Today’s video is a quick low-down of piano basics for parents of piano students.

I often run into parents who are eager to get their kids into music lessons, but know little about music education themselves. This makes it difficult to help their children with practice. While most of us can help our kids with basic math and spelling, music is a completely different story.

So I created this short episode to help out parents of piano beginners. If your child is further along than their first year, this primer should still be useful – it just won’t go into quite as much detail.

3 components to reading music

There are three components to reading music:

  • Reading the rhythms
  • Reading the notes
  • Interpreting what you read on the keyboard

We’re going to talk about all three of these today, starting with rhythm. Rhythm is the beat of music. If you’ve ever danced, or if you’ve ever tapped your toes to a groovy tune, you’re noticing the beat.

Piano Basics for Parents: Rhythm

In some ways rhythm is the most important element of music. You could get all the notes right when playing Twinkle, Twinkle – but if your rhythm is off, it’ll be unrecognizable.

And since basically every human has a concept of math, rhythm is a great starting point.

In many ways, music is math. And for the most part it’s easy math. You usually don’t have to count higher than 4, and the most complicated math you’ll find in music involves fractions (which we won’t even discuss in this video).

Different types of notes

The four basic types of notes a kid is going to learn in their first year are:

-Quarter note
-Half note
-Dotted half note
-Whole note

All of these notes get a different amount of counts.

Quarter notes get 1 count.

So I’m going to put on a drum beat and tap along – each time I tap, that’s one beat. We can go fast, or we can go slow.

Quarter notes are going to be the baseline in your child’s first year. The most important thing with these is to keep them steady – we don’t want them to gallop like horse hooves or stutter like morse code. We want these notes to all be steady and equal.

Half notes simply get two beats.

So if we put on that drum again, I wouldn’t tap each beat – I would tap every two beats. The best way to keep track of this is to count to 2 like “1-2, 1-2, etc.”. Some teachers will have young children say “half-note, half-note”, or “tah-ah, tah-ah”. They’re all just different ways of accomplishing the same thing.

A tip for half notes

For kids in their first year, the biggest thing to watch for is that they’re actually stopping and pausing at these half notes. There’s a tendency to power through them as if they’re exactly the same as quarter notes. But they’re like a yield sign – you don’t need to stop, but you do need to pause before crossing.

Piano basics for parents – rhythm

Once you understand quarter notes and half notes, the other two are very simple. Dotted half notes are held for 3 beats. You could say out loud, “1-2-3” or “half-note-dot”. I always encourage children to say the counts out loud when they’re learning (they often forget if it’s just done in their head).

And whole notes are simply the longest count – you have to hold the note for 4 whole counts (by saying “1-2-3-4” or “hold-a-long-time”). These are basically the stop signs of music, and for the most part you’ll see them at the end of a piece, or at the end of a section.

Time signatures

So far so good – you understand the four main types of counts. Now let’s talk about time signatures!

About halfway through almost all of the main method books for children, you’ll start seeing these stacked numbers at the beginning of a piece (4/4, 3/4, etc.). These are your time signatures – it sounds complicated, but it’s really simple.

The bottom number just represents a quarter note.

The top number is telling you how many quarter notes are found inside of every bar (those vertical lines that divide up the music). See, music tends to be based on patterns and repetition, and having the same number of beats in each bar gives our ears this pleasant feeling of symmetry.

If there were 4 beats in 1 bar, 5 in the next, and then 7 in the one after, we would feel uneasy – if we were dancing along, we wouldn’t know where to step and move. So virtually all music will have one set time signature for the whole thing.

Anyway, if the piece says 4/4, you should be able to do some simple math and see that each bar does, in fact, add up to 4. This is such easy math that six year-olds accomplish it with ease.

Troublesome 3/4

A quick note on 3/4 rhythm, though. When a piece is in 3/4, every bar adds up to 3 (of course). But it’s very common for kids and adults alike to struggle with this time signature. There’s a tendency to add a pause each time we get to a bar line, which in essence transforms the 3/4 rhythm into a 4/4 one.

If you’re helping your mini musician practice, and you notice they’re stopping at the bar line in 3/4 time (yielding like they would for a half note), help them pretend the bar line isn’t there at all, or build a bridge across it (you can draw a literal bridge if that helps).

I usually just play the part along with my students, and once it’s in their ear and they can follow along, they can then do it on their own.

Piano basics for parents: Reading notes (on the keyboard)

So now you’re up to speed with rhythm. There are 4 main types of counts, and time signatures simply tell you how much each bar is going to add up to. So far, so good!

Now it’s time to actually read music.

Most beginner method books start with learning the different rhythms, then learning the different notes on the keyboard, and finally reading those notes on the staff. I thought it would make the most sense to learn in that order as well.

By and large the most common way of figuring out what all these different keys are is to use the alphabet. If you’ve looked at your child’s music books and see notes labeled like “A, B”, etc., this is what I’m talking about.

