Reading Piano Keys and Notes the Correct Way
Music is the oldest and most universal language. We know a major chord sounds happy and that a minor chord sounds sad. This intuitive to us, whether we know what a major or minor chord is at all.
However, the modern form of the musical “language” wasn’t actually created until the year 1025, when modern musical notation was created. From there, music was able to be commonly spoken and shared without having to play an instrument at all.
To share in this glorious tradition, we’re going to teach you how to read piano keys and notes the right way.
How to Read Piano Keys and Notes Correctly
The piano is probably the best instrument to learn how to read music with, as it’s probably the easiest to play (arguably) and has the simplest layout of the notes. Unlike an instrument like the guitar or an even more complicated instrument like the flute, the notes are laid out linearly.
Starting at the A-note key (the white key to the left of the last black key in the grouping of 3 black keys), the notes move forward alphabetically. From A, you get A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, and then back to A again. These keys repeat themselves for the entire length of the piano. It’s very simple, and we’ll continue to expound upon the intricacies of piano keys below.
Steps and Half-Steps
In music theory, there is a concept known as “steps.” A step is the difference in pitch between two notes next to each other on a musical scale. On the piano, each key is a half-step above or below the next key before it or after it, respectively.
So, for example, the key that plays a G note on a piano is a half-step below the black key to the right of it (G#, or G-sharp) and a half-step above the key to the left of it (F#, or F-sharp). The difference between the G note and the A note, however, is one full-step because there is a black key in between them.
For the most part, white keys are a full step away from each other, but there are two exceptions. The B and the C keys are right next to each other, so they are only one half-step apart. The same goes for the E and F keys, which are also right next to each other.
To make things slightly more confusing, all of these keys have multiple names, as their positions give them the flexibility to exist under different definitions. For example, the F# key is the called that because it is a half-step up in pitch from the F key. The sound it produces is slightly more high, or “sharp.”
However, that same key can also be referred to as a G-flat note, because it is a half-step down in pitch from the G note, so the sound is slightly more low or “flat” relative to the G.
Even a whole note like the white F key can be referred to as an E# for the very same reasons. Typically, though, white keys are only called by their traditional names.
When it comes to the black keys, they are exclusively referred to as sharps or flats, depending on the piece of music being arranged. If, in a piece of sheet music, you’ll be going down in pitch, the composer may call the black keys by their flat-names instead of their sharp-names. If you’ll be going up in pitch, the opposite often occurs.
Now that you understand how steps work in music you can now learn about octaves. An octave is the distance in between 12 semitones, or half-step notes. More simply, the distance between one of the same note and the next same note (higher or lower).
For example, the distance between two A notes is an octave, the distance between two F notes an octave, etc etc. If you’re just starting out, stretching your hands this far can be challenging, but you’ll be asked to play keys an octave apart very frequently in your music career.
Reading Notes: Memorize a Few Key Phrases and Acronyms
Every piece of music sheet music has 3 main components: the staff, the treble clef, and the bass clef.
The staff is simply 5 horizontal lines where the notes are placed. On the treble clef staff is where high notes are placed, and on the bass clef staff, low notes are placed. To quickly understand how the placement of notes corresponds to notes on your piano, there are a few acronyms and phrases you should learn.
On the treble clef, if a note is placed on the bottom line of the staff, it is an E. On the next line up, the note is a G. Then, B, D, and F follow on the preceding lines. To remember which notes sit on which lines on the treble clef staff, remember this phrase: Every Good Boy Does Fine. To remember which notes sit between the lines of the staff, remember the acronym F.A.C.E.
The bass clef works in exactly the same way, but the acronyms are slightly different. To remember which notes sit on the lines of the bass clef staff, learn the phrase, Good Boys Do Fine Always. From the bottom-up, the notes that sit on the lines in the bass clef are G, B, D, F, and A. To remember which notes sit between the lines in the bass clef, learn the phrase All Cows Eat Grass.
Hopefully, this guide has demonstrated the importance of learning how to read music and shown you how to get started. All it takes a little discipline and many hours of practice. If you stay dedicated, you’ll be able to sight read in no time.
And if you want to learn how to read music, but don’t yet have any piano keys to tickle, be sure to check out our reviews of some popular piano brands. The rest of our site has some incredible resources for new and experienced musicians as well.