.
More than just learning to read notes
Finally, there is of course more to a staff than just the notes. When playing the piano, you will have discovered many other symbols on the sheet of music – accidentals, time signatures, tempo and articulation signs, all of which are used to define the key, rhythm or character of a piece.
At the beginning of a sheet of music there is usually the treble clef (G clef), which encloses the note line with the note G in the lower area, and the bass clef, whose two dots enclose the note line with the F and which is therefore also called F clef. Next are the accidentals, which, depending on their number and type (# or ♭), define the key of the piece, as well as time signature indications, such as whether a song is written in 4/4 time or 3/4 time.
Note values and divisions
In addition, you should also pay attention to the different note values when learning to read music. A whole note is easy to recognize because it has no stem, a half note has a stem, but its head is not filled in. A quarter note has a filled-in head, and shorter note values have a flag added to the stem of the note: So an eighth note has one flag, a sixteenth note has two, and so on. What you’ve probably also seen before: Sometimes the short note values are also connected with one or more bars. A dot after a note, on the other hand, extends the note value by half.
You can find more on this topic in the article What are quarter, half and whole notes??
Other methods for learning piano notes
Reading music is a very useful skill that you can supplement with learning to play by ear and improvise. All together it will definitely enrich your musical journey on the piano. You can read more about this in the article Playing the piano by ear – without reading music.
As you put these suggestions into practice, remember that there is no completely right or completely wrong method to learning. Take a look at the different possibilities and variations, and find out which one suits you best in which context and at which time when you learn to read music.