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How to Read Piano Notes

reading music

Learning to read piano notes need not be drudgery! This article will introduce you to the basics of piano music notation.

The first thing you’ll notice when you open up any piano music is almost certainly the grand staff:

The grand staff is composed of two staves, each of them a standard five-line staff. They are joined by a brace. The upper staff generally uses a treble clef and the bottom staff a bass clef.

Other combinations are possible, however, such as two treble clefs:

… or two

bass clefs:

In the standard grand staff (called “great stave” in British English),

middle C is located midway between the staves:

This may look somewhat confusing, so to read piano notes more easily let’s align middle C directly between the staves. Middle C is one ledger line below the treble clef staff, and one ledger line above the bass clef staff. Ledger lines are “temporary” lines above or below the five staff lines for indicating notes that don’t fit on the five lines.

If we place our thumbs on middle C and our remaining fingers on the next four white keys to both the left and right of middle C, our fifth (pinky) fingers fall directly on the main notes for each staff:

The bass clef is a form of F clef, and the fifth finger of the left hand is on the F below middle C (the line between the two dots of the bass clef).

Similarly, the treble clef is a type of G clef, and here the fifth finger of the right hand is on the G above middle C (the line on which the treble clef’s spiral is centered).

Note that this is not necessarily a “proper” position for the hands; it’s only a starting point. The hands can be anywhere on the keyboard, in fact: either hand may be at either extreme of the keyboard.

One point of confusion for most piano students is that the treble clef does not indicate the right hand, nor does the bass clef indicate the left hand! Rather, the musical notation system is designed to display the notes to be as readable as possible. Since on the piano keyboard, higher notes are to the right and lower ones to the left, most often the right hand will indeed play the upper range as indicated by the treble clef (and, correspondingly, the left hand will play the bass range), but the clefs represent only ranges, not hands.

With these essentials in mind, you’re now well on your way to being able to read piano notes with ease!

Next lesson: How to Read Sheet Music

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