Reading piano keys, explained.
Learn how to recognize any piano key and how the music alphabet works.
You’ll also learn where middle C is and why it’s so important.
This post is for beginner pianists as a resource for piano teachers and students.
The Music Alphabet and Notes
Notes are the musical language: you should play, hear, and understand them to communicate musically.
Every tone in music is a “note” that you can recognize with a letter name or write on the staff.
- For example, the classic “Mary had a Little Lamb” uses three (or four, depending on your version) notes which are arranged in different patterns to form the song.
- “Hot Cross Buns” uses three notes, too.
The music alphabet runs exactly like the regular alphabet, stopping at G. (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) A always comes after G.
This pattern repeats itself on the piano, so there is more than one of every key. Every letter to the same letter (e.g. A to A) is an octave.
The letter names label every single key on the piano so that music can be saved, spread, copied, and changed.
You can take any piece and play it up or down an octave, and the “tone” will not be changed (except for sounding higher or lower).
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- An easy way to read the keys of a piano is to find the D first.
- The piano’s black keys form a pattern: set of 3, set of 2, set of 3, etc.
- Find any set of two black keys; the white key in the centre is a D.
- From the D run through the alphabet to G with the white keys only.
- The next white key is E, then F, etc. You’ll know that A comes after G, so you can repeat the alphabet.
- Gradually, you’ll get used to the look of the keys and be able to differentiate them based on where they are (without having to run through the entire alphabet)!
Middle C is the C key closest to the centre of the piano.
This C anchors you and helps you find your place right away– this is about where you will sit. It’s also in the middle range of voices.
Find Your Middle C
- On an 88 key piano, it’s the 4th C
- On a 76 key piano, it’s the 3rd C
- On a 61 key piano, it’s the 3rd C
- On a 49 key piano, it’s the 3rd C
- It’s usually the C under the brand of the piano above the keys.
- Grab your tuner.
Now that you know how to read your piano keys, learn to recognize them quickly by reviewing often.
The next step is learning a few songs (by ear) or learning how to read notes!