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The secret to learning piano notes: A map in black and white

piano notes

The piano is made up of many different keys and keyboards come in different shapes and sizes. A full sized grand piano has 88 keys, while travel size midi-keyboards can have as few as 12. They all however have things in common, and we can use these patterns to play anything we want. 

Key Takeaways

  • All keyboards use the same 7 letters for white keys: A B C D E F G
  • All keyboards use the same white key and black key pattern
  • We can identify any keyboard position by looking at two notes
  • Bass clefs and treble clefs have 5 lines and spaces
  • Left hand and right hand play the same notes

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Learning notes on a piano keyboard

Learning to play music can seem complex, but it is actually quite simple. First we start by giving the piano note names, we do this using letters. We use the pattern of black keys to help us remember where the notes are. We only use the first seven letters of the alphabet. 

C is to the left of 2 black keys. F is to the right of three black keys. D is in the middle of two black keys. Tricks like this allow you to learn to read all the white keys. Every note is easy if you first find the black key. 

We call these the musical alphabet. These are the letters given to the white keys. Once we understand this, we can move on to finding these notes on the piano keyboard, and then we can almost read music. We first understand piano music by learning letters, then we learn intervals. That comes later in the lesson. First we focus on playing the notes on a white key.  

Remembering piano notes

There are different ways to practice for beginners, and musicians draw on all of these at different times. When learning to read notes, it is productive to use the following three approaches in combination. Through diversifying your learning in this way, you ultimately achieve fluent reading more quickly. The 3 approaches to master are:

  • note recognition and landmark notes
  • interval recognition
  • pattern recognition

Note recognition and landmark notes

When we begin to read sheet music, we have a few objectives: Label the piano keys, learn the lines and spaces, learn the letter names, and identify middle c. We call these skills Note Recognition, and there are a few ways that musicians learn to do this. 

Note recognition

This approach involves learning to recognize all the notes of the grand staff. It is rote learning and due to the size and nature of the task, most teachers and students use mnemonics to aid memorization. 

Perhaps you are familiar with some of them already? Take a look at the following image and then match up the mnemonics with the note names.

Top Tips:

  • The mnemonics start from the bottom and move upwards.
  • They apply to just lines or just spaces.

 Note Recognition

This diagram shows all notes on piano, and where they fall on the grand staff. 

The pros and cons of note recognition reading

  • Pros – this is a great approach to use when you need to be very specific, doing some music theory, or trying to communicate to someone else. For example you would say, “Let’s take it from F in the first measure”.
  • Cons – it is very time-consuming to identify notes this way, and is a difficult way to learn how to read in the long term. It can also slow or prevent students from moving to reading intervals. Once you can recognize and play intervals, you can start playing your first basic piano chord.

Landmark notes

Recognising landmark notes has become a popular approach for piano notes practice. Rather than remembering all the notes, as above, remember 4 landmark notes on each stave. This is much easier to do so accuracy and speed increase. 

From this strong foundation you are then able to read adjacent notes using the interval method (coming up next).These are the landmark notes to learn. Aim to recognize the note and play it on the piano.

 piano note practice

The pros and cons of landmark notes

  • Pros – this is quick and easy to learn the notes on a piano. It supports finding your way around the keyboard. It encourages a form of reading which enhances the development of sight reading skills.
  • Cons – it can be difficult to troubleshoot. For example, when you play something that doesn’t sound right, you want to double check what you are doing but what if the questionable note is not a landmark note?

Interval recognition

This is a more intuitive way to learn to read piano sheet music. It is used in combination with the landmark note approach. Start by identifying the first note (using one of the above approaches). Next, follow the shape of the sheet music, does it move up or down, does it move by step or skip? 

Now, move to the next note based on its relationship to the note you are playing. All this can be done without needing to name the note you move to. It feels like giving your fingers permission to respond to the shape of the music and is an effective form of piano notes practice.

