Many people when they start to learn the piano will have some idea of how music looks when it is written down. Others will have no idea at all about musical notation and this post is written specifically for them. The real problem is that when you look at a page of music it can look most confusing as though it is written in a totally alien language. For instance a typical sheet of piano music might look something like this:
Seeing this is often the point at which people panic and think that they cannot possibly learn something as complicated as that. In fact if you understand the principles then as you gradually acquire your keyboard skills you will naturally learn how to read music quickly and effectively. Like most things if you start by breaking it down into some small and simple steps and then slowly putting them together it is actually extremely easy.
Lets start with the piano keyboard which looks basically like this — depending on the actual piano the number of notes at the top and bottom may vary though typically there would be 88 in total.
Now notice the familiar piano pattern of black keys against the white… Two black a gap and three black – going up and down the board. This pattern is key to understanding where the notes are on the keyboard and relating them to the sheet music. If you look at the middle of the keyboard and see the first pair of black notes the WHITE note below the first of these is Middle C. This is the first note in the sequence C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and is the scale of C Major which uses only the white notes. Written down it looks like:
Now place you right thumb on middle C. Place index finger on D, middle finger on E, fourth finger on F and little finger on G. Play each one in turn — C, D, E, F, G
Then play them in the opposite direction. Try to play them as smoothly and evenly as possible. Each on the same volume and for the same length of time.
Congratulations you have just played:
And then followed it with:
Now you have started to read music. At this point its easy to move on to play the entire scale of C. Play C, D, E with thumb, index finger and middle finger as before. This time instead of playing the F with the fourth finger play it with the thumb. When you do this start to move the thumb under the first two fingers so that you play the F smoothly after the E. Then you will be in a position to play the G, A, B, and C with the index, middle fourth and little finger in turn. Now you have the entire scale of C (in “C in One Octave” is a more proper description).
The whole thing can now work in reverse. In this case when you get to the F with the thumb move the middle finger OVER the thumb and then play the E, D and Middle C.
When you have done this you will have played the scale of C from middle C up one octave and then down:
Now lets try and experiment. If you can play the white notes from middle C to the C above could you do the same thing starting from any white note? Let’s try starting on A for example. Start on the A two notes below the C. This looks like this when written down.
You can use exactly the same fingering for this as you did with the C scale before. Try it a few times until you can play the notes evenly in length and volume. How does this sound compared with doing it from C?
In fact you may notice that if you start from the C it sounds quite satisfying and if you start from the A it sound somewhat unsettling. Not exactly wrong but just unsettling. To make it sound as satisfying as the example from C then certain adjustments are must be made.This involves using some of the black notes as well as the white ones. When you get to the C you need to play C sharp which is the black note above the C. When you play the F and G you need to play F sharp and G sharp which are the black notes above F and G.
Written down this looks like this:
Try to play this just as you did the previous example. The same fingering works though it will feel a little different.
Now the thing is that normally if you want to play a piece of music in A Major (to use the correct terms) it would be very tedious if each time there was a C, F or G sharp it was written out. To make it easier this is shown in the key signature of the music at the beginning of each line of music. The result it that the normal way to write out the scale above looks like this:
The one unfamiliar thing here is that the F and G sharp are shown one octave higher than we have previously used. In fact they indicate that where-ever the F , C or G occur they should be sharpened. Lets just go back and look at the piece of piano music I showed at the top of of this post. Notice that this has four sharps like this. This means it is in the key of E major. The E major scale looks like this: