How to read music?

Basic information

When you look at the keyboard, you’ll see right away that the keys on it create a certain pattern. There are groups of black keys on it – two or three keys at a time. These will be our orientation point. Let’s start by finding the main key on the keyboard, the so-called ‘Middle C’. This is the key marked with the letter ‘C’.

To find it, you have sit at the middle of the instrument.
Then all you have to do is find the group of two black keys in front of you.
The ‘C’ you’re looking for will be the first key to the left of these two black keys. As in the picture below:

Once you have the ‘C’ note, you can easily find the remaining notes, they will be in order: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

We call a collection of eight notes like this an octave. You will see that C is both the first and last note in the octave.
As you’ve probably noticed, our keyboard is made up of several octaves and in each of them the same notes are repeated, i.e.: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. This order is very important so try to remember it.

Black keys

Apart from the white keys on the keyboard, you will also find black keys. We can label them in two ways.
The first way: From the white key to the left of the black key.

For example, if to the left of the black key is the C key, we call the black key C# (C sharp).
The black key to the right of the D key, we label as D#, or D-sharp.
To the right of the E key, there is no black key.
The next black key is to the right of the F key and we call this key F#, or F-sharp.
The next ones are the same – G# (G-sharp) and A# (A-sharp).

Reading music

Presumably at some time in your life you’ve come across sheet music. You probably know what it looks like – we mean the five lines, or the staff, on which the symbols and notes are written – sounds familiar, right? Now we’ll describe to you all the most important elements of musical notation.

The note

A note is a graphical symbol of sound. It tells us two things – the duration of the sound and its pitch. Notes played one after another make music.

The staff

The staff is made up of five lines. Notes can be written either on the lines or between them. The line on which the note is written (or between which lines it is written) tells us which key to press. We play the notes in sequence from left to right.

The treble clef

The staff is made up of five lines. Notes can be written either on the lines or between them. The line on which the note is written (or between which lines it is written) tells us which key to press. We play the notes in sequence from left to right.

The position of notes in the main (middle) octave

The higher the note – the higher it is on the staff, and vice versa (lower notes are lower on the staff). This is best illustrated by the diagram below:

‘Middle C’ is the easiest to remember – we write it on a line added below the staff.
We write the D note under the first line.
We write the E note on the first line.
We write the F note between the first and second lines.
We write the G note on second line.
We write the A note between the second and third lines.
We write the B note on the third line.
The next C is written between the third and fourth lines.

Reading the pitch of notes is not difficult. Just remember that each note corresponds to a letter, and so also to one of the keys.

If a note is directly above another on the staff – we play them both together.

The position of notes in other octaves

The position of notes in the other octaves follows the same principle as in the main octave. This is best illustrated by this diagram:

After the main octave ending with the C note (between the third and fourth line) we simply write the subsequent notes. On the fourth line will be the D note, between the fourth and fifth, the E note etc. When we run out of lines on the staff – we draw more above or below the staff – this way we can write both very low and very high notes.

Black keys in sheet music

How are notes played on the black keys written in music? Here we are helped by so-called ‘accidental’ symbols – the sharp and flat (# and ♭). We explained how they work earlier in the ‘Getting to know the keyboard’ section. In short, the sharp (#) raises the note by a half tone and the flat (♭) lowers it.

Duration of notes

For music to sound good it should be regular and ordered in time. That is why it is so important to read properly how long each note lasts. Two melodies at the same pitch but different rhythms are not the same melody!

Importantly – unless you know the tempo of a song, you cannot precisely define how many seconds each note will last. However, we can learn the relationship between them (e.g. a whole note lasts twice as long a half note).

Rhythmic values

The longest value is a whole note. The next are a half note, a quarter note and an eighth note. A whole note last as long as two half notes, a half note is equal to two quarter notes and so on. This is best illustrated by the following diagram:

Playing with the left hand

You already know how to read music for the right hand. Now you’re going to see how music is written for the left hand. Because you already know the basics of musical notation, understanding how to play with the left hand will be really straightforward.

Sheet music for the keyboard (including in the whole „Easy Piano Songs” series) uses notation that contains:
A single staff – to be played with the right hand
Chords above the staff – to be played with the left hand
This sort of notation is called a ‘Lead Sheet’.
For example:

What is a chord?

A chord is at least three notes played at the same time. There are two basic and most frequently used chord groups.

Both types of chords are named with the letter of the note they start with, but they differ in their notation.

Happy, or major, chords (written with the upper-case letter they start with).

E.g., the C chord.

Sad, or minor, chords (written with the lower-case letter they start with and an ‘m’ is added).

E.g. the cm chord

Play the chord in line with the note it is written above. Hold it down until the next chord appears above the staff. While holding down the chord with the left hand, carry on playing the following notes on the staff with the right hand.

This is the basic information you need. The full version of the how to read sheet music guide is available when you purchase a set of easy piano songs or as a separate book in our store here:​