Reading piano notes is far easier than many beginning pianists think it is. Ultimately, piano note reading is simply a matter of memorization and repetition. In other words, once you learn the basics, all you have to do is put them into practice, and to do so as many times as it takes to completely internalize your note reading skills.
No doubt, you've seen what's known as the staff -- the system of five lines and four spaces upon which musical notes are organized. In music notation, at the far left of a staff you will always see a clef, which is basically a symbol that indicates how the notes on the staff should be read.
There are many different types of clefs, but fortunately for beginning pianists, the vast majority of piano music deals only with two clefs, the treble clef and the bass clef. The treble clef is usually used to notate the first few octaves to the right of Middle C, while the bass clef is usually used to notate the few octaves to the left of Middle C.
In all staffs, no matter what the clef is, successive lines and spaces represent ascending notes of the scale. For example, in the treble clef, the lowest line represents E. Thus, the space just above the lowest line represents F, the line just above that represents G, the space above that is A, and so on.
In the treble clef, which looks sort of like a backwards "S" with a few extra curly-cues thrown in, and centered on the second line up, the notes are as follows: The five lines, from bottom to top, stand for E G B D and F, while the four spaces stand for F A C and E. All beginning pianists must memorize these very early in the learning process. FACE is an easy acronym to remember, while EGBDF lends itself to a variety of mnemonic phrases, which you can make up yourself. For example, when I took my lessons, I was forced to memorize, "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge."
Often, when reading music, you will see additional "lines" added above or below the staff. These are merely extensions of the staff, and follow the same succession as notes within the staff. For example, the invisible line one space below the treble clef staff -- a note that you will see very, very often -- stands for middle C as it is one space and one line below the E represented by the first line.
The bass clef, which looks like a backwards "C" with two dots around the second line from the top, has this configuration: The five lines stand for G B D F and A, while the four spaces stand for A C E and G. Again, there are many mnemonic devices to remember these, but it's always best to make up your own.
With many piano songs, especially those for beginners, the left hand plays the notes in the bass clef, while the right hand plays the notes in the treble clef. The two areas meet up at middle C, which is two notes below the lowest line in the treble clef staff, and two notes above the highest line in the bass clef staff.
Beyond this basic memorization of notes represented by lines and spaces, piano note reading also involves some knowledge of what is meant by various symbols. Most commonly you will see the symbols for sharp and flat. The symbol for sharp, which closely resembles the number symbol (#), indicates that the note which it accompanies should be raised one half step. Meanwhile, the flat symbol looks like a lower case "b," and indicates that the accompanying note should be played one half step lower. Also, once you start to learn more keys and scales, you will need to know the natural symbol, which cancels a sharp or flat is dictated by the key. Also, it's important to remember that when you see a sharp, flat, or natural symbol, that symbol remains in effect throughout the measure.
From this point on, things become more complicated. But don't sweat it. Learning how to read piano notes is a baby-step process. Try not to learn everything at once. Instead, focus on one thing at a time, and practice until it comes as easily as breathing. As always, this is the key to learning piano.
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular DVD home study course on playing piano titled "Crash Course In Exciting Piano Playing!"