How to interpret piano notes
If you still ask yourself what all symbols and the other stuff means when you look at some sheet with piano notes, you will find out by reading the following guide.
This is the beginning of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells”, chosen as a simple example. We will go through all the symbols and lines step by step and explain what they mean and how they should be interpreted by the musician.
These five lines are known as the Stave or the Staff. The function is to hold positions for notes so the piano player will know which tones to play on his or her instrument. Notes can be placed both on the lines and between when. You could say the positions are representing different tones. But exactly which tones cannot be told yet, we need a reference and the references in this case are the clefs and key signatures (see below).
On the staff there are also vertical lines that separate the staff into bars.
The treble clef indicating the tone range for which the following notes on and between the lines belongs to. Are you playing piano the notes after the treble clef are normally played with the right hand.
If you are playing piano the notes after the treble clef are normally played with the left hand. It is easy to remember since the bass notes are on the left side of the keyboard.
How the notes are arranged in the notation system
As we learned earlier the treble and bass clefs are both references of tone ranges. The illustration below show all the tones in different positions on the staves when the reference is given by a treble and a bass clef:
The illustration above also answers the next question about in which way the ranges of the treble and the bass clef meet? The C notes expand with long lines are the same note on the keyboard (the fourth octave from left). This is called "the Middle C" and can be seen as a meeting point for the treble and bass clef in the notation system.
Key signatures are marked by either sharps (#) or flats (b) and indicate what key the song is played in. This may be a little confusing at the beginning, depending on how familiar you are with music theory. As in this example the # symbol means that the notes on these lines are raised one step. Therefore, all F notes should be played as a F#. But there can be exceptions and if you look in the fourth bar you can see this symbol and it is called a natural. This means that the sharp doesn’t count anymore and the note is the normal F. By the beginning of the next bar F should again be played as F# if no natural is shown.
The next thing we see after the treble clef is 4/4 and this is called the time signature. The time signature specifies how many beats where is in each bar. This can be quite complicated, but you can play piano or any other instrument by reading notes without knowing the details about time signatures and since this is only an introduction we skip it for now. To simplify matters you could think of this as the rhythm.
The next group of symbols is repeatedly shown in different styles in the notation system. These symbols tell the musician which tones to play. The notes are always read from left to right. By looking at the diagram under the heading "How the notes are arranged in the notation system" you can find out the notes on the first row are B, B, B, B, B, B, B, D, G, A, B. But isn’t something missing here? Just playing the notes won't capture the melody, we must play them with a certain tempo. As you can see the note symbols look different and the differences mark the differences in tempo!
A half note should be played at a faster tempo than a whole note, a quarter note should be played in a faster tempo than a half note and so on.
This is a whole note, the duration of the whole note is equal to one full bar.
This is a half note, a half note is played for a half of the duration of a whole note
This is a quarter note, a quarter note is played for a quarter of the duration of a whole note
This is an eighth note, an eighth note is played for an eighth of the duration of a whole note
There is finally an eighth note and a half note with a dot after, the dot means the duration should be a half time longer than the original value.
The last symbol is a rest symbol, which indicates a pause. There are many different rest symbols depending on the duration of the pause, but for now we are satisfied to know that this symbol indicates a pause of silence.
By now you should know the fundamentals about how to interpret piano notes. A recommendation is to also learn the music terms that sometimes are written out on piano sheets.