Piano Music Theory Basics: How to Read Music
In this page, we’ll be looking at some music theory basics, such as how to read notes on the staff, and some symbols that appear there as well.
All of the links below will take you straight to the blog post, where there is a video as well.
In addition to reading notes on the staff, these videos/blog posts on music theory basics will also help you interpret various other symbols on the page, as well as understanding the idea of “keys”.
I created this video to help out all parents who have children getting into piano. This assumes you have zero knowledge of music, and takes you through the main things a child will learn in their first year or so of lessons.
Music Theory Basics: Reading Notes
This video is slightly longer, nearing 20 minutes, but do not skip this if you’re new to piano. It covers everything from how to figure out what the keys of the piano are, to how to know which ones to press.
The most common way to do this is by using the alphabet system – labeling all seven different keys a letter from the alphabet (A B C D E F G).
There’s a lot to unpack here, and you’ll need to practice reading every day, just like when you were in Grade 1 at school and first learned to read words.
Sheet music shortcuts
Once you understand the basics of note reading, it’s handy to know a few shortcuts. These are the little tricks I teach my students of all ages, and it’s super helpful while you’re in the process of memorizing the various notes.
Think of it like a scaffolding. These tricks are there to help you build your knowledge. But once you’ve internalized the notes and memorized them, you no longer need the scaffolding (these tricks).
One of the major challenges of learning piano is learning how to read music for both hands at the same time. Most other instruments involve just 1 clef to read; piano has 2 (one for each hand).
Music theory basics: Musical Keys
Each song you’ll learn is in its own “key”. Each “key” (represented by the different letters) has its own pattern of white keys and black keys, and of chords.
We always start with the key of C major because it’s the easiest to remember – there are no black keys.
Songs in the key of C will typically use C chords frequently, and will frequently start and end on C as well.
There are two different “qualities” of keys – major and minor. For example, a song could be based on the key of C major, or the key of C minor. One is happy and sunshiney, and the other is dark and somber.
This video/blog post focuses on training your ear to hear the difference between the two. Minor keys are just as common as major ones, so they’re important to understand.
This video, aside from discussing the formula for scale building, also discusses why scales are so useful to know in the first place. The short answer is they help us understand and remember all the different keys on the piano.
If you’re a math-minded person, you’ll appreciate that scale-building is entirely based on simple formulas.
There is only one type of major scale, but there are several types of minor scales. One of the main minor scales used in songs is the very funky-sounding harmonic minor scale.
Again, math-inclined folks will appreciate the formulas involved here – but the math-phobic need not fear, since the formulas are pretty simple.
This video talks about all the different keys and scales that use sharps, which is half of them (the other half uses flats).
You’ll notice that when you’re reading music and you’ve got some sharps or flats in the key signature, they’re always in the same order – we talk about that in this video.
This video also offers a helpful shortcut to figuring out what key your song is written in (if it uses sharps in the key signature).
Yes, I know the title is a bit hyperbolic – but honestly, this is a really fast way to quickly identify any key signature. Especially useful if you need to be able to do this quickly in an exam setting.
When you’re learning music in a variety of key signatures, it can be a challenge to remember which sharps or flats you need to be using in a piece. This Q&A session shares some of my ideas on how to accomplish this.
Music theory basics: How to use the damper pedal
Learning how to use the damper pedal is an essential part of playing piano – I would say at least half the pieces you’ll learn, especially more challenging ones, will use the pedal in some way.
This video covers the very basics of using the pedal, and pedal use is marked in music, so you know when to use it.
This video focuses on the “syncopated pedal” technique, which is far and away the most common way to pedal. This technique can be very tough for some people to master – others will pick it up simply and intuitively.
If this is a tough thing for you to do, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And if you pick up on syncopated pedal quickly, then congrats – you’re one of the lucky ones!
Other Musical Symbols
This tutorial focuses on using staccatos, a common piano technique, using a simple little ditty by Bela Bartok.
Just like with the damper pedal (and anything else, really), some people really struggle with staccatos, and others adapt to them easily. It is a little challenging at first – you need some finger nimbleness to do it effectively. If your fingers are slow and heavy, it’ll take more work to master.
To learn the 2-note slur, we’re going to look at another beginner Bartok piece (Thanks, Bela!).
Slurs are the opposite of staccatos – they mean to play smoothly. But there’s more meaning to slurs than that. This video talks about the 2-note slur, which is a specific technique that goes beyond just playing it smooth.
Musical phrasing is another layer of reading slurs. Slurs mark the “sentence structure” of a piece, and there are specific ways to play phrases beyond just making sure you keep them smooth.
Phrasing is a topic I find most students have a tendency to outright ignore, but it makes such a difference to the overall sound of your piece – please pay attention to these fine details in music!
This quick video talks about some common Italian markings you’ll sometimes see in your music – ritardando and a tempo. They are oftentimes seen together, which is why the video talks about both.
Another short video, this discusses in depth the “portato” symbol (not potato!), and how to play it properly on the piano.
This video and blog post covers all of the major articulations in one big round-up – this includes things like staccato and portato.
I encourage you to watch the individual videos on these concepts so you understand them fully, but I wanted to make a handy reference for all of them (including the ones without their own dedicated video).
These aren’t articulations per se, but since they basically “decorate” the notes, I figure they’d fit in this section. Ornaments are the little extra frills you see/hear in music performances, and are very common – especially once you start advancing in skill.
This Grade 3 tutorial goes into detail on how to make fingering choices in pieces where the fingering isn’t marked for you.
This page was made to help you through the music theory basics. This is basically what you need to know as a beginner, all the way up to an intermediate level.
Be sure to check out the other theory sections as well, such as chords and rhythm, to develop a well-rounded understanding of music.