The pros and cons of interval recognition

  • Pros – instead of looking at each individual note as separate note names, we look at all notes together. A musician can play entire measures of music in seconds, instead of reading one note at a time. 
  • Cons – if you get lost or moved higher or lower in pitch, all of the other relationships will be incorrect as well. Additionally, reading intervals requires the player to be thinking carefully about which key they are in.

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The best way to remember piano notes

Reading piano sheet music is not only a combination of reading sheet music note names and intervals – sometimes the note values and names are not the most important thing. We learn to read letter names in the same way that we learn to read letters in languages. 

Reading tips

The next step on the path to fluent reading is pattern recognition. Consider how you read text. When you see the word ‘note’ you take it as a whole, you don’t read N – O – T – E and then gradually blend the sounds until they make ‘note’. The same concept applies when you play from sheet music. 

Once you can read from one note to the next using interval recognition, it is time to start challenging yourself to take in the pattern of 3 or 4 notes at a time, thus forming little musical ‘words’. This is simplest when you only play quarter note, half note or whole note rhythms. Try not to focus on what the left hand is doing, just play slowly and intentionally. 

Dimensional learning

This empowering concept says that as well as learning, in this case, to remember notes for piano, there are all sorts of related supporting skills available to enhance your piano note practice. Very often a plateau in note reading is due to gaps in these supporting skills.

Identifying these skills provides a broader, more connected learning experience. Here are 4 to get you started:

  • Keyboard geography
  • Sense of key
  • Train your ears
  • Train your hands

Keyboard geography

This means knowing your way around the piano keyboard, for example, knowing that if you start on middle C and play 3 notes going upwards you will land on F. The aim is to work these notes for piano without looking down.

Practice this when you are learning piano scales , it brings a playful element to the process. Stop randomly in the scale and name the note you are on without looking at the keyboard. This allows you to learn to separate the notes as they sound, from the four spaces and lines that you see when you’re reading sheet music notes.

Sense of key

This refers to the tonal language of your music, or if you prefer an analogy, the topic of your conversation. Understanding piano scales is a great introduction to key if this is new to you. Start playing scales one whole note at a time, and then slowly work your way up to playing eighth notes and eventually sixteenth notes. 

Key sense is important because fluent music readers don’t just remember notes very quickly, they draw on key knowledge to predict the most likely notes to occur. The simplest example is that a piece in G major is highly likely to end on a G. It is helpful to remember this to understand how to learn to read piano notes.

You might not yet have the knowledge to support this level of ‘prediction’. However, the benefit it offers has kept many students engaged with learning what a key signature is in music. 

Train your ears to recognize notes

This is always worth mentioning because it is a vital skill for musicians. Unfortunately, between processing how to learn to read and coordinating finger movements it is easily overlooked.

Practice this by looking at the first 4 bars of the song below before listening to it. 

To what extent can you imagine how the music will sound based on the notation? The Skoove Piano Learning app will only start playing once you click start so take all the time you need to experiment with this. At this early stage it is enough to consider the rhythm and general shape of the music. The learning does not lie in the accuracy of your imagined sound but rather in the process and what insights you gain from it.

Piano note practice is a hugely valuable skill which is well complemented by learning to play by ear and to improvise. Explore these too, as part of your musical journey to become a rounded pianist. 

Train your hands to play the right notes

Directing awareness is often all it takes to make learning connections. For interval reading to work, fingers must automatically land 1 finger per note. 

This sounds simple, however, at first it feels quite unnatural, fingers spread out and cover more than a five note span. If you have been grappling with accuracy in reading or are finding progress slow, this could well be part of the reason.

What does a musician do with all the notes? 

So you have now learned to remember where all the music notes are and you learned how to locate, but you want to read written music. Now that I can sight read music, where do I go to play music?

To learn how read music is only a small slice of learning music. Intention, emotion, communication, connection, none of these are notated. So where do you go to learn about these things? 

The best place to go is the Skoove Piano App Free Download. ! It has tons of songs and interesting lessons where you can watch people play the song, and slow it down as you’re learning! 

Happy note reading!

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Author of this blog post:


Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
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No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!