Piano music tips: how to read piano notes

To read piano notes you also need to learn the piano keyboard. This will explain what the keys represent as well as reading sheet music.

To learn piano notes, you also need to learn about the piano keyboard and be able to relate what you see on the page to what key to press. I always begin, as they say in ‘The Sound of Music’, at the very beginning.

First, a piano keyboard has groupings of black and white keys that are repeated all the way up and down. You’ll see two black keys, then three black keys. Middle C is the white note directly below the group of two black keys in the exact middle of the keyboard, right in front of you. Middle C is also right beneath the brand name that’s stamped on the piano. Look for other pairs of black keys and play the white key just below them. Those are the other C’s on the keyboard.

Next, locate the sets of three black keys. The first white key just below them is F. Find all the F’s on the keyboard. Then play the keys going up to the nearest C. These represent G, A, and B. Above C are D and E. The full C scale is therefore C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C.

The black keys represent sharps and flats. The first black key above middle C is called C sharp; the black key above D is D sharp, etc. There is no black key right above E, so F is sometimes written as ‘E sharp.’ The same is true between B and C. C would be known as B sharp.

In the other direction, the same black keys are called ‘flats.’ Go to B and play the black key below it. That’s B flat. The black key below A is called A flat, etc. If you’re looking for F flat, you’ll have to play E. To play C flat, play B.

When you’re reading music with sharps and flats, the composer will sometimes change back and forth between black keys and white keys. He or she will write a boxy little symbol called a ‘natural.’ That means to play the white key again. For example, if you’ve been playing a B flat and the next note is B natural, you’ll play a regular B.

Now let’s look at sheet music. You’ll see a set of five lines with spaces in between, also called a ‘staff.’ This staff begins with a large fancy symbol that resembles a backwards ‘S.’ This is called the G clef, or treble clef, and represents all the notes above middle C.

Middle C itself is not on the staff but has its own line all right below it. D will be just below the first line on the staff, and E is the first actual line note on the staff.

There are handy sayings for remembering the line notes and space notes. E, G, B, D, and F can be ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’ or ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.’ There are many variations on this, and you can make up your own. I’ve heard ‘Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips,’ ‘Even George Bush Drives Fast,’ and even ‘Ernie Gives Bert Dead Flies!’ The space notes are usually remembered simply as F, A, C, E, or the word ‘face.’

Below middle C you’ll see a staff for the left hand, with a symbol that resembles a backwards C, plus two small dots. This is called the F clef, or bass clef. The line going right between the dots represents the F below middle C. The next F is the note just below the first line on the bass clef.

From F, play each white key going down. These will be E, D, and C. The very bottom note on the keyboard is A.

There are also sayings to remember bass clef notes such as ‘All Cows Eat Grass’ for the space notes A, C, E and G. The line notes can be ‘Great Big Dreams For America,’ or G, B, D, F, and A.

The notes from the bass clef and treble clef combined are called the ‘grand staff.’ When starting out piano, your left hand will be playing below middle C most of the time and your right hand will play middle C and higher.

It’s best to get a beginning piano book and look at the pictures of the keyboard and the first pieces to get a feel for how to play the notes. Find a teacher who will be enthusiastic and patient, and you’re on your way to enjoying this wonderful instrument. Good luck and happy playing!

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