How to Read Music

Learning to read music is an important aspect of learning to play the piano. Below is written by Anthony and Hala Awtrey to help you read music.

Learning to read the notated language of music is not really any harder than learning any other technical jargon and skills. It has unique challenges, but there have been times in history when most educated people could understand and perform the popular music of the day. As long as we continue to teach the basics of reading music, we will never loose our musical heritage again.

Musical Definitions

Notation describes the various definable aspects that make up modern music. The following list summarizes those general aspects.

Pitch - the primary frequency of a note
Duration - the length of time a note is held
Dynamics - the degree of loudness of a note
Rhythm - the relative time between adjacent notes
Tempo - the speed at which notes are performed
Timbre - the quality of a note determined by its overtones
All sounds are vibrations of air. A pitch is the base frequency the vibration of a note occurs. The human ear and brain have the ability to hear the frequency of pitches and classify them based upon their relationships. For example, in the United States, the tuning for the note 'A4' or 'concert pitch' is 440 Hertz (Hz) or pulses per second. When we hear an 'A5' at 880 Hertz we percieve that note as the same as the 'A4' only higher. This relationship of doubled frequencies is called an octave, meaning 8 notes. In music we refer to these 8 notes using the first 8 letters of the English alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and then A again for the octave note.

Music Notation

Music notation uses symbols to represent the various audible components that make up a song. Since music takes place over a period of time, music is intended to be read like a book.

The staff

The staff is the basic structure of music. It is composed of five parallel lines. The pitch is notated from top to bottom where higher notes are on top and is read over time from left to right. It is divided by bar lines that define measures in the music. The end of a piece of music is marked by a double bar line.

A single staff does not provide enough space to express the full range of human hearing, so a clef symbol is usually present at the beginning of a staff to indicate what part of the scale the staff is intended to cover.

Clef Description
Treble Clef - This is a form of the G-clef where the note G4 is encircled by the curl of the clef.
Alto Clef - This is a form of the C-clef where middle C passes through the center of the clef.
Tenor Clef - This is also a form of the C-clef where middle C passes through the center of the clef. Note that the clef is aligned on a different line than the alto clef.
Tenor Clef - This is the same G-clef as the soprano, but the little "8" on the bottom means the notes in this staff are one octave lower than normal.
Bass Clef - The bass clef is a form of F-clef where the two dots mark the F on the staff.

The treble and bass clef staves can be combined to form what is called a grand staff, pictured above. Note the bar lines are joined together and there is a brace on the left side.

Time signatures
Time signatures define how many beats there are in each measure marked by bar lines and the value of the note to get one beat.

In a four-four staff, each measure has four beats and the quarter note gets one beat.

In a six-eight staff, each measure has six beats and the eighth note gets one beat.

Six-eight time is often counted in two pulses of three beats each. Three-four time is usually felt in one pulse of three beats each.

Notes and rests
Whole notes and rests 
Half notes and rests 
Quarter notes and rests 
Eighth notes and rests 
Sixteenth notes and rests 
Thirtysecond notes and rests 

Dotted whole note 
Dotted half note 
Dotted quarter note 
Dotted eighth note 

Marking Italian English
Fortississimo Extremely loud
Fortissimo Very loud
Forte Loud
Mezzo-forte Moderately loud
Mezzo-piano Moderately soft
Piano Soft
Pianissimo Very soft
Pianississimo Extremely soft

Dynamic Indications
Italian Term Abbrev. Definition
crescendo cresc. gradually become louder
diminuendo / diminish dim. gradually become softer

Tempo indications
Italian Term Abbrev. Definition
Accelerando accel. accelerate
ritard rit. slowing down
stringendo string. accelerate and become louder
rallentando rall. “winding down”
A Tempo   return to tempo or at the tempo
Mosso / moto   motion

Basic Italian indications
Italian Term Definition
poco a poco little by little (eg. cresc. poco a poco)
molto much, very (eg., molto rit = slow down a lot)
con with (con motto =with motion)
più more (più mosso = more motion)
meno less (meno piano = less soft)
morendo fading away / dying away
esspressivo expressive
dolce sweetly
primo prime/original (primo tempo = at the original tempo)


Key signatures
Key Signature Major Key Minor Key

No sharps or flats

C major a minor
Key Signature Major Key Minor Key Key Signature Major Key Minor Key

1 sharp G major E minor
1 flat F major D minor

2 sharps D major B minor
2 flats B♭ major G minor

3 sharps A major F♯ minor
3 flats E♭ major C minor

4 sharps E major C♯ minor
4 flats A♭ major F minor

5 sharps B major G♯ minor
5 flats D♭ major B♭ minor

6 sharps F♯ major D♯ minor
6 flats G♭ major E♭ minor

7 sharps C♯ major A♯ minor
7 flats C♭ major A♭ minor

This is a mnemonic device to help you memorize the notes on the musical staff.
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Studio Location: 250 Salem Street, Revere MA
Studio phone: 860-377-2603
Studio e-mail: [email protected] (Three "y"s in the middle of the address)

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