How to Read Piano Notes (Lesson 2)

During our previous lesson we learned to orientate piano keyboard, studied the terms “interval”, “tone”, “semitone”, “harmony”, “tonality”, “scale”.

But if you want to study piano more seriously, you must know, how to read notes. For instance, if you speak a foreign language fluently, but cannot read or write on it, your knowledge will have doubtful value. Do you agree with me? This is the same situation. Honestly speaking, this information is not so easy, and you`ll have to spend some time to understand, what does this or that note on this or that line mean; you`ll also have to study music “punctuation”: rest and duration signs and so on. But the result is worth it!

As  a result some day you`ll be able to take notes and read them, as a book on your native language, and also play the compositions, no matter how difficult they will be. Playing the piano without knowing notes will be really complicated. Guitarists have a helping hand, the so called tablature, where it is shown, which fret on which string to press, to make this or that sound. But this is a very primitive system, and professional guitarists as well as other musicians use notes.

Look at the picture below. Everything is shown there as clearly as possible. First you`ll see piano keyboard and inscriptions above it.

Octave  is a scale, divided into equal parts. A scale begins with C and ands with B, another C after this B already belongs to another octave.

Piano octaves

Piano octaves

Below you see a treble clef – now you will mostly work with it. Its second name is G clef. The note, located on the same line with it is G of first-line octave. It is the most widespread clef, which is used for high notes, although it suits not all musical instruments. On the piano notes written in this clef are mostly played with the right hand. Besides piano the G clef is used for violin, most wind instruments, guitars and other instruments, which play notes from the small octave and higher.

G clef

G clef

Another piano clef is bass clef. It is used less often, than G clef. First you`ll not use it very often, but later, playing more difficult parts you`ll use it for small and lower octaves (small octave – great octave – contra octave and sub-contra octave)

Bass sounds are low, so this clef is used for instruments with low sounds, such as bass guitar, contrabass,  bassoon.

Attention – same notes in bass and G clefs are located on different lines, so you`ll have to learn it. We`ll speak more about these distinctions later.

Bass clef

Bass clef

One of the most important features of notes is that they show not only the sound, which is played, but also the duration of this sound. All notes which you see above are semibreves – they last during the whole bar.

Bar is a piece of musical composition between two bar lines, which are put before so called strong beats.

This is how a bar line in the middle of a musical composition look like:

bar line

Bar line in the middle of a musical composition

This is how the last bar line, which is the end of the composition, look like:

end bar line

End bar line

The strong beat is the culmination of a one separate bar. A musician mark it by playing it a little louder, than others, so the listener understands, where one bar ends and another bar starts. You`ve certainly caught yourself at strumming the rhythm with you foot, patting it with your hand or nodding in time.

As for the note length, this information will be much easier to learn, than the information, you`ve already learned.

note duration

Note duration

Now you have a general knowledge of how notes with different length look like. Try to go deeply into this information with the help of the following charts:

note length

Note lengths

note lengths

Names of note length give you a big prompt. The whole circle is the whole note or semibreve, which lasts during the whole bar. Minim or half note is two times less.

  • Minim or half note = ½ of semibreve
  • Crotchet or Quarter note = ½ of minim = ¼ of semibreve
  • Quaver or Eighth note = ½ of crotchet = ¼ of minim = 1/8 of semibreve

So, the bar can contain only as many notes, as can be placed in this circle: there can`t be, for example, 2 minims and 1 quaver or 5 crochets. The sum of the note`s length can`t exceed the semibreve.

But within the limits of this semibreve you can do whatever you want. For instance :

  • Semibreve = minim + quaver + quaver + quaver + quaver
  • Semibreve = crotchet + quaver +minim + quaver

The quaver isn`t the smallest possible note length. There also exist semiquavers, demisemiquavers, hemidemisemiquavers and so on.

Within one bar there can be a certain number of rhythmic beats.

Bars can be compared with train carriages, where can be placed only a certain amount of people. For example, 4 adults or 8 children (for 4/4 measure). So the measure shows how many of them can be in the bar.

