The 3 Part Process for Memorizing Piano Notes Effectively

How to memorize piano notes featured image

I know what you probably want if you’ve landed on this page… A few crafty mnemonics to solve all your piano reading challenges. And yes I will share some great mnemonics that shortcut the learning process.

But our aim in memorizing piano notes is to learn them effectively to save time in the long run. This requires a more deliberate approach than just patching together some strange mnemonic phrases.

In this article we will uncover how to remember piano notes in a way that sets you up for long term success! We cover:

  1. Piano Key Diagrams
  2. The 3 Parts of Piano Note Memorization
  3. How to Label Your Piano (and if you should)

Piano Key Diagram

Below is a simple chart with the note names of a piano.

Note Names of a Piano Keyboard

The letters used are A through G with the pitch modifiers of sharp(♯) and flat(♭). A sharp modifies the pitch up, moving the original note to the right. And the flat modifies the pitch down, moving the note to the left.

So the black note to the left of G could be referred to as either G♭ or F♯.

The the pattern of A B C D E F G repeats every 7 white notes, all the way up the 88 keys of a standard instrument.

But… memorizing this chart and playing a song on sheet music is a long journey, so first let’s illuminate the finer details of what needs to be learned. 

The 3 Parts of Piano Note Memorization

There are 3 parts to effectively learning the notes on the piano. They are as follows:

  1. connecting the keys on the piano to the letter notes.
  2. connecting the notes on the staff to the letter notes.
  3. connecting the keys on the piano to the notes on the staff.

Here is a visual demonstration of those three parts

It is not good enough to just learn the mnemonic “every good boy does fine” and pat yourself on the back. That only addresses the second item.

Note that this three part process is substantially more elaborate than the one part process we go through with language. In language we just have to connect alphabet letters with sounds.

For example:

A = ah     B = buh     

Part 1: Connecting Letter to Key

Letter = Key (how to remember letter/key association)

To connect the note name to the piano key, the following thought process is fine in the short term, but too slow in the long run:

  1. That one is Middle C
  2. We go up one to D
  3. Up one to E
  4. F
  5. G
  6. A

Over time the process should be one step:

  1. That’s A (because it is to the right of the middle note of 3 black keys)

Ideally keys on a keyboard are identified at a glance, based on their relation to the clusters of 2 and 3 black notes. 

How to do this? I love the mnemonic proposed Lisa Pianista (pseudonym I assume) because it immediately relates key names to black key patterns

The abridged version of her mnemonic is below.

D is the “Dog” in between the two black notes (the dog house).

C and E are on the outside of the dog house

G and A are the “Grandma” and “Aunt” within the three black notes (the full sized house)

F is the “Front door” to the house

B is the “Back door” to the house

You can test your initial note to letter association ability with this piano note game.

Part 2: Connecting Letter to Note (Staff)

Letter = staff note (how to remember letter staff)

To connect the letter A with A on the staff you might again go through the same process as above by starting at middle C and counting down to A. In the long run the process should again be one step:

Ideal process:

  1. That’s A (Because it’s the top line of the bass cleff)

I recommend this video by Rob from “Musicians Inspired.” He walks you through the standard FACE and EGBDF mnemonics and discusses the draw back to using this system as a crutch.

He proposes his own “Landmark System” in which landmarks are learned throughout the whole staff immediately. These “landmarks” correspond to the picture below.

The notes of landmark memorization system

I would add that eventually every note becomes a landmark. Over time you will know the name of any note on the staff immediately because you have memorized it so instinctively.

You can test your initial staff to letter ability using this exercise

How to Remember Treble Clef Notes (with Mnemonics)

Mnemonics can get in the way, because you have to go through the process of reciting the mnemonic each time you want to play a note.

Nonetheless, at the beginning stage they can make nice mental shortcuts.

The mnemonics for the treble clef are:

  • Spaces: from bottom to top – F A C E = face
  • Lines: from bottom to top – E G B D F = Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

A better method would marry the mnemonic system with the landmark system. You can find this type of a hybrid system for learning the treble clef here.

And if you are wondering how to draw a treble clef, you can find that here.

How to Remember Bass Clef Notes (With Mnemonics)

The mnemonics for the bass clef are:

  • Spaces: from bottom to top – A C E G = All Cars Eat Gas
  • Lines: from bottom to top – G B D F A = Great Big Dogs Fear Anything

And here is a guide to drawing a bass clef in case that interests you.

Part 3: Connecting Notes (Staff) to Key

Staff Note = Key (how to remember staff to key association)

Here is a full blown process that could be taken. 

  1. That’s middle C
  2. Down one to B
  3. Down to A
  4. Now lets find A on the Keyboard
  5. Middle C is below the two black keys
  6. Down to B
  7. Down to A

Again this process should eventually be one instantaneous step. 

