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reading sheet music header
Photo of Michael Lane
by Michael Lane

Chapter 5 - Reading Sheet Music (the Basics)

In the last chapter we introduced the notes and how they are placed on the keyboard. This chapter will put notes on a page by introducing musical notation, the written communication of music. If you aren’t sure whether you should learn reading sheet music, then read on. If you have already decided that you do, then reading it anyway will reassure you. Spoiler warning: We think that learning to read music, although not a must for beginners, is a very good idea.

What is musical notation?

Music is a language. Like any language, music has a written form. It’s about communication. Notation gives musicians around the world a medium to communicate. A composer notes down a piece of music with specific symbols, and if you can read music, you can understand it. They may never meet, separated by continents and centuries, but communication still takes place.

Humans have been writing music since we have been writing at all. Before notation, music was only passed on first hand, through performance, but examples of early notation have been found on tablets dating back as far as 2000 BC. Modern “staff notation”, the form we use now, was created by Catholic monks to standardise church music.

staff notation
Piece for piano in staff notation

Communicating music has changed. Audio and video recording has progressed to the point where we can document a performance precisely. This adds depth and understanding, but does not take away the need for notation, since every performance is unique. In other words, the musical notation written by the composer is the only “perfect” record of exactly what they intended. The moment it is played, the music takes on a life of its own.

Why should you learn to read music?

People may tell you that learning to read music takes time and effort when you don’t need to. Some incredible musicians never learned, and there are methods that teach you to play by ear, or using only chord patterns (more on this later).

Let’s be clear: If you don’t learn to read music, you limit yourself.

We challenge you to find a pianist who learned to read music and regretted it. But there are plenty who wish they had learned earlier. Like any language, you can get by without taking the time to read or write, especially in the beginning. In the long term, however, being able to read music holds a range of benefits, and you limit yourself without them.

It’s quicker than you think. This isn’t strictly a “good thing”. But if the only downside to learning is time and effort, it’s worth stressing that it doesn’t take that long. Notation may look like lines and dots on a page right now, but you will be reading and playing your first piece of music in no time. Work systematically, gradually build up knowledge of new notation, and you will be surprised how quickly you understand literally everything.

Sight reading. This is the ability to read a piece of music for the first time and play as you go, as easy as reading this sentence out loud. It takes time and practice, but eventually if you have the written music, you can play it. Since written music is widely available online, learning to sight read music gives you the ability to immediately play practically anything.

Reading removes doubt. Your “musical ear” develops naturally over time. But learning by ear alone requires training to identify notes, intervals and chords at an advanced level. This is a powerful skill, but even pianists who spent years developing their ear will have difficulty sometimes. It is especially tough to identify one note among many, or a rapid succession.

Say you hear a piece of music and you want to learn how to play it. If you can’t read music, you need to slow it down, play over and over, and still be unsure if you have heard it correctly. If you read the music, you will know instantly what the notes are and how they are supposed to be played, ready to get on with it.

A permanent memory aid. Playing by ear means remembering everything you ever decided to learn. Written music offers a record of anything you have ever learned, or plan to learn. If you don’t have a perfect memory, you can develop your own notation. But when there is a universal language already in place, why bother?

No boundaries. Just because you know how the composer intended it to be played, it doesn’t limit you to playing it in this way. You need to know the rules before you can break the rules. Duke Ellington created jazz masterpieces based on Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. But first he was note-perfect on the originals, which meant studying and building upon the composer’s written music.

An alternative approach - Chord notation

Genres like pop or jazz are often less specific about what the backing instruments play, so full staff notation offers unnecessary detail. Instead, musicians just need to follow a sequence of chords. A chord is a set of notes that creates a specific harmony, with a naming system that tells you which notes to include.

Chord notation usually appears in chord charts, which give chord changes and sometimes add rhythmic notation. This is useful if you plan to play in bands, jazz or otherwise. If you go this route, we recommend that you still learn staff notation. Understanding both gives you flexibility, and allows you to use variations like lead sheets. These give the lyrics and melody in staff notation, but also gives the chord changes for a lead performer to follow.

chord chart and lead sheet
Chord chart and lead sheet

Notation Basics

Note: This next section builds on ideas we have introduced in previous chapters, especially Chapter 4 - Starting to Play Piano.

The Staff

Staff notation is structured around the grand staff: two staves of 5 lines and 4 spaces, connected by a brace on the left. The top staff is usually marked with a treble clef and typically played with the right hand while the bottom staff is usually marked with a bass clef and typically played with the left hand. Middle C lies in the gap between the staves, on an imaginary line. Just as it is the centre point for orientation on the keyboard, so it is on the staff.

middle c on the grand staff
Middle C on the grand piano staff

The lines and spaces of the staves are home to various musical symbols, including notes. Notes can sit on a line or in a space. The height of the note determines the pitch. A higher line means a higher pitch, so moving up the stave represents moving right along the keyboard. We add ledger lines above or below the staff if a note is higher or lower than the 5 staff lines.

The notes

We’ll focus on the top staff for now, the treble clef. Find middle C (see Chapter 4) on the keyboard and on the staff below. From here, follow the sequence of the musical alphabet (A to G) to name all the notes found on the treble staff. On the staff, the head of the note shows the pitch.

middle c on the grand staff
Notes on the treble staff

To avoid counting up from middle C every time, we can use memory aids to identify the notes.

The four spaces of the treble staff spell out “FACE”

middle c on the grand staff
Notes in the spaces

The five lines of the treble staff are EGBDF. We’ve heard “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “Every Girl Boss Does Fine.” Use either of these, or feel free to make up your own.

middle c on the grand staff
Notes on the lines

Now that you can identify and locate notes of the treble staff, let’s look at the C position on paper.

middle c on the grand staff
The C position in staff notation

The first five notes we played with our right hand are found in the bottom half of the treble staff. Our C is on the middle C ledger line, D is just below the first line of the staff, E is on the first line, F is in the first space, and G rests on the second line. Try playing them.

Note lenghts

Moving from left to right represents moving forward through the music. Just as the position of the note tells you which key to play, the shape of the note tells you how long to play it. We will cover time signatures, subdivisions and timing symbols in Chapter 8, but to get you started:

A whole note is an empty circle and lasts four counts.
A half note adds a stem and lasts two counts.
A quarter note fills in the circle and lasts one count.

middle c on the grand staff
Whole, half, and quarter notes

That’s all you need (for now)

Now would be a great time to start practicing your reading skills by learning some of your favorite music. This is all you need to know to begin. We will return to reading music in Chapter 8, where we will cover accidentals (the black keys), key signatures, time signatures and other markings. The next chapter is all about practicing. If you haven’t chosen a learning method yet, head to Chapter 2 - Piano Learning Methods for guidance.