Music Theory

How to Read Music : Essential Tips for Beginners

By Claire Robertson
How to Read Music | Essential Tips for Beginners.

At Hoffman Academy, we’ve collected the best of our resources and video tutorials that will help beginners learn to read music. This article includes strategies that will teach you fluency with music notes and identify chords, plus other tips for strengthening your sight reading skills. 

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How to read music for beginners

In the beginning, learning to read music is similar to learning to read a new language! With patience and practice, you will learn how the building blocks of symbols come together to form musical notes that have meaning. Musical notes on the page give us information like which tones to play (melody) and how long to play them (rhythm). In this article, we’ll focus on how to read note names. 

The starting place for reading words is the alphabet – and when reading music, we start with the musical alphabet. It uses only the first seven letters of the English alphabet: A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Once you get to G, it starts over again at A. The reason for this is because if you play any two keys with the same letter name, you get two very similar sounding tones. Try playing two different As, two different Bs, and so on. This phenomenon is called the octave, meaning “eight,” and it’s the reason the letter names keep repeating on the keyboard. And just those seven letters can name all 88 keys on a piano! 

Piano keyboard with names of piano keys.

Want to improve your knowledge of the musical alphabet? Try saying the letter names of the notes as you play finger exercises. You can use our list of Piano Exercises for Beginners to boost your understanding of scales and reading sheet music. 

If you count the black keys, each octave is made up of a total of twelve different keys: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab. Notice that each black key has two different names, which are called enharmonic spellings. 

Piano keyboard with enharmonic spellings.

How to read music notes

Check out our article Learning & Playing Piano Notes for Beginners for an in-depth discussion of learning how to read music notes. We’ll provide the tools you need to navigate the grand staff and use sheet music to identify the notes you will play. 

Sheet music for piano is written on the grand staff, which is made up of treble clef and bass clef. The upper clef, or treble clef, is where higher notes are written. The lower clef is the bass (sounds like “base”) clef, for low notes. A note can be written on any line or space on the staff. Some important guide notes are Treble G on the treble staff, Middle C between the two staves, and Bass F on the bass staff.

Grand Staff with Treble G, Middle C, and Bass F.

With this in mind, you can think of the grand staff and guide notes as a map: find a guide note on either the treble or bass staves, and use it to find any other note by counting up or down the musical alphabet. You can learn more about the grand staff in this video: 

We have also compiled a free Guide to the Grand Staff that you can print and hang near your piano. This reference page helps you relate music note names to the keys on the piano! However, we recommend taking the time to learn the guide notes thoroughly so that you internalize what each note is rather than relying on a printed chart.

How to read chords on sheet music

Chord symbols on sheet music are seen in most modern genres like pop, jazz, and rock.  Most of them are either major or minor chords. Our article, How To Read Chords In Piano Music, shows you how to build basic and advanced chords and how to understand them in sheet music.

The simplest way to use chord symbols is to play the melody with your right hand, and every time you see a chord symbol above the staff, play one single note, the root of the chord, with your left hand. If you see a letter C above the staff, play a C with your left hand. If you see an A♭, play an A-flat. As you get better at piano and start learning your chords, you can play the rest of the chord, either blocked (all the notes at the same time), as an arpeggio (play the notes consecutively, one by one),  or improvise any number of rhythms that match the style of the song. 

How to read piano music

Learning how to read piano music opens up a world of new pieces. It’s part of being a well-rounded musician, and to make it easier, we’ve created an article that will help you learn How To Read Piano Sheet Music. The tips in the video below are like the a legend of a map, which can help you navigate to where you’re trying to go. 

Look at a piece of piano sheet music. What do you see? Let’s start at the very top left hand side of the page. You’ll notice a black squiggle – a brace – connecting two groups of five lines to make the grand staff. You’ll see a treble clef on the top staff (derived from the old cursive letter G) and a bass clef on the bottom staff (which is an archaic letter F). The clefs tell us how high or low we will be playing in the piece. Generally (but not always), the right hand plays the treble staff and the left hand plays the bass staff.

The next thing we might see on sheet music is a group of sharps (which look like hashtags) or flats (which look like lowercase letter Bs). These create the key signature, which tells you what key you’ll be playing in. At Hoffman Academy, we introduce keys and scales by first learning pentascales, so if you’ve been doing Hoffman Academy lessons, you’ll already be familiar with them. 

Following our key signature are two large, bold numbers. This is called the time signature. The top number tells us how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number tells us what kind of note equals a single beat. 

Music symbols on the grand staff.

Once you know how to read the music map, you’re ready to try playing a song!

How to sight read music

Sight reading music, or playing music that you have never seen for the very first time, can be intimidating for many musicians. The expectation is that you’ll be able to play both notes and rhythms accurately, even though it’s your first time looking at the piece. Sight reading uses different mental muscles than performing, and takes concentration and practice. Below, we outline the best tips on how to sight read music – be sure to visit our article Seven Steps to Super Sight Reading for even more information.

Our recipe for excellent sight reading starts with consistent practice. Be sure to set aside time – even five minutes – in each practice session for sight reading. Choose a song you’ve never heard or played before, something that looks a few levels easier than the songs you’re learning to perform. Next, focus on rhythm. Practice tapping the rhythm of the piece to improve your accuracy, or use flashcards to drill common rhythm patterns. As you look over a new piece of music, check for patterns in how notes step or skip. This will help you get ready for those patterns when they come up as you’re playing.

Go slowly, look a measure or two ahead of the notes you’re playing, and don’t stop to correct mistakes. If the piece turns out to be too hard for you to sight read, then try something simpler. Gradually, over time, your sight reading skills will grow and you’ll be able to read more and more complex music.

As you develop your sight reading skills, be sure to drill and practice your musical alphabet. Learning the letter names on the keyboard and on on the staff are foundational to sight reading music. Also practice finding your guide notes quickly, as this will help your sight reading become more fluent. 

Ready to learn how to read music? Sign up for Hoffman Academy today! 


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