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How to label and write notes on the piano keyboard: a basic guide

May 19, 2009 by  

Do you want to read standard printed music? Check out our primer on how to read music for a thorough introduction to the basics.

Check out our articles on buying a child’s first keyboard and ten books to help your child learn to play piano and keyboard.

This guide works best for older children, teens and adults. If you are looking for something simple, colourful and suitable for your toddler or young child, check out our feature: how to teach young children to play music keyboard using coloured stickers.

Labelling Piano Keyboard: An Introduction

I created this “How to label notes on the piano keyboard” article based on a reader’s question.

Karen writes:

My 10 year old daughter has a 54 key keyboard and is teaching herself to play it. She is already mastering the songs from Mary Poppins along with some current chart music using her own ear.

My problem is that she wants me to be able to label the keys for her with the letters and numbers, but I know nothing about this and from what I have found on the internet it just confuses me further. I have spent a long time reading stuff on the notes and octaves but got no further.

This guide will hopefully make it easy to create a system that not only works now but can be used as a stepping stone to reading and writing standard musical notation.

Basic Keyboard Layout

Before embarking on labelling the notes of the keyboard, it’s important to understand how the keyboard is laid out — its structure.

If you look at any keyboard you will see that it is made up of a repeating series of 12 keys. How many times that series repeats depends on how many keys the keyboard has overall.

Here’s one section of a keyboard, starting with the white key immediately to the left of the pair of black keys, and finishing with the white key immediately to the right of the group of three black keys.

Piano keyboard octave diagram

This set of 12 keys – seven white notes and five black notes – repeats across the whole keyboard. The pattern may well be cut off at the left and right ends of the keyboard, but this is the pattern of keys you’ll see repeated on any keyboard instrument.

Basic Piano Keyboard Labelling Techniques

The highlighted key in the diagram above is often called C (as in the third letter of the alphabet). It’s also known as “do” (from the do-re-mi scale that you’ve no doubt heard of from The Sound of Music).

The next white note to the right is labelled D (or “re”) followed by E (“mi”), F (“fa”), G (“sol”), A (“la”) and B (“ti”), before returning to C (“do”).

Only seven letters or sounds are used to describe the white notes on a keyboard, and they form a run of notes known as a scale.

The black notes are labelled in relation to the white notes they sit in between.

Each black key immediately to the right of a white note is said to be “sharp” and each black key immediately to the left of a white note is said to be “flat“.

You can probably see that, when using letters of the alphabet to name the notes, each black note can have two names.

To the immediate right of C is C sharp (C#), though it is also known as D flat (Db) because it’s also to the immediate left of D.

The complete run of notes in the diagram above — both black and white notes — is:

C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B

Twelve distinct notes.

If using the “do-re-mi” scale then each black note only has one name. The complete run of notes is:

do – di – re – ri – mi – fa – fi – sol – si – la – li – ti

But if this set of twelve notes repeats across the keyboard, how can you tell one “C” from another “C”, or an “A” from another “A”, or an “F#” from another “F#”?

This is where I’m going to recommend working only with the alphabetic names of notes. I personally find it easier, and shorter, to write down notes this way. If you want to stick to do-re-mi notation, that’s fine. Just substitute the appropriate name for each letter as:

Cdo
C#/Dbdi
Dre
D#/Ebri
Emi
Ffa
F#/Gbfi
Gsol
A#/Bbsi
Ala
A#/Bbli
Bti

Firstly, it’s important to find out where “Middle C” is. On a full-sized piano, that’s generally the “C” closest to the middle of the instrument, but on a smaller keyboard with less notes this might not be the case.

To help you find it, play all the “C” notes on your keyboard until you find the one that sounds the closest to the following note:

Middle C [MIDI file. Most modern PCs should play this automatically when you click on it]

It’s worth starting to learn what that particular C – Middle C – sounds like so that you can find it easily on any other keyboard or piano you might want to play.

Continued below...

We’re now going to introduce some numbers so that it’s possible to identify all the different notes on the keyboard.

“Middle C” will be known as “C4″. Why C4? Well, on a large piano it’s likely to be the fourth “C” counting up from the left hand side of the keyboard.

This is a fairly standard naming convention. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have that many notes on your keyboard.

This means that the first C to the left of “Middle C” will be “C3″, and the one to the left of that is “C2″, and the one to the left of that is “C1″. And so on (you’ll probably have run out of notes by now).

And, unsurprisingly, the first C to the right of “Middle C” will be “C5″, followed by “C6″, then “C7″.

The other notes of the C major scale (that is C, D, E, F, G, A and B ascending) are given the same number as the C to their left. Always ensure you have a complete run from C through to the B above using the same number before starting with a new number.

What about the black notes? Well, for now you can either call them “sharp” or “flat”, or if you really want to you can label them as both.

Here’s a fully labelled piano keyboard diagram that you can use to help you label your keyboard. Click on it to see the full sized version.

88-key piano keyboard diagram

Practically, it’s probably worth using lightly coloured sticky labels that you can write the name of each note on and then stick either directly on each key, or above it on the casing of the instrument.

Writing Down Music Notes

Now that you’ve labelled the keyboard, how do you go about writing down the notes that you’ve played so that you can go back in the future and play them again?

It could be as simple as writing down the letter and number combination for every note that you play, but this doesn’t take into account the length of each note, or if there are any gaps/pauses in the music (often known as “rests”).

If you play mainly “by ear” and are writing the notes down mainly to jog your memory, this might not matter.

The first two lines of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” might simply look like this:

C4 C4 G4 G4 A4 A4 G4 F4 F4 E4 E4 D4 D4 C4

And if you know the tune well, you’ll automatically play each note with the correct length.

If you are interested in recording the length of each note, you could put the names of each note into a grid. To do this, you’ll need to count each “beat” in the music. The beat is a steady rhythm.

For “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” it’s easiest to count in groups of four. Here’s how the first two lines would look.

1234123412341234
C4C4G4G4A4A4G4F4F4E4E4D4D4C4

You’ll see that I’ve used a dash where a note needs to be held on for more than one beat.

If there are any sections of music where nothing should be played, you could simply write an “X” or a “/” to indicate that nothing should be played (not even a held on note).

You might find in more complicated music that sometimes there’s more than one note in a beat. Then you’ll have to squeeze more notes into each space on the grid.

For example, here’s the first two lines of “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables:

1234123412341234
A3B3 C4B3A3A3G#3A3A3B3 C4B3A3G3F3E3

Do you get the idea?

That’s just one method for writing down music in a fairly simple way.

It would start to get more complicated if you wanted to write down music where more than one note is played at the same time.

You could create a taller grid and write down groups of notes, but you’d have to remember which fingers on each hand you’d used to play them.

If you want to read other people’s music, you’ll probably find that it’s been written using standard modern musical symbols. It’s also very useful for writing down more complicated music.

That’s a bit much to handle in this article, but check out our how to read printed music primer for a thorough introduction of the basics.

I hope this guide helped you. If you have any questions do feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll help you out as much as I can.

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Comments

57 Responses to “How to label and write notes on the piano keyboard: a basic guide”

  1. Karen on June 9th, 2009 12:32 am

    Thank you so much for this information. Have successfully labelled the keyboard using small round coloured stickers, using a different colour for each set of notes.

    Honestly, this guide makes it far more simpler to understand, the other ones I had read just added to my confusion. The diagram helped big time.

    I appreciate the time you have taken to help us in compiling this post.

    Regards,

    Karen :-)

  2. Andy on June 12th, 2009 8:53 pm

    Hi Karen,

    I’m glad you found the guide useful. If you need any more information down the line, please do contact me and I’ll see if I can help. If you discover any flaws in the system after having used it for a while, do let me know.

  3. Sunny on July 5th, 2009 11:43 pm

    Hi, I’v found the information provided but I’ve still one question. How can we find chord names i.e. chord-em and chord-c.