We have the final trait – the bar time or measure.

The bar with 4/4 measure

The bar with 4/4 measure

Look again at the scheme above. If there were no other factors, which influence music making, we would live in the world, where the strong beat would be the same in all sons, where there wouldn`t be dance music and where the rhythmic would be very poor.

The figures written after the clef show, what is the time signature – how often and in what position you`ll hear the strong beat. The upper figure shows how many beats is there in the bar, and the lower – what is their duration.

The lower figure can be:

  • 1 – a semibreve
  • 2 – a minim
  • 4 – a crotchet
  • 8 – a quaver
  • 16 – a semiquaver
  • 32 – a  demisemiquaver etc.

4/4 is the standard and the most popular measure. When I was talking about note length, I meant the 4/4 measure. This means, that there are 4 crochet beats in the bar.

4/4 time signature

4/4 time signature

But besides this measure there are a lot of others, sometimes rather non-standard. But now I don`t want to overload you, so for the initial period these measures will be enough: 2/4 3/4 4/4

2/4 3/4 4/4 time signatures

2/4 3/4 4/4 time signatures

To understand it easier, this is how the diagram with 2/4 time signature look like:

2/4 note length

2/4 note length

And how the bar with 2/4 time signature look like:

bar with 2/4 time signature

Bar with 2/4 time signature

As you see, the whole bar is ½ of 4/4, so it is two times smaller than the semibreve, so the longest note in it will be the minim.

2/4 = 1 minim = 2 crochets  = 4 quavers

The strongest beat will be every second crochet beat:


¾ is a little more complicated:

3/4 note length

¾ bar measure

¾ bar measure

¾ = 1 minim + 1 crochet = 3 crochets = 6 quavers.

By the way, waltz is played in this measure. But it is just for information. Those who used to dance and many other people have heard the phrase “one, two, three!”  So, this is ¾ measure.

¾ measure

¾ measure

Notes should not necessarily fill the whole bar, there must also be empty spaces, or pauses. And for these pauses there also exist special sighs, which you have to learn, whether you want it or not.

Rest signs

Rest signs

Attention! If there is a dot on the right of the note, this means, that the note length is half longer. For instance, a minim with a dot is a minim + ½ of minim which is a minim and a crochet etc. The charts below will help you to understand it better:

Dot on the right of the note

Dot on the right of the note

I hope you still remember our first lesson, where I told you, how scales are played. Now let`s see how this scales will look like, using the information we learned during this lesson.

F major (F dur)

F major scale

F major scale

G major (G dur)

G major scale

G major scale

The notes, which are played on black keys are marked with sharps and flats. But you should already know it. You played scales, didn’t you? You did?

Let`s summarize and see, what you`ve learned. This is a simple song for kindergarten:

simple song for kindergarten

Let`s switch on the deduction.

  • Each song starts with a clef, here it is a treble clef.
  • After the clef there are 2 sharps. These alteration signs show, in which tonality this song is played. In this case flats are on the C of the second line octave and F of second line octave. This is the B major scale (which you don`t know yet, as I didn`t touch upon it during our lessons).
  • 2/4 – this is the bar measure.
  • The crochet pause, so the 1st crochet of the 1st bar is without any notes.
  • 2 quaver D`s of first line octave.
  • The bar line, which means the end of the bar.
  • The beginning of the next bar – 2 quaver G`s of the first line octave, 2 quaver B`s of the first line octave.

If your thoughts were the same as mine – congratulations, you are moving in the right direction. If you failed, don`t be upset, as the material is not so easy. The best way to learn it is practice, practice and practice. Play simple songs and name the notes while playing. It will be great, if near you is a musician to correct all you mistakes, which you can`t hear yourself yet.

If you play and sing scales your level will gradually increase and you`ll read notes easier and more confident. Remember, that the foundation is the most important part of the building. And the better your foundation, your knowledge of basic things will be, the easier it will be for you to study more complicated things. And now I wish you patience and patience!

Our next third lesson will be devoted to scales. Intervals and other important for a future pianist things.