Trying to learn to read sheet music on my own; the best way to phrase my question is with a quick example: "Canon in D Major". I look at the sheet and I see the scale from this:


I get the whole EGBDF and FACE thing (and the separate ones for the bass clef), and that the sharps show me which notes are sharp in order to fit into D major, W-W-H-W-W-W-H - I get all that. Looking down at the piano I can see that this means the 3rd (F) and the 7th (C) are sharp/black keys. Correct me if I'm wrong but I'm pretty sure I have all that straight.

Now when I look at the actual notes:


What is the best way to "look at this and easily tell what these notes are"? I am used to guitar where its easiest (for me at least) to think about notes in terms of their relationship on the scale (I look at the fretboard and I "see" major scale positions 1,3,5, etc. when I look at where my fingers go). When I try this with sheet music and going "this note is a 6th", I find it very slow going to try to remember anything and I'm counting note positions up and down and lose my place constantly, etc.

Should I instead be "seeing" the lettered notes when I look at the above? Do you look at that first note and go "oh, just below the bottom line, that's a D (just from memory/familiarity/practice) and in this scale its not sharp, and of course I remember that D is the key between the set of two black ones on the piano" ... or what?

I'm trying to figure out what I need to memorize and practice to get good at this.


I am a pianist and an excellent sight-reader. As was said above, classical pianists read A LOT of notes in quick succession. I read quickly by recognizing patterns.

The patterns can be broken into two main types: scale and interval. Scale patterns are sections of 3 or more notes in a row that move stepwise. (Just two notes would follow the interval pattern.) The interval pattern can be used to assess two notes in a row that move by any amount, or they can be used to identify chords. I process a chord according to its inversion, which is easy to see by the shape of the intervals. (Even though, technically, a scale pattern is an extended interval pattern, I separate them because the approach to fingering is often different.)

Two notes right next to each other are a step, notes on adjacent lines or adjacent spaces are a third, and so on. I recommend focusing on recognizing how all the intervals look, both stacked (harmonic) and unstacked (melodic.) It is helpful to know, for example, that a 4th will always have one note on a line and one on a space but are not immediately next to each other like a 2nd.


I'm not a guitarist so I don't completely understand what you mean by "seeing 1,3,5" or "this note is a 6th" (6th fret? 6th string?)

Anyway, it seems like on the guitar, you look at a note position on the staff and associate it directly with the position on the fretboard.

As you suggest, you should be aiming to do the same for the piano - i.e. if you see "a note just below the bottom line of the treble staff" you immediately know it is "the white key between two black keys, just above middle C". You don't need to do any "counting" to make that connection, and you don't even need to know the note is called D (though that is obviously a useful thing to know if you want to talk about the music, rather than play it).

After a while this should become as automatic as looking at the squiggle "g" in a page of print and "knowing" its sound when you read it - once again, it's useful to know the name of the letter, but you don't need to know the name in order to pronounce it!

It is certainly useful to notice the difference in pitch between successive notes, but you shouldn't need to explicitly "count" that - just recognize the patterns of notes that are 2, 3, 4 … steps apart, without actually counting the lines and spaces. Recognizing "small" intervals is probably easiest, but you will also learn to recognize some common "larger" intervals, for example an octave.

When you progress to reading and playing chords as well as single notes, again you should try to recognise the "shape" of the whole chord on the staff, rather than reading each note individually.

  • Thanks, that’s useful info. What I meant by 1,3,5 and 6 are the positions in the scale - if I look at a chord I know (eg G major) i look at which fret positions and I’m used to seeing shapes and going “this shape is the root/1, third and fifth of a major chord”. I don’t read sheet music for guitar. I guess I’m just used to remembering specific chord shapes on the fretboard and then visually looking to see “what is a fifth up from this position” etc.
    – bgp
    Aug 15 '18 at 10:55

Classically trained pianists spend a lot of time looking at sheets - and there's much more notes to read at the same time than in most other instruments. I don't think anyone sees "letters" there.

Since you asked for personal observations, here's what I felt:

When I saw the two sharps, I felt my right hand adjust itself to the two trickier finger positions: f#-g (fingers 3 - 1) and c#-d (4-1 or 4-5).

Then I looked at the bars and saw a major seventh cord, with passing fourth and second added along the way. It turned out that my initial feelings about the finger change were wrong on one point (no need to switch fingers on g), but spot on about playing f# with my third finger.

I don't know if it's useful for you, but that's how it worked for me :-) Usually reading sheets is a hodge-podge of noticing patterns, music theory and muscle memory. It only decays into counting lines when they are far below or far above the 5 basic lines (which also happens to me... I am not a great music reader).


Sight reading music is very similar to reading any other written language: symbols represent sounds.

When you learned to read you started making those associations by learning the alphabet. First you had to recognize a letter, then you had to associate it with a sound, and finally you put those sounds together to interpret the written word: "c...a...t...ka-ah-tuh... cat!"

The first step in reading music is to recognize the letter names of the notes. Once you have that down, then you're associating the distances between the notes with their sounds - you see a C note followed by a higher A, and you recognize it as a sixth. In reading English you're merging the two sounds, in music you're building the muscle memory to move up a sixth - for the piano specifically, you're recognizing that you're reaching one step beyond the five finger position to get the next pitch.

As you gain fluency your brain starts processing groups. A fluent reader of English sees "Republican" or "alligator" and instantly converts that into an idea, and a fluent reader of music processes the shapes of a line into a melody, or a stack of notes into a chord as an entire group.

So the method for learning to read music is essentially the same as for any other written language. The first step is note identification, but as you improve you'll no longer rely on it, or even think about it. You'll have internalized the alphabet and you simply put that knowledge to practical use.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.