How to read piano notes and sheet music
If you ask yourself what all symbols and the other stuff mean when you look at sheets with piano notes, you can find out by reading the following guide.
This is the beginning of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells”, chosen as a simple example. We will go through all the symbols and lines step by step and explain what they mean.
These five lines are known as the Stave or the Staff. The function is to hold positions for notes so the piano player know which tones to play on the instrument. Note symbols can be placed both on the lines and between them. In addition, positions above and below the five lines can occur. In these cases shorter lines, called ledger lines, marks the positions.
You could say that the positions are representing different tones. Exactly which tones will be told soon, but we also need a reference and the references in this case are the clefs and key signatures (see below).
In a musical notation system, there are also vertical lines that separate the staff into bars.
The treble clef (also called G clef) indicates the tone range for which the following notes on and between the lines belongs to. When you are playing piano, the notes after the treble clef are normally played with the right hand.
In the lower part of the notation system, you find the bass clef (also called F clef). When you are playing piano, the notes after the bass clef are normally played with the left hand. It is easy to remember since the bass notes are on the left side on the keyboard.
How the notes are arranged in the notation system
As we learned earlier, the treble and bass clefs are both indicators of tone ranges. The illustration below shows all the tones in different positions on the staves when the reference is given by a treble and a bass clef:
From the illustration, we also get the answer to the question concerning where the ranges of the treble and the bass clefs meet. The C notes expanded with long lines are the same note on the keyboard (the fourth octave from left). This is called “the Middle C” and can be seen as a meeting point for the treble and bass clef in the notation system.
Key signatures are marked by either sharps (#) or flats (b) and indicate which key the song is played in. This may be a little confusing in the beginning, depending on how familiar you are with music theory. The # symbol means that the notes on these lines are raised one step. In this case, all F notes are played as F#.
If you look in the fourth bar, you can see this symbol , which is called a natural. It indicates that the sharp doesn’t count anymore and the note is the normal F. From the beginning of the next bar, F should again be played as F# (if no natural is shown).
The next thing we see after the treble clef is 4/4 and this is called the time signature. The time signature specifies how many beats where are in each bar. This can be quite complicated, but you can play piano or any other instrument by reading notes without knowing the details about time signatures and since this is only an introduction we skip it for now. To simplify matters you can think of this as the rhythm. See Appendix B for different time signatures and explanations.
The next group of symbols is repeatedly shown in different styles in the notation system. These symbols tell the musician what tones to play (depending on their positions), and the tempo (depending on how they look like).
The notes are always read from left to right. By looking at the diagram under the heading “How the notes are arranged in the notation system” you can find out that the notes on the upper part are B, B, B, B, B, B, B, D, G, A, B. But just playing the notes won't capture the melody, we must play them with a certain tempo. As you can see the note symbols look different and the differences mark the differences in tempo.
A half note is played at a faster tempo than a whole note, a quarter note is played at a faster tempo than a half note and so on.
This is a whole note, the duration of the whole note is equal to one full bar.
This is a half note, a half note is played for a half the duration of a whole note.
This is a quarter note, a quarter note is played for a quarter the duration of a whole note
This is an eighth note, an eighth note is played for an eighth the duration of a whole note
In the bars three and four, there are also an eighth note and a half note each with a dot after. The dot means the duration is a half time longer than the original value.
Notes can also be stacked up, which is often the case when chords are involved.
Relatively common are triplets, which are indicated with a number. For example, two eight notes in a triplet will result in the time value of one and a half eight notes instead of two. Three eight notes in a triplet will result in the time value of two eight notes instead of three.
The last symbol is a rest symbol, which indicates a pause. There are different rest symbols depending on the duration of the pause, but for now we are satisfied to know that this symbol indicates a pause, a silence, in the music.
By now you should know the fundamentals about how to interpret piano notes. A recommendation is to also learn about musical terms that sometimes are written out on piano sheets and which involves more instructions about dynamic and tempo.
When you play piano without thinking about notes, you will play with small pauses and varying the tempo in a way that is difficult to transfer to notes. To still being able to transfer the playing, a method called quantization is used which means small pauses disappears and instead are the notes given expanded time values. Some extra fast played notes can be somewhat slower and so on. This is especially something that is made when playing via MIDI is transferred to notes.
The name of all note values in American and British English:
Whole note semibreve.
Half note minim.
Quarter note crotchet.
Eighth note quaver.
16th note semiquaver.
32th note demisemiquaver.
64th note hemidemisemiquaver.
Names of the most common time signatures:
4/4 common time.
2/2 alla breve.
2/4 march time.
3/4 waltz time.
6/8 six eight time.
12/8 twelve eight time.
All time signature that begins with 4 are categorized as quadruple, all that begins with 2 are categorized as duple and all that begins with 3 are categorized as triple.
Other names and their meaning:
Rhythm dots a dot placed directly after a note indicate that the note's duration is increased with half its values.
Tie a curved line connecting two notes indicates that they should be played with the duration of both their time values.
Staccato a dot placed over or under a note head indicate that it should be played more abruptly and with a shorter duration.
Tenuto a short line placed over or under a note head indicate that it should be played slightly louder (can be categorized as one of the accent marks).
Accent a horizontal or vertical wedge indicates that the note should be played emphasized (>) and loud (^).
Tempo in Italian names with corresponding beats per minute:
Largo (40–60 BPM)
Lento (52–68 BPM)
Adagio (45–70 BPM)
Andante (73–77 BPM)
Moderato (86–97 BPM)
Allegretto (98–109 BPM)
Allegro moderato (109–124 BPM)
Allegro (120–160 BPM)
Vivace (132–140 BPM)
Note that these tempo markings overlap each other in some cases; these are just rough guides and can also embrace expression indications. The tempo of the song will also depend on the time signature.
BPM (beats per minute) and time durations:
60 BPM equals 1 sec time duration for a quarter note (crotchet) in 4/4 time.
60 BPM equals 2 sec time duration for a (half note minim) in 4/4 time.
120 BPM equals 0.5 sec time duration for a quarter note (crotchet) in 4/4 time.
120 BPM equals 1 sec time duration for a (half note minim) in 4/4 time.
Although this is true, it doesn't mean that you should count seconds or half seconds when you play. This is just pointed out as a reference.