Reading Piano Notes

Question: I just had my piano lesson yesterday and my teacher asked me to play this song and I did, and he realised that I was reading the numbers above the notes. He asked me to try play it without reading the numbers, and I had a bit of trouble.

Now for my homework he said I have to learn a song without numbers, and it takes me a long time to recognize the notes. As I said in my other email, he is teaching Do, Re, Mi, Fa, etc. I can read music but I have 3 different songs to learn without any numbers.

How can I learn this easily and get out the habit of reading the numbers?

He told me that not all songs have numbers, so he told me to not read the numbers – he said I have to get familiar with the notes.

– Courtney

Albert’s reply: This is a very important question about how to read piano notes: with or without fingering numbers?

We need to be able to do both, though these serve two different purposes.

When reading piano music, we shouldn’t rely on fingerings indicated in the sheet music. In fact, often we can ignore them outright, because the editor’s fingerings simply don’t fit our hands.

When learning piano music, I’m an advocate of writing in fingerings to gain greater security. The more complicated the music (such as fugues), the more important it is to write in your fingerings explicitly. There’s simply too much that can go wrong otherwise.

I first learned this method of writing fingerings in detail when learning music from the great Austrian pianist Jörg Demus. Demus has the most astonishing musical memory I’ve ever encountered. You can literally name any piece by Bach (whose music is the most difficult to memorize) – and many other composers as well – and he can play it flawlessly from memory.

I asked him the secret to his amazing memory, and he said it is this habit of writing in fingerings in large print, and constantly reinforcing them as he practices.

That said, your teacher is right – you do need to be able to read the actual piano notes, not just the finger numbers.

I’ve developed a whole course called How to Read Sheet Music that will definitely help you learn to read music at the piano. I cover some of the very basics, which will be superfluous for you, but beyond that the DVD and workbook reveal a professional method for reading music at the piano.

Make sure you sign up for the key-notes newsletter by entering your name and email address at the top of this page for more details about this course! It’s designed for music students exactly in your position.

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