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Music

How to Read Piano Sheet Music: 7 Elements of Sheet Music

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 20, 2020 • 5 min read

Sheet music allows a musician to learn and play new pieces of music.

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What Is Sheet Music?

Sheet music is handwritten or printed notation that communicates to a musician how to play a piece of music. Music notation is to music performance what printed text is to speaking: It communicates aural information in a printed form. Over many musical eras, composers developed the current system of music notation, which is central to learning new pieces of music and music theory.

Why Is Reading Music Important?

Sheet music is the medium by which a composer or arranger communicates instructions to players. If you play piano, reading sheet music allows you to take performance jobs that require an immediate ability to perform a new composition. Professional studio musicians and touring bands in the music industry are expected to be well-versed in sight reading, a skill you can develop if you’re learning piano.

7 Elements of Piano Sheet Music

To learn piano notation, you must be able to recognize the staff, clefs, time signatures, piano notes, accidentals, and dynamic markings.

1. The Staff

The fundamental building block of musical notation is the five-line musical staff. The lines and spaces on the staff represent different notes, which vary depending on the musical clef associated with the staff. Bar lines running perpendicular to the staff differentiate musical measures. Some of the types of bar lines found in musical notation include:

1. Single bar lines: These separate one musical measure from another.

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Single bar lines

2. Double bar lines: These separate sections within a musical piece.

Double bar lines

3. Bold double bar lines: These signify the end of a musical movement or an entire piece.

Bold double bar lines

2. The Clefs

The lines and spaces of the treble clef represent different notes than the lines and spaces of the bass clef (or other clefs like the alto clef and tenor clef). The three main musical clefs are:

  • Treble clef: This clef is also called the G clef because it is denoted by a loose illustration of the letter G, the inner curl of which surrounds the line indicating the note G. In piano sheet music, the right hand typically plays notes written on the treble clef.
Treble clef
  • Bass clef: This clef is also called the F clef because it approximates the letter, F and its dots are centered on the line indicating the note F. In piano sheet music, the left hand typically plays notes written on the bass clef.
Bass clef

Piano music uses what's known as a grand staff that features one staff in treble clef (played by the right hand) and one staff in bass clef (played by the left hand). Middle C is found one ledger line above the bass clef and one ledger line below the treble clef.

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3. The Notes

Musical notes vary in duration. When they’re written in sheet music, note values of different lengths are depicted in different ways.

  • Whole note: A whole note is a single note that covers the entirety of a four-beat measure. It contains an open notehead with no stem.
Whole note

2. A half note is a single note that covers half of a four-beat measure. It contains an open notehead with a stem.

half note
  1. A quarter note is a single note that covers one-quarter of a four-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem.
quarter note

4. An eighth note covers one eighth of a four-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem and a tail.

eighth note

5. A sixteenth note covers one sixteenth of a four-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem and a double tail.

sixteenth note

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Some music has even smaller subdivisions (32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes sometimes appear in written music), but composers typically set tempos that obviate the need for such small durations.

4. Accidentals

Musical notes may contain accidentals such as flats and sharps that provide additional information. Accidentals allow all 12 music notes in Western music to appear on a five-line musical staff. The primary accidentals are:

1. Sharp: This marking indicates the player should sound a note a half step higher than the pitch on the staff.

Sharp

2. Flat: This marking indicates the player should sound a note a half step lower than the pitch on the staff.

Flat

3. Double sharp: This marking indicates the player should sound a note a whole step higher than the pitch on the staff.

Double sharp

4. Double flat: This marking indicates the player should sound a note a whole step lower than the pitch on the staff.

Double flat

5. Natural: This symbol indicates that the player should disregard any previously indicated accidentals and simply play the pitch indicated on the staff.

Natural

5. Time Signatures

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Music notation also communicates rhythmic duration. In most Western music, rhythm centers around a time signature and tempo, which combine to indicate how long each musical measure is and how those measures are subdivided. Musical time signatures show two pieces of information: the duration of each beat in a measure of music and the number of beats per measure.

The most common time signature in western music is 4/4, which indicates four quarter-notes per measure. Because of its frequent use, 4/4 is often called “common time” and is sometimes indicated with a “c.” As another example, 3/4 time signature indicates that there are three beats per measure and each beat has the duration of a quarter-note. The 6/8 time signature indicates that there are six beats per measure and each beat has the duration of an eighth-note.

6. The Notes

Western music uses twelve musical notes as follows:

C
C♯ / D♭
D
D♯ / E♭
E
F
F♯ / G♭
G
G♯ / A♭
A
A♯ / B♭
B

Where two notes are listed (for instance C♯ / D♭), both note names produce the same pitch. The name of the note varies depending on the key signature. For instance, C♯ is a note found in the A major scale; that same exact pitch is in the B♭ minor scale, only in that case it is referred to as D♭.

The notes appear in the following way on a musical staff:

musical staff

The treble clef shows the 12 notes moving upward from C4 to C5 using sharps instead of flats. The bass clef shows the 12 notes moving downward from C4 to C3 using flats instead of sharps.

7. Dynamic Markings

Sheet music notation contains instructions on how to perform the music. Sheet music for piano often includes dynamic markings that tell a player how loudly or softly to perform the music on the page. String music notation often contains bowing instructions. Understanding these markings is a key part of learning music.

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