Reading Ledger Lines

Question: I am having so much trouble reading the part where Schubert departs from the lovely, melodic scenario at the beginning and begins this dark left-hand rolling undertone. I cannot read those left-hand notes. Can you help?

– Kat (Huntsville, Alabama, USA)

Albert’s reply: You’re referring to passages with several ledger lines, such as measure 35:

The key to reading ledger lines is to use visual anchors for each clef. These are notes that we use as references for the eyes. The low C, two octaves below middle C, is one such anchor note for the bass clef.

In this case, it’s a C-flat rather than a C natural. Since it’s a flat, this means it is a half step lower than C. C-flat should not be confused with B: They’re the same key on the piano, but they’re different notes.

The other key to reading piano music is to read intervals rather than just the note names. That means finding note visually in relation to their anchors.

Measure 35 contains double flats. You asked about the double flats in Schubert’s G-flat major Impromptu once before. Please reread the lesson this lesson on double flats after finishing this one for help reading double accidentals.

Measure 43 is another passage with very low notes on ledger lines:

Here, it’s easier to read the intervals since the notes are next to one another on the staff (i.e., the intervals are seconds).

In this case, the measure doesn’t start with a reference note but rather the note just below it, B-flat. Use that to find the surrounding notes below and above it, in this case A and C, and finally A-flat.

I designed my course How to Read Sheet Music specifically to help students overcome this very difficulty by training the eyes to recognize reference notes and ledger lines in a methodical manner. Regardless of whether you use my course or another, your first task is to train your eyes until you can name any note on any staff immediately, without a moment’s hesitation!

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