Test Drive

The Test Drive assumes no previous musical experience in reading music, music theory, or playing the piano. This explanation of the WYSIWYP notation is based on the piano because keyboards offer a visual mapping of written notes to the physical keys. In addition the relationships among notes played with the left and right hands are much clearer. However, the notation still applies to all instruments. If the piano is not your weapon of choice, just read the next section on music theory, and then select the Complete Summary button above to learn the details of the WYSIWYP design.

First some very basic music theory

As famously illustrated by the "Do-re-mi" song in the Sound of Music, the basic music scale consists of 7 notes. The notes are named A to G and together they form an octave. The piano keyboard has 7 full octaves plus a few additional notes. Nowadays, most musicians visualize an octave starting with C (instead of A) as shown in the figure. The 7 notes of the basic scale are played on the white keys and are called "naturals". In addition to the white keys, there are 5 more notes that are played on the black keys resulting in a 12 note scale. Each black key can be referenced relative to an adjoining white key with the terms "sharp" and "flat". When played sequentially, the 12 notes sound equally spaced.

How notes are represented with WYSIWYP notation

An octave is represented in WYSIWYP notation with a red line representing the note C and a blue line representing the note F.  The note C is the first in a group of 5 piano keys containing 2 black keys, while F is the first note in a group of 7 keys containing 3 black keys.  These groups are easy to see because they are separated by "gaps" in the range of black keys.

As shown in the figure of the naturals, the C and F lines provide a clear visual mapping to the beginning of the two piano key groups. The placement of a circle-shaped note relative to the red and blue lines indicates which white key to play. (We'll discuss playing the black keys later.) Observe that successive note circles overlap by 50% although the corresponding keys of course do not. Since all octaves on the keyboard have the same format, once you have learned the mapping for one octave, you know them all.

Octaves on the keyboard are numbered sequentially from left to right:

Octaves on the sheet music are stacked up vertically with the octave numbers displayed at the beginning of the red C lines. Only the octaves needed for the range of notes in a given piece of music are displayed. For all instruments, the notes correspond to the naturals of the indicated octave. The following example shows two full octaves of the naturals(The grey stripes will be explained later.)

Let's start playing

First be sure you can comfortably identify the 7 basic notes on the WYSIWYP octave and how they map to the piano keyboard octave. Hint: notes B, C, and D are all touching the red line (from underneath, on top of, and from overhead). Likewise, E, F, and G are all touching the blue line. Only A does not touch a line.

Next, be able to find the note famously known as "middle C". This is the 4th C note from the left. It's right in the middle of the keyboard, usually under the piano maker's name. On the WYSIWYP notation, this note is indicated by the red line with the number 4 on the left of the line. Now put the thumb of your right hand on middle C. Your fingers should be over the next 4 consecutive white keys D through G. By the way, curve your fingers like you're holding a ball in the palm of your hand.

Ready? Play the following tune. Another hint: the first note is played with your middle finger. In this example, the notes are grouped together in groups of four and the group numbers are displayed above the top line. Pay attention to the fact that the first three groups of both lines are the same, but the fourth group is slightly different. Play it through a few times slowly and at a steady speed until it feels comfortable. (If you'd like to print this out, go here)

Now try to minimize looking at the keyboard for every note by just visualizing the keyboard mapping and your finger positions. You might also experiment by playing it on a different octave, just to see how easy it is to do so (just by re-positioning your thumb on a different C note). Now name that tune. Hopefully, you recognized it as Ode to Joy. OK. Congratulations, you've started reading music and playing the piano. And you can brag that already you can locate any natural note on the keyboard.

Obviously, this is just a very simple start to illustrate how quickly a new student of music can find the notes on the keyboard. You'll still need to learn to:

Start with your thumb on a different keyboard key other than C

Play multiple notes at the same time to play a chord.

Play notes of different duration.

And yes, play with your left hand... At the same time !

But the point is, these skills are all about learning to play the piano, not about learning to read the notation. As far as the notation itself is concerned, you still need to learn how to read two more important elements. The first is how to recognize and play sharps and flats (the black keys). And the second is how to read and play notes of different duration. But the WYSIWYP notation for these is visually intuitive and is easier than what you have just learned.

Click here to continue the Test Drive and learn how to play sharps and flats, and, how long to play any note.