(The other system, far less common, is called the Solfege system. This is where you learn “do, re, mi” for the different notes. I find this system to be very confusing – basically all kids already understand the alphabet, so it’s best to leverage that knowledge).

Though the keyboard looks like a great giant slab of notes, there are actually only 7 notes in total before they all start repeating themselves.

(There are actually 12 notes if you include the black keys, but kids won’t be bothering with those in their first book).

Let’s take a couple notes in the middle – this white key that sits right beside a group of 2 black keys. If I press them both, they make a similar sound (one is higher than the other). If I count all the keys between them, it adds up to 7.

Since there are seven different notes, or tones, before they start repeating, we give each of those notes an alphabet letter:


7 letters for 7 notes. The music alphabet is easy!

Letters on the keyboard

So which letters correspond to which keys?

If you have a full-size piano, it’s very easy to figure out, because the lowest note on the piano is an “A”. From there, you can easily name every other note by going in order:

A B C D E F G, A B C D E F G, and so on.

You’ll notice all C’s look the same (right before a group of 2 black keys), no matter where they are on the piano. All F’s look the same. All A’s look the same. And so on.

Most kids pick up on this pretty fast. You’ll probably notice that whatever book they’re using, there’s going to be a big emphasis on a note called “middle C”. This is the C that’s most in the middle of the keyboard, and it’s essentially home base for most kids. If they can find middle C, they should be able to figure out every other key as well.

Piano basics for parents: Reading the staff

So you’ve got your rhythm all figured out. You know what letters are what on the keyboard. Now it’s time to put those two pieces together and read notes on the staff!

The second half of most beginner method books is dedicated to this, and generally goes quite slow. They’ll start by learning a couple notes at a time, and slowly expand the range of notes they can read. By the end of the year, they should be able to read 8 notes in the bass clef, and 5 notes in the treble clef.

So this is what I’m going to show you how to read.

First of all, most music has two staffs linked together, each with a different symbol. The top symbol is called a treble clef (G clef), and represents the right hand. The bottom symbol is the bass clef (F clef), and represents the left hand. So everything on these top lines must be played by the right hand, and everything on these bottom lines must be played by the left hand.

You’ll notice that each staff has 5 lines and 4 spaces. These are all the different spots that notes on the piano can go. You’ll see notes drawn on lines, and notes drawn on spaces.

But if you do some basic math, you can quickly see that, if each staff only fits 9 notes, and if you add both hands together that equals 18 notes, that doesn’t even come close to covering the 88 keys that exist on the piano.

So one thing you’ll notice is that there are notes that go outside the staff – they can go above it or below it. The reason I’m bringing this up is because the most important note most kids learn first is middle C.

Remember middle C, the one that goes in the middle of the keyboard?

Well it’s actually called middle C because it goes in the middle of the two staffs. It sits below the right hand staff, and above the left hand staff, with a line going through it. This is one of the first notes we teach because it’s so easy to identify – it looks very unique. Some children think it looks like Saturn.

If you can name middle C, you can figure out literally any other note on the staff, if you know your alphabet. The next note up, on a space, is D. The next note up, on a line, is E. Then F on the space, then G on the line. You’ll notice that if you go up or down one note at a time, it always alternates line-space-line-space.

But the most important thing for you to know is that this note will always be middle C. This note will always be E. They never change. It’s not important that a piano student memorize all of these right away, but they will want to memorize a few key notes, which will help them fill in the blanks.

Every teacher and method book has a different preference on key notes to know, but at the very least, if you know middle C, you can use logic to figure out the others.

And middle C helps us figure out the left hand notes as well! All we have to do is figure out the alphabet backwards.

In the right hand, we’re going up from C, which means we can just name the alphabet in it’s proper order. But in the left hand, we’re going down from C. Any time the notes go down, so do the letters. So what comes below C?

And what comes below B? A.

And so on to G, to F, E, D, and finally, C.

Sight reading skills

Don’t worry about being fast at reading these – most method books do just one hand at a time and keep it pretty simple. The important thing isn’t to be able to sight-read the piece for them perfectly, but simply to double-check that they’re hitting the right letters on the keyboard (and with the right hand!).

piano basics for parents: Summary

To summarize:

There are 4 main types of rhythms. Time signatures tell you how many beats go in a bar.

There are 7 letters that we use to name the piano keys – A through G. If you can find middle C, you’re golden.

(If you forget middle C, just remember that the very first note on a regular piano is an A).

Finally, there’s a right hand staff and left hand staff that are joined together (so that, eventually, the piano player can play with both hands at the same time).

When notes climb up the staff, the letters ascend (A, B, C).

When notes climb down the staff, the letters descend (C, B, A).

Again, if you remember where middle C goes, you’re golden.


That covers the most important basics. There are a few other things many beginner books include that we didn’t talk about today (louds and softs, for example), but those concepts are simple enough to grasp and your child should be able to explain it to you.