How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Learn the Absolute Basics of Piano Notation

Reading sheet music means developing a reciprocal relationship between your eyes and hands, and of course this collaboration won’t form overnight; it’s a process which requires patience, and is best broken down into stages.


The Grand Staff & Its Clefs

Piano music requires a two-part staff in order to accommodate the piano’s wide range of notes. This large staff is called the “grand staff” (or “great stave” in UK English), and each individual staff within is identified with its own musical symbol called a clef. Start here to get acquainted with the piano staves and their barlines:

Memorize the Notes of the Grand Staff

The notes on the treble and bass staves aren’t exactly the same. But don’t worry, once you know how to read one, you’ll notice the same note pattern is repeated on the other in a slightly different way. Learn the grand staff notes, and get help memorizing them with helpful mnemonic devices:

Music Note Lengths in U.K. & U.S. English

You’ll have learned in the previous step that the vertical location of staff notes demonstrates pitch. Note-lengths on the other hand tell you how long a note is held, and they play a crucial role in rhythm. Learn the various note colors, stems, and flags used to indicate note-length:

Play Your Very First Piano Song

Once you become familiar with the basics of piano notation, you can put your new knowledge to use right away with an easy, color-coded guide for absolute beginners:

Free, Printable Piano Lesson Book

For those a bit more comfortable with notation, these free, printer-friendly practice lessons are available in several file formats and sizes. Each lesson targets a specific technique, and ends with a practice song so you can practice your new skills and exercise sight-reading. Start from the beginning, or pick up where you feel comfortable:

Sheet Music & Notation Quizzes!

Test your progress or challenge yourself with new lessons! Find beginner and intermediate tests and quizzes – with accompanying lessons – on a range of essential musical topics:

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Memorize the Staff Notes
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Tempo Commands Organized By Speed

Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  Notes of the Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Intro to Piano Fingering
 ▪  How to Count Triplets
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Getting Started on Keyboard Instruments
 ▪  Playing Piano vs. Electric Keyboard
 ▪  How to Sit at the Piano
 ▪  Buying a Used Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Chord Types & Their Symbols
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance
 ▪  Different Types of Arpeggiated Chords

Reading Key Signatures:

  • All About Key Signatures
    Everything you need to know about the accidentals & key signatures.
  • Use the interactive key signature locator to identify or double-check your key.
  • There are always two keys that relate to one another more than any other key. Find out what this means.
  • Comparing Major & Minor
    Major and minor are often described in terms of feelings or mood. The ear tends to perceive major and minor as having contrasting personalities; a contrast that is most obvious when the two are played back to back. Learn more about major and minor scales and keys.

Learn About Enharmony:

  • The 6 Enharmonic Key Signatures
    If you’re familiar with the circle of fifths (or you just know your way around the key signatures) you may have noticed a few anomalies. Some keys – like B-sharp and F-flat major – are seemingly absent, while others go by two names
  • The Inefficient Keys
    The circle of fifths shows only the working scales. But, if we expand on its pattern, we can see that it’s actually more of an infinite spiral, so there’s no end to the possibilities of musical scales.
  • Table of Working & Non-Working Keys
    See a clear visual of which keynotes are workable and which would be redundant.


More Italian Music Symbols to Know:

▪  marcato:    informally referred to as simply an “accent,” a marcato makes a note slightly more pronounced than surrounding notes.

▪  legato or slur:    connects two or more different notes. In piano music, the individual notes must be struck, but there should be no audible spaces between them.

▪  : "from nothing"; to gradually bring notes out of complete silence, or a crescendo that rises slowly from nowhere.

▪  decrescendo: to gradually decrease the volume of the music. A decrescendo is seen in sheet music as a narrowing angle, and is often marked decresc.

▪  delicato: “delicately”; to play with a light touch and an airy feel.

▪  : very sweetly; to play in a particularly delicate manner. Dolcissimo is a superlative of "dolce."