Lesson 5: Learning How To Read Piano Sheet Music

Lesson 5: Learning How To Read Piano Sheet Music

I remember looking through some jazz books at the music store, taking a look at the sheer amount of black ink it took to fill in all of those notes, and promptly putting that book back on the shelf.

Yes, I play jazz, and yes, this was just last week.

No matter what level you’ve attained with your piano playing, reading music can always be a beast to deal with.  However, it can be even more beastly if you don’t have a good foundation in learning how to read music.

Why do I need to learn to read music?

It’s considered a fundamental skill for musicians for a reason:  sheet music is the map.  It tells your fingers where to go.  If you lose your place, you can look at the map and figure out how to get back on track in the path of your song.

If you have any desire whatsoever to teach music, play classical music, or play lead lines with your right hand while your left hand is vamping on chords, you need to learn how to read music.

How do I start?

Let’s start with some basic terminology:

Making sounds

The staff is the grid of five lines where notes live.

Music Staff

The G clef or the treble clef is the swirly, beautiful symbol that usually indicates that you are playing with your right hand.  Check it out—it actually resembles a fancy G!

Treble Clef

The bass clef looks like a backwards C and typically refers to playing with your left hand. However, it has nothing to do with the letter or key of C whatsoever; its actually known formally as an F clef.  (This is because the tail points to where F is located on the staff.)

Bass Clef

The combination of these tells you what kinds of sounds to make.

It also creates what is known as The Grand Staff. Basically, this means the music for the treble clef and the bass clef appear at the same time—for a pianist, this indicates that you play with both hands at the same exact time (or whatever the printed music suggests).

Grand Staff

Notes climb up the staff much like tomatoes on a vine or steps on a ladder.

Music Ladder

Each step represents moving up or down one space on the keyboard.

Piano Bar Lines

See those vertical lines up there—those three vertical lines? They are known as bar lines.  Their function is to create measures of music.  People use the term “bars” and “measures” interchangeably.

The doubly-thick bars at the end of the line indicate just that—you have come to the end. Ta da!

Making rhythms

The time signature tells you how many beats are in a measure.  Common time, also known as 4/4 (four-four) time, means there are four beats in a measure.  Fittingly, this is the most common sense of rhythm and where you are most likely to start.

Time Signature

A whole note is a note that sustains all the beats of the measure when you play it.  It is colored in halfway doesn’t have a stem, or that little line that sticks up or down from the round note head.

Whole Note

A half note is held for half of the time indicated by the time signature. So, if you are playing in common time, you’ll only hold a note down for 2 beats, since 2 is half of four—makes sense, right?  This note is colored in just halfway and comes with a stem.

Half Note

A dotted half note is a half note you hold for just one more beat; it looks like a half note with a little polka dot on the side.

Dotted Half Note

A quarter note counts for one beat.  It is the most common note and you’ll see it in all of your beginner pieces.  It has a stem and is colored in solidly.

Quarter Note

The more frequently you read music, the better you’ll get at it.

If you’ve got a Kindle, I suggest going ahead and downloading this ebook here — this inexpensive little tool will really help you out in your solo endeavor into reading music.

Don’t have a Kindle?  That’s ok—pick up a copy of this old-school classic that is guaranteed to get you reading music in no time flat. (Get it, flat? A little music humor there. Not working for you? Ok, moving on to the book then…)