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How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Aug 4, 2008
When it comes to reading piano sheet music, the first place to start is with the individual elements of the composition itself. Before you can tackle an entire piece, you must be familiar with that particular composition's language.

The following are steps to consider in reading piano sheet music. These will help you grasp the intent and nuances of the piece quickly.

* Look over the entire composition to get a feel for its length and structure. This first run through is just to have a quick overview of the composer's work.

* Go through the piece a second time. This second run through is more deliberate. You want to locate any unfamiliar things: notes, chords, articulations and tempo indications. Highlight any of these that you know will require research. Use a music dictionary or other resource to understand these elements.

* Next, consider the time signature of the piece. Are you familiar with it? If not, read up on the specific time signature, as it is a primary characteristic of the song.

* Consider the key signature of the composition. Are you familiar with this key or is it new? If it's new to you, learn the key's scale with its attendant sharps or flats to better understand the piece.

* Look for key changes within the song. Does the song remain in the same key throughout? If not, how many times does the key change and what are those new keys? Knowing the changes ahead of time makes playing the piece easier.

* Look for tempo changes in the song and highlight them. Again, familiarizing yourself with tempo changes ahead of time allows you to glide from one section to the next easier.

* Look for common passages. Does a phrase or motif repeat itself further along in the piece? Is there a variation of a basic motif somewhere else in the composition? When you familiarize yourself with the basic one, the variations will be that much easier to understand.

* Next, break the composition up into sections. Highlight difficult passages that will require more practice time.

* Write your own notes at specific places on the sheet music. Write these notes using your own unique markings. The only rule to abide by is "whatever makes the piece easier for you to read."

* Play through the piece once, as best you can, without stopping. Even if you have trouble at a certain point, finish the piece. This once over will give you a visual and aural snapshot of the composition.

* Play through the piece again. Stop as needed to make any additional markings in difficult areas.

* Concentrate on just the difficult passages. Look them over again a few times so their structure remains in your mind. Do this before playing them again. This sets the structure in your mind so you can concentrate on the eye-hand coordination. With your eyes familiar with the section, you can now work on your hand movements.

Playing a complete composition with piano sheet music need not be an arduous task. When you tackle its component parts one at a time, the process is much easier. When you learn the individual components and then put them all together, the result is a satisfying musical experience.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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