Piano Note Names, Tones, Semitones, and Intervals

In this lesson, we are going to focus on learning to read music notation. So far, we have looked at types of notes and lengths, octaves and the C Scale. As a reminder, below is a list of note types.

In the pieces so far, I have written the note letter names above each note. Today though, I’m going to teach you a way to work out the note names for yourself. This tip below is a really good way of remembering the note names and where they are positioned on the stave. Don’t worry - it takes everyone a while to remember the names instantly, without having to count up the lines on the stave.

The treble stave has five lines, each representing these notes in ascending order: EGBDF.

To remember these line notes, just remember the phrase: Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit. To remember the notes names for the gaps, just think of the mnemonic: FACE.

The bass line also has five lines representing the same notes, but in a different order to the treble clef: EGBDFA.

Remember the line note names for the Bass clef by the phrase: Good Boys Deserve Fruit Always. And to remember the gap notes ACEG, use the phrase: All Cows Eat Grass.

These may sound silly, but they do help you remember – even if it is only because you think they are so awful!

When I was learning the piano, I found it really helpful to write the note names underneath the notes for all the pieces I played. This saved a lot of time counting up and helped me to recognize the note names more quickly. I strongly recommend that you write the note names underneath for the pieces in the following lessons that don’t have note names included.

Tones, Semitones and Intervals

Tones, semitones, and intervals are names for the steps between notes on the piano. If you look below at the keyboard diagram, you will see that going from one 'C' to another 'C', including every note in between, requires 13 keys (white and black). The step between each of these notes (e.g. C to D sharp, E to F, A to B flat…and so on) are all call ‘semitones’. So we can say that between two notes of equal pitch (e.g. C and C) are 12 semitones.

N.B. It took me a couple of years to finally realize that the difference between a white key and a black key that are next to each other (e.g. C and C#) is exactly the same as the white keys that are next to each other that don’t have a black key in the middle - i.e. B and C, E and F); they are all one semitone apart!

Tones are the equivalent of two semitones. For example, a tone would be the distance between C and B, F sharp and G sharp, E and F sharp.

So, if you were playing the piano accompanying a singer for a piece starting on D and the singer said to you: ‘That is too low. Can you please play it up a tone?’, what note would you play?

Congratulations if you answered E!

In the coming lessons though, you will probably find it more relevant to know about intervals.

Intervals are basically the distance in pitch between any two notes played on the piano. Each interval has a different name, depending on how far away the second note is from the first. So, for instance, if you play a C and an E, then you are playing a third, because E is 3 notes away from C.

Intervals are also described by their quality. Most intervals are labeled as major or minor; however, the fourth and fifth intervals have their own singular labels. They are both referred to as ‘perfect’, because these intervals are the most harmonious apart from the octave.

In the exercise below, try playing all the intervals for the C scale. Play them through and listen to the different, distinctive sound that each produces. Major 2nds can sound rather jarring to our ears while 4ths have an oriental sound. The most pleasant and frequently used intervals are 3rds and 5ths. Sevenths are used a lot in jazz, but usually with a flattened seventh. Try this by playing a B flat with C instead of B as written.

Now try playing a major 3 rd, a minor 2 nd, a minor 7 th and a perfect 5 th – without looking at the exercise above.

So now that you’ve tried the basic intervals, this piece gives you some practical experience of how they are used in a piece of music. In this exercise you will be using ‘thirds’ in the right hand. This gives a fuller, harmonious effect. Thirds are one of the most pleasing harmonies to our ears. When choirs sing different parts, quite often they will be singing in thirds. So, for example, if one group is singing a C, another group might sing an E, and another a G.

The fingering for playing thirds is shown left to right, corresponding with the notes from bottom to top. E.g. Finger 2 on D and finger 4 on F. As the fingering for the left hand is the same for each bar throughout, I haven’t written it all out in full. If you find you need a reminder, just copy the fingering over.


And to finish the lesson, here is a piece entitled ‘The Skater’ in Waltz timing (3/4). Picture a flowing dance on the ice and you’ll get the feel for it! This time, the left hand is playing intervals, while the right hand is playing a melody. Keep a flowing legato movement. The word Legato is Italian for a smooth and gliding style – and probably one of the most frequently used terms in music.

Remember to write in the note names and the counts underneath each beat.

[6 PIECE + play button]

Glossary of Terms

Intervals: Distance between notes that make steps or skips in music.

Legato: In a smooth and gliding style.

Semitones: The musical interval between adjacent keys on a keyboard instrument.

Tones: An interval of two semitones.

Waltz: A dance in 3/4 time. It first became fashionable in Vienna in about the 1780s, then spread to many other countries within the next few years.