How to Read Music: The Basics You Should Know

You know those scenes in the movies where someone sits down at a piano and becomes the hit of the party? Everyone sings along and has a great time. Even if you don’t already know who to play the piano, it’s possible to be that person, thanks to technology. But first, you need to learn how to read music.

The basics of knowing how to read music

Music is like language. Once you have a vocabulary and know the rules for structure and sequence, you can start to read. Over time, you build skills and can read almost anything — like that party-starting piano player mentioned at the start of this article.

So, let’s get to the basics of learning how to read music.

The staff

If you look at piano music, you’ll see everything written on five horizontal lines. That’s the staff.

Piano music has two staffs connected at either end. Generally, the top staff indicates what your right hand will play. The bottom staff indicates what your left hand will play.

Each line on the staff relates to a specific key on the piano keyboard. To know which ones, you need to know the clef.

The clefs

There are two clefs: treble and bass. Clefs are marked at the left side of every staff.

Most often, the top staff will have a treble clef. (It’s a swirly symbol that extends beyond the top and bottom of the staff.) The bottom staff will have a bass clef. (It looks like an ear with two dots beside it.)

The clef indicates on which “side” of Middle C you will play. Middle C is the central key on a piano keyboard. It plays an important role in reading and playing music.

Staff and clefs together

With a treble clef, the five lines of the staff — from bottom to top — represent the keys E, G, B, D, and F. (A phrase to help you remember those letters is Every Good Boy Does Fine.) Specifically, the bottom line of the staff indicates the E key directly to the right of Middle C.

The spaces between the lines also represent specific piano keys. The first space (between the bottom and one-up-from-the-bottom lines) is F, followed by A, C, and E. This is easy to remember because they spell FACE.

When reading the bass clef, the musical alphabet is the same but it starts at a different place. The five lines of the staff — from bottom to top — represent the keys G, B, D, F, A. (You can use the phrase Good Boys Don’t Fight Anyone to help you remember.) The top line of the staff indicates the A key directly to the left of Middle C.

The spaces between the lines in bass clef represent A, C, E, G. A handy memory phrase is All Cows Eat Grass.

Measures

If you look at piano music, you’ll see vertical lines on every staff. These lines mark the measures. Measures organize music by containing a certain number of beats. The time signature tells you how many beats to a measure. (We’ll get to time signature in a later section.)

Notes

The musical alphabet is A, B, C, D, E, F, G. After G, you start again at A. As mention in the section on clef, where a note is on the staff tells you which piano key to strike. This is also known as pitch. On a piano keyboard, pitch increases from left to right. Middle C is the central pitch.

Notes are written as ovals on a staff line or space between the lines.

Each note has a duration. The most fundamental note is the whole note, written as a large oval with a thick outline. It is called a whole note because its duration (the length of time you hold it) is the whole measure.

The half note (held for half the duration of the whole note) is written as an oval (smaller and with a thinner outline than the whole note oval) with a “stick” on the side.

Quarter notes (held for a quarter of the duration of a whole note) are written as a filled-in oval with a “stick” on the side.

An eighth note (held for an eighth of the duration of a whole note) is written like a quarter note except it has a “curved tail” at the end of the “stick”.

If you see a dot beside a note, that means you hold the note for 1.5 times its normal duration.

Rests

Music is notes and the spaces between them. Learning how to read music includes recognizing rests.

Like notes, there are whole, half, quarter and eighth rests. They are always written in the vertical center of the staff. They tell you how long to not play a note.

Whole rests are written as thick bars touching the underside of the second from the top line of the staff but not touching the third (middle) line.

Half rests are written as thick bars touching the top side of the third (middle) line of the staff without touching the second line from the top.

A quarter rest looks like a pointy squiggle. Its bottom touches the second lowest staff line. Its top almost reaches the highest staff line.

An eighth rest looks like a “7” with a glob at one end. It is always placed so that it touches the second from the top staff line and the second from bottom staff line.

Key signature

At the beginning of the score, alongside the clef, is the key signature. That tells you which scale the notes are in.

The default key signature is C Major. That is the most straightforward scale and the first one everyone learns to how to play. (Try it: Start at Middle C. Play it and the next seven white keys on the piano keyboard and you’ve played the C Major scale.) Because this is the default, if there is no key signature indicated, the piece is in C Major.

All music is either in a major or minor key.

Major keys are indicated with a symbol that looks like a hashtag. This is also the symbol that tells you to play a note “sharp”. (Sharp means to play the key that is a half-step up from the note. That usually means you’ll be playing a black key on the piano keyboard.)

Minor keys are indicated with a symbol that looks like a lower case “b”. This is also the symbol that tells you to play a note “flat”. (Flat means play the key that is a half-step down from the note. That usually means you’ll be playing a black key on the piano keyboard.)

The staff line(s) that the symbol(s) are on tells you which notes are sharp and which are flat. Each key signature has a distinct set of sharps and flats.

Time signature

The time signature tells you how many beats per measure and what kind of note gets the beat. Look for it at the beginning of the score, next to the clef and key signature — and at any point where the beats per measure change.

Time signature has two numbers. The top number tells you the number of beats per measure. The bottom number tells you what kind of note gets the beat.

The most common time signature is 4/4. That means there are four beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat. If the time signature is 3/4, the quarter note still gets the beat but there are only three beats per measure.

Is there an easier way to learn how to read music?

Yes.

You can watch tutorials on YouTube. Or get apps like GarageBand or Theory Lessons. You can use music theory cheat sheets to boost your efforts.

But translating those experiences to playing a real piano is difficult. Most people never get there.

If your goal is to learn how to read music and play the piano, consider how newer technology can help.

Advantages of technology-assisted learning

There’s evidence that structured learning helps build long-term skill. But there’s more than one kind of structured learning.

Technology-assisted learning can offer the structure of repetition, rewards, progress tracking, feedback, and more.

Plus, when it comes to learning how to read music — and play the songs you love — technology can make it fun. Practicing isn’t a chore. So, you practice more. And you know that the more you practice, the better you get.

Technology integrated with a physical piano also offers the advantage of learning how to play any piano.

And then there’s the cost. You pay for piano lessons by the hour. And it takes hours and hours to learn how to read music and play the piano.

Which way is right for you?

There is no wrong way to learn how to read music and learn to play the piano. But if you choose a technology-assisted way, you might become that piano-playing life of the party sooner than you think!

If you have questions about technology-assisted piano lessons, we can help.