How to Identify Notes from Symbols on Sheet Music?

<< Piano Sheet Music: The Basics

Continued from Piano Sheet Music: The Essentials

This is the second post in How to Read Piano Sheet Music: A Beginner’s Guide series. If you haven’t read the first post, I highly recommend going back and reading it before continuing with this one.

<< Piano Sheet Music: A Beginner’s Guide

In the first post, we covered the basics of sheet music, such as:

  • What is piano sheet music?
  • Why do you need sheet music, and why not just use letter notes?
  • What are the different parts of piano sheet music?

Having covered the basics of sheet music and its importance in the previous post, we’ll now discuss the important topic of how to identify notes from symbols on sheet music.

If you’ve been playing the piano using letter notes, this post is crucial for you. This article will guide you in recognizing those letter notes in sheet music, where everything is written in symbolic form.

To make it easier, we will divide this topic into two subtopics:

  • The six different note shapes, which represent the duration of the notes, and
  • How to place those shapes (i.e. notes) on the staff to indicate their pitch (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and octave

Identifying Notes on Sheet Music

Recognizing letter notes from symbols requires an understanding of musical staff, clefs, beats, note shapes, and note placement on the staff.

Knowledge of these foundational elements provides a framework for understanding how notes are arranged on sheet music and how to identify them in any piano piece.

First, let’s discuss the concepts of staff and clefs. Then, we’ll explore how notes can be identified from the symbols on the staff lines.

Following that, we’ll delve into the concept of beats and six different types of note shapes. This will help you gain a detailed understanding of how notations are placed in sheet music.”


The musical staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces. Each line and space represent a different musical pitch.

The following image shows how five lines of staff are drawn for sheet music. The symbol at the start of the staff is a clef sign, which we will discuss in the next section.

Staff: a set of five horizontal lines

It is like a ladder with five steps, each representing a different musical pitch.

When creating sheet music, the staff is the first thing we draw because everything else revolves around it, or we can say it serves as the foundation for everything.

All symbols in sheet music, such as notes, rests, and other markings, are placed either on the lines, in the spaces, or above and below the staff.

Set of Two Staffs

In general, sheet music contains a set of two staffs, together called the grand staff.

The upper staff, called the treble staff, is used for middle octave and higher octave notes, or the notes played with the right hand.

The lower staff, called the bass staff, is used for lower octave notes that are played with the left hand.

These treble and bass notes are shown on the staff line by a symbol called a clef, which is explained in the following paragraph.


Clef is a symbol that indicates the pitch range of the notes on the staff.

The clef symbol is usually at the beginning of the staff and assigns specific pitches to the lines and spaces of the staff.

The two most common clefs are the treble clef (for higher-pitched instruments and voices) and the bass clef (for lower-pitched instruments).

The image given below shows how clef symbols are drawn on the staff lines. The upper clef symbol is the treble clef, and the lower one is the bass clef.

Treble clef

The treble clef, or G clef, is used for the higher notes of the piano and is usually played with the right hand.

Bass clef

The bass clef, or F-clef, is used for the lower notes of the piano and is usually played with the left hand.


A beat is the regular, repeating thump or pulse in music. Imagine tapping your foot along with a song—each tap is a beat. Beats help us feel the rhythm and keep everything in time. Different notes (like quarter notes, half notes, etc.) tell us how many beats they get, so we know how long to hold them or how quickly to play them.

Note Shapes

In music, the duration of a note refers to how long it should be held or played.

Ddifferent note shapes represent the duration of the notes, and the placement on the staff indicates their pitch and octave.

The basic note shapes, from longest to shortest, are:

Whole Note

A whole note is the longest basic note shape. It looks like an oval with a stem. A whole note receives one beat in a measure.

Half Note

A half note looks like a hollow oval with a stem. It receives half a beat in a measure.

Quarter Note

A quarter note looks like a filled-in oval with a stem. It receives one-quarter of a beat in a measure.

Eighth Note

An eighth note looks like a filled-in oval with a stem and a flag. It receives one-eighth of a beat in a measure.

Sixteenth Note

A sixteenth note looks like a filled-in oval with a stem and two flags. It receives one-sixteenth of a beat in a measure.

Note Placement on the Staff

The lines and spaces on the staff represent specific pitches.

The position of a note on the staff indicates its pitch. Moving up or down the lines and spaces represents a change in pitch. Each line and space on the staff corresponds to a different note in the musical alphabet

For example, in the treble clef, the lines from bottom to top are E, G, B, D, and F (Every Good Boy Does Fine), while the spaces spell FACE.

In the bass clef, the lines are G, B, D, F, and A (Good Boys Do Fine Always), and the spaces spell ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass).

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