“This article was originally published on the TakeLessons Blog”
As you learn how to read piano sheet music, a whole new world opens up! Instead of just black dots on a page, you’ll see beautiful melody and chords right before you. Here, piano teacher Nadia B. takes you on a helpful visual tour…
One of the most interesting things about learning piano is that it’s truly like learning a new language – just as you learn how to decode words on a page to read them aloud, you are learning to unlock the symbols on the page to play music. It’s a whole different world, and this article will help you to more easily understand what all the symbols mean. That way, when you look at a piece of sheet music, you won’t think it’s Greek; you’ll see music!
First, let’s take a look a piece of sheet music; then, read on to learn more about each element:
1) The grand staff
The first thing to recognize is the grand staff. It is composed of two staffs (or groups of five parallel lines) joined together. The top staff uses the treble clef, while the bottom staff uses the bass clef. In general, the treble clef is where right hand notes are placed, while the bass clef is where left hand notes are placed. Once you know the piano note names, you will be able to read from the two staffs to play the correct notes with the correct hand.
In piano music, you can use different fingers to play a single note. The finger you use will depend on the location of the note within the phrase, as well as the hand position you are using. For this reason, you will often see finger numbers marked in the music to indicate which finger you should use. Finger numbers are an essential aid to playing well, as they will ensure that you maintain a good hand position and move naturally around the keyboard without awkward finger tucks.
2) Key signature
Directly after the treble and bass clef, you will see the key signature: a collection of sharps or flats that indicate which notes to alter within the music, as well as what key you are playing in.
3) Time signature
After the key signature comes the time signature: usually two numbers, one above the other, that tell you how many beats are in each measure and what type of note (quarter, eighth, half, etc.) is equal to one beat.
4) Tempo marking
You will also see a marking indicating what tempo the piece should be played (for example,allegro, indicating lively, or largo, indicating very slow). As you progress on the piano, you’ll get to know these common sheet music terms very well. Sometimes this also includes a specific metronome marking, which is a guideline to understand the range of tempi that are possible.
Then, you will see several things that occur throughout the music:
5) Dynamic markings
These markings tell you how loudly or softly to play the music, and when to gradually increase or decrease the sound. The letter ‘p’ indicates to play piano, or softly, while the letter ‘f’ stands for forte, or to play loudly.
You will see a marking similar to a hairpin for a crescendo, or gradual increase in sound, and a reverse hairpin for a decrescendo, or gradual decrease in sound. The location and length of the crescendo and decrescendo markings show you how long they should last and where to begin and end them.
6) Articulation markings
Another category of markings you will see is for articulation, or the way in which notes begin and end. In the written music, you will see symbols like accents (similar to a forward arrow), indicating to play the note with emphasis, or staccato (a dot above the note), indicating to play the note with space before the next note (slightly shorter than full value). You will also see slurs, lines that slope above or below a group of notes, which signify to connect the notes smoothly together as you play them.
7) Mood markings
Another marking you may see will indicate the mood of a particular passage. So you may see espressivo (play with great emotion) or appassionato (play passionately) marked in the music, among many others.
8) Pedal markings
One of the most important markings specific to piano is pedal markings. These illustrate where to depress the pedal and, often, how long to sustain it for. You will see this in the music as the abbreviation ‘Ped.; or sometimes as a bracket underneath the line of music.
So, the next time you pull out your piano sheet music, don’t feel overwhelmed. Instead, try going on a treasure hunt for these markings and symbols, and see what you discover about the music itself as a result!
Still struggling with understanding how the notes translate to the keys? Check out my visual intro to the piano keys!
Nadia B. teaches flute and piano in New York, NY, as well as through online lessons. She acted as principal flutist of the orchestra and wind ensemble at California State University, Sacramento, and then went on to receive her degree in Music Performance from New York University. Learn more about Nadia here!
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik