How to interpret sheet music for piano

What is on that sheet ?

As a pianist, I get that question so often. Someone sees me playing and looking at a sheet of music and they wonder and then ask what am I looking at, that allows me to play a particular song. The answer lies in knowing how to interpret sheet music. Let us look at an example of a sheet of well known music : You raise me up by Josh Groban, and Your Song sung by Elton John

You raise me upyour song u

What are the main features ?

  • The song titles are at the top Your song and You raise me up 
  • At the top right, we can see who wrote the words and who composed the music
  • On the left, below the title we see a description of the style. You raise me up is moderately slow, and Your Song is to be played freely with expression
  • The first line of music contains the treble staff which is the melody pianist would play with the right hand, and the bass staff which is the notes to be played with the left hand. This spells out the introduction to the song. When the soloist begins to sing( when the words enter), the system shows 3 staff lines, with the addition of the song melody.
  • The whole song has, beside the treble and bass indicators(clefs), a key signature ( related to pitch and scales), and a time signature which tells us how the tempo is maintained in groups of four counts.

So how do I know what note to play ?

The staff lines contain notes of different value and pitch that are unique. The position of the notes on the staff is related to one musical note on the piano and the kind of note, crotchet, quaver etc tells us how long to hold that note. Being able to play the correct notes as we keep the correct timing of the piece is something that comes from study and practice of music theory and the related practical exercises, guided by a coach.

What are those other marks on the sheet?

Above the staff lines, you will see little squares with dots, lines and a note name. These represent guitar chords as named, the lines represent the strings of a guitar and the dots are the finger positions on the individual strings.The guitar indicators are placed exactly (over which note or word) where they are to be played in the song.

In between the treble and bass staff lines (in the first system) you see ‘mp’ which means moderately soft. These terms which  are shortened forms of italian terms are used to indicate the expression and it can change at different points in the music.

The diagram below shows the lower part of Your Song. At the bottom of the first page of each song is a notice of copyright which has the contact information for anyone who would like to use the song for any purpose, such as recording or performance or maybe as a background for an advertisement.

lower your song

Take time to listen

Now that you know more about these songs, why not take time to listen to them and see if you can identify some of these features . Click here on the titles,  relax and listen: YOU RAISE ME UPYOUR SONG. What is the difference between these two and this song :KISS FROM A ROSE

Kiss from a rose


You got it ! The key signature in Kiss From a Rose is different. The tempo counts a recurring 1,2,3,4,5,6 rather than 1,2,3,4

Do we need sheet music?

There are many pianists who play by ear because they know how to play chords and melodies without looking at a sheet. The sheet music is important in that it records, accurately, all the features of the song. It is the reason why a person in Australia can pick up a music sheet and play and interpret  the song almost identical to someone in Iceland. It is the method by which music was passed down from one generation to the next. It is the means by which an orchestra can play complicated arrangements. Sheet music will be around forever.

Do you play from sheet music? If not, why not? What has your experience been ?

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  1. Quinn

    I have never been introduced to sheet music but it seems very interesting. It seems like it takes a lot of thought and concentration to be able to play and focus on each of the keys. I like the way you explained how to determine the speed or pace of your music it makes me more interested in looking into learning a little more about music to be able to maybe enjoy and play some different types of jazz. I appreciate the music class looking forward to seeing something else from you.

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi Quinn, it really takes a lot of thought and concentration but it all comes with practice, and you are given an advantage. You can go anywhere in the world and pick up a sheet of music and play accurately. Even jazz players who seem to do a lot by ear, find an advantage in knowing how to read music. I hope you will learn to play from sheet music someday soon. Thank you for your comments. I am always at Best wishes  !!!!!!!!   Joy

  2. Rob

    A useful article for beginners or those, like me, who haven’t looked at sheet music or played an instrument in many years. The piano is the one instrument I’d really like to learn and your site overall looks like it could point me in the right direction. After this lesson on sheet music, I’ll take a look around the rest of the site.

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi Rob, it seems like you still have an interest in learning to play. It is never too late to get back into piano. there are so many styles and you would keep motivated if you played the music you love. Best wishes. thanks for your comment.

  3. Autofreak

    I am not a musician, but I love music. I motivate my friend who is a saxophonist a lot. I see him with notes, but I have no idea what’s all about.I can see that sheet music is like a universe language of music. I have learned something from this.. Do saxophonists use same sheet music with pianists and guitarists? I shared your link on Facebook . I want my friend to get inspiration from your blog.

  4. arnaiemhasan


    Thanks for sharing this excellent article . Sheet music is a written , notated representation of musical melodies , rhythms and lyrics . This is a hymn style arrangement of a traditional piece entitled Adeste Fideles in standard tow staff formate for mixed voices .. Sheet music is the basic form in which western classical music is notated so that it can be learned and performed by solo singers or instrumentalists or musical ensembles . Many forms of traditional and popular western music are commonly learned by singers and musicians by ear rather that by using sheet music .

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi, thanks for your information about sheet music. Yes there are many musicians who never use sheet music. With years of practice, they are able to hear the melody, ‘feel’ and hear the harmony in their heads and be able to play the correct chords and progressions. There are some who play by reading the notes on the sheet. Some do both. 

  5. Lok Which

    This is interesting. Coming across your article I have been exposed to a new thing. I do not really know much about music sheet yet I’m into music. Reading through this I discovered that there are a lot people who are into music but do not know about music sheet. It is a must read for every one into music. Thanks for sharing this information and educative information.

    1. Joy (Post author)

      hi Lok, learning to read music from a sheet opens up a world of being able to play what others have written. Playing by ear is good, but knowing how to interpret sheet music is a big plus. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Alblue

    I’m helping my nephew finding some basic materials about piano for his learning, and found your article here. It’s actually quite amazing how sheet music ‘works’ and interpreted like that. I have seen several sheet music in movies and anime (I like some story that centered on a pianist), but this is the first time I really understand what those sheets means. Thank you very much for writing this article 🙂

    1. Joy (Post author)

      You are welcome Alblue. I hope you find yourself learning to read music sheets and playing from them someday. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Sammynathaniels

    I play my Clarinet from sheet music either when I do a solo or in an orchestra. The sight reading helps me get the notes right.

    I started learning music from being taught about Clefs, Staffs, Time signature, Key Signature, accidentals, etc, so I think it makes it easier for me to play from a sheet music piece but hard for me to play ‘by ear’. However, there are few melodies I can play ‘by ear’ as a duet or solo on my Clarinet but it is only because I have mastered the notes.

    Personally, I think a music sheet makes it easy to transfer and preserve music pieces especially technical concert or solo pieces such as interesting ones written by Mozart or Beethoven. 

    However, I really enjoyed reading this because it talks about part of what I do and I love music too. By the way, I have downloaded some pieces you uploaded here -“Kiss From A Rose” and “You Raised Me Up”. I intend to play the treble part with my clarinet and if I see a pianist, maybe he can help play a part too. This should showed how good a music sheet can be!

    Thank you for this article!

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Yes Sammy. That’s exactly why music sheets are useful. You can download and play anywhere in the world. That is because music writing follows standards that are international, and were developed and used for several hundred years. I, too. am a clarinet player, and can play songs written for piano because the notes are all there. Thank you for you comments !!

  8. hussaain

    This is an explicit and informative post. I cannot rate your write-ups less. Very simple and intriguing to read.

    This post is very interesting and in depth. The love I have for music cannot be overemphasised, I am overwhelmed seeing your topic relating to interpreting sheet music because this is what I have always wanted to know for a longer time. Thanks for the eye opener. I must attest to the fact that I learnt a lot from this lovely writeup

    1. Joy (Post author)

      You are welcome, Hussain. I hope it will help you to learn more and more of the music you love.

  9. Chrissie Spurgeon

    I love music, and I do play the piano really badly!! I don’t practise enough!

    But I do have a knowledge of how to interpret sheet music, and in my opinion the best way to learn that is to concentrate on single notes at first, starting with the treble clef. I have taught many children to play the recorder, and they did learn to play tunes using that method.

    I also love to sing, and being able to read music is a great advantage there.

    It is great that you are encouraging people to learn how to read sheet music.

    Many thanks for your post.

    Chrissie 🙂

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Yes Chrissie, concentrating on one note at a time, and practicing in short phrases is the best way to complete learning piano pieces. As you said, being able to read puts any pianist at a distinct advantage. It means that you can purchase the sheet music for any song you want to play, and teach yourself that song. Thank you for your comments.

  10. Mattie K

    You Raise me up is my all time favorite song. It gives me goosebumps every. single. time! I have always admired people that can read music and play an instrument. I really want to get my kids into music. I just have to find a music teacher since I am musically illiterate. 
    Loved your article, it’s very informative for someone like me who doesn’t have a clue. My whole day is better just listening to that song this morning; so thank you! 

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi Mattie. It is a great idea to get your kids playing from age 6 and older. It is a skill that will help them in their academic studies and if, later, they want to take it up as a hobby or as a career, they will always be grateful to you for sending them to music lessons. Many adults are also learning to play. Glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for your comments.

  11. John

    I was never good at reading music and I love your recommendation about listening to the music, it definitely helped me when I used to play.

    Once you can get used to how the notes sound, it will make it much easier to grasp.  When you first see a sheet of music with all of the notes and stuff, it can seem really overwhelming.  But reading your post, it just goes to show you can and will grasp it.

    thanks for sharing this information, it will definitely help people.

    All the best


    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi John. I learned to play from sheet music first, so I did not find it much of a challenge. Some people find playing by ear much easier. It is good to be able to do both as each method of learning prepares  you for different situations. Thank you for your comments. I hope you might take up the challenge of playing from sheet music, some time soon.

  12. Twack Romero

    Well that just took me on a nice trip down ‘Memory Lane’ Seal has an amazing, unique voice. Sheet music, love it ,hate it,not sure. I suppose I’m a bit like a chef who wants to know how to cook something but doesn’t want to follow the recipe, just get an idea of what’s in it and then ‘ad lib’. I learnt how to read sheet music when I was younger, whilst playing the flute. I had it ‘easy’ you might say, as there was only the one stave to follow. I have tried a few times to play the piano and we had one for many years in the hope that the children would take a shine to it, alas not. I am sure it is down to practice but for some reason my problem was getting my hands to do different things. With the flute you can’t see your fingers and they are quite capable of acting independently of each other but put them in front of me on a keyboard and they both want to do the same thing. Odd. I still have sheet music for some of my favourite pieces but it may take me a while to refresh my skills in reading.

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi Twack, This was so amusing. Learning to play piano, while moving fingers independently, is a skill that can be mastered. A good piano tutor would show you, in stages, how to use your ten fingers to play all those keys, play right hand only, then add left hand. At this stage, you can search for some good piano lessons. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Alternatively, you could learn to play chords, so that you can take up those music sheets of songs you love and play while you sing.  Hope you get back to your music soon, using whatever method you like. Thanks for your comments


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