This is one of the trickiest steps because there are no nifty mnemonics. Nonetheless, here are several suggestions.

  1. Choose a focus note from the staff to associate with its corresponding key each day. Quiz yourself throughout the practice session to see if you can identify the focus note on the keyboard and piano nearly instantaneously. 
  2. Try this this staff to key recognition exercise game frequently to track your progress.
  3. Do lots of sight reading exercises. Choose pieces that will force you to use not just the lower portion of the treble clef but also the upper and lower portions of both staffs. 

Moving Beyond: From Memorizing Notes to Recognizing Patterns

Let’s return to our language metaphor: once you have mastered the three parts laid out in this post it is like you have made the mental connection between your ABC’s and the phonetic variations of all the letters.

So (and this may be sobering) you are comparatively at the 1st or 2nd grade reading level. You’ve learned how to read one letter at a time – not one word at a time.

Let’s compare language and music again to see where we will take things to start learning music on a deeper level.

LanguageMusic
Letters and PhoneticsLetters and Notes and Piano Keys
WordsChords
SentencesChord Progressions
StorySong/Piece

If you want to effectively move past the beginner stage of piano then you will need to begin memorizing chords and learning chord progressions.

Do you need to learn chords and chord progressions?

Well no, I remember learning some more advanced repertoire when I was in 9th grade. At this point in time I hardly knew what chords were slipping beneath my fingers. I memorized primarily off of muscle memory – a particularly unreliable form of memory. You can listen to that recording below:

The danger was that I hadn’t parsed the score into larger mental chunks. This makes it easy to lose your spot in the music and train wreck – something that happened to me at one competition.

Not understanding chords and chord progressions, also hinders your composition, improvisation, and sight reading abilities. I was embarrassed as a high school student by how poor my sight reading ability was! 

How to Label Your Piano (Don’t do it?)

Should you even label your piano keys? I was not able to find any scientific articles on the effectiveness of labeling piano keys. My personal opinion – don’t bother, especially if you are an adult student.

Instead, immediately familiarize yourself with note names in relation to the black keys (ie C is to the left of the two black keys, B is to the right of the three black keys).

But perhaps if you are teaching a kid and they aren’t grasping the key names it could be helpful. Here are some options and ideas to get creative juices flowing.

  • Staff note labels – Staff note label example
    • Advantages: Learner doesn’t have to go through staff => letter => key.
    • Disadvantages: May be difficult differentiating between two close notes at a glance. Also it doesn’t require students to process new information. 
  • Letter Labels –
    • Advantages: Learner will be forced to associate the letter name with the keyboard position and staff note. Knowing the letters is valuable later on when learning chords and scales.
    • Disadvantages: Students have to think staff => letter => key and may be hindered making the direct staff => key association.
  • Color Labels –
    • Advantages: Some beginner books come with color associations for the staff. This makes an intuitive link between the staff and the keyboard especially for young beginners. Furthermore, this forces the brain to think about the layout of the keys as a visual pattern.
    • Disadvantage: Especially if learning from a color coded book, color labels too could become a crutch. 

My top recommendation is to move towards colors or no labels as quickly as possible. Letter and staff note labels could turn into too much of a crutch, whereas color labels and are less likely to do so. Feel free to leave your opinion of the pros/cons/tips of labeling a keyboard in the comment section.

Making Theory Practical…

Do you want to make the most out of these theory concepts? Check out my new course – Favorite Song 101. I teach my students the skills they need to play a song of choice, and arrange that song to match their skill level.

You can get a sneak peak into the course by downloading this worksheet on the 3 steps to learning your favorite song on the piano!

learning favorite Song flyer

Make Memorizing Piano Notes Enjoyable

On findyourmelody.com I like to end most posts with a relevant comment on making piano practice enjoyable.

To make note memorization enjoyable try some of the note memorization games/exercises from https://www.musictheory.net/exercises.

From a psychological perspective these games can be enjoyable because they match several principles of flow as introduced by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of enjoyable concentration.

Two essential elements of flow that the games at musictheory.net create are:

  1. A limited field of focus (so that you can engage an activity without frustrating distractions.)
  2. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback (so you can have a clear sense of progress)

Conclusion

At this point you should know the names of the notes on the piano, the pros and cons of labeling a keyboard, and how to effectively connect the three systems of staff notes, letter names, and piano keys. Feel free to leave a helpful tip/idea/question in the comments section to add to the discussion.

From here next steps could be:

  1. daily sight reading practice
  2. learning your major and minor scales.
  3. learning chords and chord progressions.

Post Script

In this post I frequently compared music with language.

There is a scientific basis for the connection between music and language. Admittedly, my discussion is more of a metaphor than science, but for those interested:

  1. A stanford study found that musicians perceived minute changes in sounds/tones used in speech better than non-musicians.
  2. Music and language invoke complex and closely related cognitive/neural systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *