Music theory for piano
This article is especially written for pianists (students or beginners) and is about all basic notions in musical theory.
Names of notes and positions on a piano
The names of the musical notes, from low to high, are: C D E F G A and B. And from highest to lowest, are: B A G F E D C
Here are the positions of the musical notes on a piano keyboard:
And of course, this scheme is repeated all over the keyboard of the piano:
You must memorize the order of the names of the musical notes: C D E F G A B and the reverse order.
Learn more: Music note names
Names of notes and positions on the staff
High-pitched notes are on top of the staff (stave ), and low-pitched notes are on the bottom of the staff (stave ).
If there is no more lines or space to draw music notes, ledger lines are used.
Learn more: The staff (stave)
Clefs used for the piano
Clefs are reference points for positioning the notes on the staff, and to play the piano you will need the treble clef (G-clef) and the bass clef (F-clef).
The treble clef, the pianist's right hand
Most of the time, the pianist's right hand plays notes written in treble clef. The treble clef determines the position of the G note, and all other notes will be placed according to this reference.
Below are more music notes in treble clef:
The bass clef, the pianist's left hand
Most of the time, the pianist's left hand plays notes written in bass clef. Pianists must be able to read two clefs at the same time... The bass clef determines the position of the F note, and all other notes will be placed according to this reference:
Below are more music notes in bass clef:
Relation between treble clef and bass clef
These two C notes have the same sound and are played on the same key on a piano keyboard, it's easy to recognize because that they have the same pitch because visually one is below the the staff (stave ) and the other is above:
Read more about the relation between treble clef and bass clef: Relation between clefs
Whole steps & half steps (tones & semitones on a piano
Another essential point in music theory is the notion of whole steps & half steps (tones & semitones ).
Below is a example written in treble clef, but it is the same in bass clef:
In other words, there is only one half steps (semitones ) between E and F, and only one half steps between B and C
Read more: Whole steps & half steps (Tones & semitones)
Music theory game: Half steps (Semitones) game
Accidentals on a piano keyboard
Accidentals are very important in music theory: An accidental is a sign to raise or to lower the pitch of a note. And accidentals are always written before the note.
When added to a note, a sharp (♯) raises the note by a half step (semitone ).
When added to a note, a flat (♭) lowers the note by a half step (semitone ).
When added to a note, a natural (♮) cancels the previous accidentals.
Bellow are accidentals on a piano keyboard:
Below is the chromatic scale written in treble clef:
And the chromatic scale written in bass clef:
Accidentals only affect on the current bar:
Accidentals affect key signature
Accidentals affect the key signature.
In this example (below), This key signature means that all E notes are E flat (E♭) and that all B notes are B flat (B♭). But the accidentals affect the key signature:
Note and rest values
In music theory, notes have a pitch but also a duration.
| Double-whole note|
| Whole note|
| Half note|
| Quarter note|
| Eighth note|
| Sixteenth note|
| Thirty-second note|
| Sixty-fourth note|
| One hundred and twenty-eighth note|
And below are note signs equivalences
And when music use silences, composers use rest value:
| Double-whole rest|
| Whole rest|
| Half rest|
|or|| Quarter rest|
| Eighth rest|
| Sixteenth rest|
| Thirty-second rest|
| Sixty-fourth rest|
| One hundred and twenty-eighth rest|
Increase the duration of a note
In music theory, the ways to increase the duration of a sound or of a rest are: Dots, ties and fermata:
Dots (augmentation dost)
A dot placed to the right of the note-head or to the right of a rest, increases its time-value by half.
A dotted whole note is equivalent to a whole note and a half note.
A dotted semibreve is equivalent to a semibreve and a minim.
A dotted eighth rest is equivalent to a eighth rest and a sixteenth rest.
A dotted quaver rest is equivalent to a quaver rest and a semiquaver rest.
Ties merge multiple notes of the same pitch:
Ties can be used across bars (barlines ) :
The fermata, also called hold or bird's eye, is a semicircle containing a dot which may lie above or below a note or rest or over a bar (barline ). The fermata indicates that the note (or rest) should be prolonged beyond the normal duration.
Read more: Dots and Ties
Tempo refers to the speed at which a piece of music will be played.
The tempo is always perfectly regular like a clock, and a beat is a regular pulse which can be dictated by a metronome. Here are two examples of the same piece in different tempos:
Read more: Tempo
Measure (bar )
Below is an example of empty measures (bars )
Just after the clef is the time signature, and bellow are some common time signatures:
means that there are 4 beats per measure and that one beat has for value (quarter note / crotchet )
means that there are 3 beats per measure and that one beat has for value (quarter note / crotchet )
means that there are 2 beats per measure and that one beat has for value (quarter note / crotchet )
is the is the abbreviation of
is the is the abbreviation of and means that there are 2 beats per measure and that one beat has for value (half note / minim )
Read more: Time signature
Repeat bars (Repeat barlines )
Repeat bars are used to repeat a segment of the score:
On this staff (stave ), there are two repeat signs, it works like mirrors. The first measure (bar ) is played, nothing special.
The 2nd measure is played normally, but you will have to memorize the location of the repeat sign, here it is simple because the staff has only one line.
The 3rd measure is played normally.
The 4th measure is played normally.
After you have fully played the 4th measure, the repeat sign indicates that you should go back to the previous repeat sign.
The 2nd measure is played again.
The 3rd measure is played again.
The 4th measure is played again.
Mission accomplished! We played the passage between the two repet signs, we can continue our way.
Repeat signs with first and second endings:
On this staff (stave), there are two repeat signs and measures with numbered brackets. Measure with first bracket (1.) is called first-time bar (or first ending) and the second bracket (2.) is called second-time bar (or second ending).
The 1st measure is played.
The 2nd measure is played normally, but you will have to memorize the location of the repeat sign.
The 3rd measure is played.
At the end of this measure called first-time bar (or first ending), there is a repeat sign, so we go back to the previous repeat sign.
We play one more time this measure.
And we jump to the second-time bar (or second ending), because we have already played the first-time bar.
Special musical symbols for the piano
Some musical symbols are specifics to the piano and others are quite often used to be described here:
The Glissando indicates that it is necessary to play from the first note to the last and to play all the notes which separate them:
The Arpeggio indicates that it is necessary to play the notes of the chord separately, starting from the lowest note:
Sustain pedal symbol
The first symbol indicates that you have to press the sustain pedal and the second one to release the pedal. Sometimes you'll find the Piano Pedal symbol , which indicates that you have to press the pedal for the duration of the symbol:
Learn to read music to play the piano
If you have read all this, you understand that the pianist must learn Treble clef and Bass clef, here are some games to learn how to read music note:
- Sight Reading game for Piano
- Notes reading game in treble clef (beginner) for the right hand of the pianist
- Notes reading game in bass clef (beginner) for the left hand of the pianist