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Piano basics: how to find the right notes on your keyboard

By Scott Houston

Sharps, flats, octaves oh my! These words may sound overwhelming, but the fact is if you’re just starting to learn how to play piano—you’re going to want to know how to identify piano notes on the keyboard, and these words can help! Allow me to break it down for you. Watch this quick video below to get started then keep reading to find an in-depth, written explanation on the topics covered!

Piano notes and keys for beginners

There are only 12 unique notes on a piano: A B C D E F G (white keys), plus sharps and flats (black keys). These 12 notes are repeated seven times on a full size piano—but let’s just focus on finding our first set for now.  Instead of starting with A, I think it’s easier visually to start with a C note, and group the notes this way: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Finding Middle C

First, let’s take a look at a keyboard. Notice that the black keys alternate in sets of two and three? Good—you can find Middle C by first locating the “middleist” (ha! maybe “centermost” is the better word)  set of two black keys, then finding the closest white note down and to the left. Pretty straightforward huh!

White notes: Playing C through B

Okay so we have found a C, and in this particular case “Middle C” on your keyboard. Head to the next white note to the right and you will find D. Voila! It keeps going up the standard alphabet order until the G note. G is followed by A and B, then you guessed it, back to C! 

By the time you get to the next set of notes starting at C, you will have moved up an octave. (We consider “up” to the right, and conversely “down” to the left because the pitches go up and down higher or lower respectively in those directions.) An octave is simply the distance, or interval, from one occurrence of a specific note to the next. These notes will have the same name but have a higher or lower sound depending on which direction you move on the keyboard. Don’t worry too much about octaves just yet, let’s keep focusing on C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Black notes: sharps and flats

 Let’s go back to the black notes we used to find Middle C, and in particular the leftmost of that set of two. This note can be described visually (and aurally, by sound)  two ways: 
  • It’s the closest note higher (to the right) than a C 
  • But also, it’s the closest note lower (to the left) than a D 

If you follow the motions and play the notes on your keyboard, you will find that both descriptions are true! They are the same black note, but they have two definitions depending on how you choose to look at it, and therefore two acceptable names.

Check it out—if we start from C, then find the closest black note up and to the right, it’s going to sound higher in pitch than C, so we can call it a C sharp, or C# in music notation. Sharp (# symbol) designates higher pitch. If we start at D, however, and find the closest black note down and to the left, it’s going to sound lower in pitch than D, so we can also call it a D flat, or Db in music notation. Flat (b symbol) designates lower in pitch. Same note, same sound, but two names depending on what white note you’re comparing it to! 

Every black note on your keyboard falls between two different white notes just like this, so each black note will have two names based on those two white notes, here is the full list: 
  • The “two names for each note” issue comes purely from written music notation. It has to do with the (albeit somewhat confusing) concept that there are different “keys” that music can get notated in, some keys use only sharps to identify notes, and some keys use only flats. Don’t worry about this for now. The important concept to never forget is that it is the same pitch (and on a piano the same physical key) that just comes with two different possible names you might see used one way or the other. If one person is singing an A# and another is singing  Bb, they are singing the same pitch.

  • Also, you might have noticed that E and F, as well as B and C don’t have black notes between them. Therefore, the VAST majority of the time, you will never see an E# or a B#, nor an Fb or a Cb in notation. In the rarest of rare occasions you may see something notated as an E# or B#, but it is simply a super confusing way (theory run amok) to describe the closest note higher, which for those two would the F or C. Same for an Fb or a Cb which would simply be the closest note lower, or an E or a B. Again, don’t let this trip you up right now. If your eyes just glazed over, forget everything you just read in this last paragraph. Ha ha! 

Let's practice!

With seven white notes and five black notes, the above make up our complete 12-note scale!  Again, this is repeated seven times (plus a couple extras notes on the ends) in a standard 88-key piano. Seven sets of notes = seven octave range. I hope this was a good introduction to piano notes for beginners, but I must say, the layout of your piano is MUCH easier to learn with good old tangible practice. And frankly, I’m a much better teacher than I am a writer! Sign up for my free Intro Course today and I can help you get more familiar with your piano and show you some professional tricks while teaching you the melody line to “Joy To The World.”