    Thank you for help

  4. Andy on July 6th, 2009 10:15 am

    Hi Sunny,

    Working out chords and how to write them is a whole new subject. Do you want to know how to write out chords, or where to find chords for popular songs?

    If you mean the latter, then searching online for “tab sheets” will start you the right way. Many are labelled as being for guitar, but the chords are the same if you play on keyboard.

  5. Tracey Rustell on July 6th, 2009 7:10 pm

    please help us my daughter has been given an 85 key wagner piano and we want to write the notes on the keys . Somebody please help ?

  6. Andy on July 7th, 2009 12:21 pm

    Hi Tracey,

    Do you mean that you want to know what to name each note, or you want to know the best way of actually putting the names on each key?

    If you want to know what each note is called then this music keyboard diagram should help. It’s based on an 88-note keyboard, so should be easy enough to work out for your keyboard.

    If you want a good method of putting the notes on the keys, I’d recommend using stickers which aren’t too “gluey” and sticking them either to the keys or just above the keys. You could probably write directly on the keys using a Sharpie but once your daughter doesn’t need the note names any more you might prefer not to have permanent marker on the keys!

  7. Megan on July 12th, 2009 12:10 am

    if you have a 52 key piano should you start with A?
    Thx, megan

  8. Margarita on July 13th, 2009 1:22 am

    Hi,

    I am new and I have a big desire to play the piano and I am working on the keyboard and i am trying to play this song!! Can you help me figure this out?

    Intro:| G | G4 | G | G4 | F |

    Bb Eb/Bb
    Draw me close to you
    F/Bb Bb
    Never let me go
    F/A Eb/G
    I lay it all down again
    Gm7 Gm/F Eb Eb/F
    To hear you say that I’m your friend

    Bb Eb/Bb
    You are my desire
    F/Bb Bb
    No one else will do
    F/A Eb/G
    Cause nothing else could take your place
    Gm7 F Eb
    To feel the warmth of your embrace
    Bb/F Eb/F F4 Bb Eb/G F/A
    Help me find the way, bring me back to you

    (Chorus)
    Bb F/Bb Eb/Bb
    You’re all I want
    Bb F/A Eb/G Eb/F F
    You’re all I’ve ever needed
    Bb F/Bb Eb/Bb
    You’re all I want
    Eb/G Eb/F Bb
    Help me know you are near

    Thank you so much for your time!!!

    Margarita

  9. shekainah daug on July 14th, 2009 9:15 am

    thank you for this lesson i learn more how to play piano.

  10. Andy on July 14th, 2009 6:07 pm

    Hi Margarita,

    I know the song well. I’ll try to help you with how to play the chords for this, maybe in another post. Watch this space!

  11. Andy on July 14th, 2009 6:14 pm

    Hi Megan,

    It’s hard to say without seeing the keyboard because even 88 note keyboards don’t all start on the same note. My advice is to take a look at the diagram above and match the bottom few notes (white and black) with the diagram above to see which white note is the lowest.

    You need to look at the first two clusters of black notes to be sure. If your keyboard’s lowest (left-most) note is “A” then there’ll be just one black note immediately to its right, then there’ll be a set of two black notes in the next group to the right.

    Hope that helps.

  12. Margarita on July 16th, 2009 9:59 pm

    Thank you Andy !!!! ANY HELP please!!!!!

  13. Margarita on July 16th, 2009 10:01 pm

    Thank you!!! ANY HELP please!!!! Andy !!!

  14. Davie Mc Cormick on July 20th, 2009 8:46 pm

    This is all fine & dandy, but I’d STILL like to know the name of ALL the C’s on the piano . Starting with Middle C going downward, I THINK they are bass C, then low C, then alto C, but then I don’t know the names of the notes BELOW all C. I even don’t know the name of the lowest key ( A ) on the keyboard !!!

    Now going upward, I THINK they are Middle C , treble C , and then high C, but I don’t know the name of the C above high C ! In fact, I don’t know the name of ANY of the notes past high C including the HIGHEST note of the keyboard (C) !!! Can you please tell me so that I can identify them when discussing Chopin or Lecuona ?

    Thank you for your cooperation,
    Davie

  15. Davie Mc Cormick on July 20th, 2009 8:48 pm

    correction to last comment : I meant “notes BELOW ALTO C” , NOT “all C” .

  16. Andy on July 21st, 2009 8:45 am

    Hi Dave,

    I’ll be totally honest and say I’ve never come across this terminology before. My training has always simply been based on the standard musical staff, or maybe someone will just say “the C below middle C” etc.

    I can look into it for you – I’ll refer to my music dictionary to see what it has to say on the matter.

  17. Beckii on December 25th, 2009 10:48 pm

    hi I have a 54 key keyboard.
    im not sure if i start with A or what?
    but on the keyboard the first note written is C?

  18. sarah on December 27th, 2009 11:19 pm

    hi, my daughter has a 54 key keyboard, i had a read of your music keyboard diagram and you say the middle c is labelled as c4 is that still the case on a 54 key keyboard because my middle c is the 3rd c, so do i label the key from c2 to c5 with c4 in the middle or do i label the from c1 to c5 with c3 in the middle, please help

  19. Lara on December 29th, 2009 3:47 pm

    We have a keyboard with 71 keys. Where would i start the song “Draw me Close to You”. I am lableing my keys, the very first key at the left of my keyboard is C1. What key do i start on? HEELLLPPP!!! I would like to learn this song for my fiancee. Is there a website that shows you how to play songs on a keyboard with a keyboard layout?

    Thanks!!
    Lara

    ps. PLEASE RESPOND!

  20. Andy on January 4th, 2010 8:16 pm

    Look at the first white note on the left of the keyboard and match it to the pattern on the diagram. In fact, you really have to look at the second complete block of black notes in to determine the note.

    But for example, if the bottom white note is a C it will have two black notes to the right in the first block, followed by three in the second block.
    If it’s a D it will have just one black note to the right and then three in the second block.
    But A, though it also has just one black note to the right, only has two black notes in the second block.

    I hope that makes sense? Often smaller keyboards do start on a C. 61 note keyboards (5 octaves) generally do, though a 54 note keyboard would be slightly shorter. If you tell me the make of keyboard, I can find out what note it starts on.

  21. Andy on January 4th, 2010 8:19 pm

    Generally the Middle C note is called C4, but of course you do have to work out which is Middle C! This is why I gave this link to let you try and find the note that sounds most like Middle C.

    It doesn’t matter how many of each note there are before Middle C on your keyboard, the names are still the same. Even if Middle C was the first C on the keyboard (it would never happen, but just say it was) it would still be “C4″.

  22. Andy on January 4th, 2010 8:22 pm

    Hi Lara,

    Do you already have the music printed for this or are you working it out as you go? This tutorial is only really useful if you are not wanting to learn more standard musical notation — if you get printed music for Draw Me Close To You it is likely it will be in that format.

    There are several sites that have some videos and such like for playing songs on the keyboard, but they tend to focus on popular secular music rather than Christian worship songs. I can take a look but I’m not sure you’d find it for free online. The song is a few years old now so it is likely to be in a book of worship songs.

  23. Nagz on February 15th, 2010 1:16 pm

    This is just wonderful…. Cheers to you

  24. Peta on February 21st, 2010 1:46 am

    Hi there,
    what a great job you have done. Thanks so much. Our family is not musical at all but we are doing all we can to encourage our kids to learn instruments and this has helped us a great deal. We need to be able to show them as much as we can ourselves for free as tuition is so expensive. So once again, thanks a million.

  25. Andy on February 28th, 2010 8:34 am

    Hi Peta,

    Glad it has helped you and your family, and I hope you all continue to enjoy learning to play.

  26. John on April 4th, 2010 2:48 am

    Do you have a diagram for a 45 key keyboard I really need one. I am learning this new song that one of my friends is teaching on the phone and I don’t know what keys t use. I looked at the 52 key keyboard diagram it helped a little but wasn’t good enough.

    Please HELP!

    Thank you,

    John

  27. Andy on April 6th, 2010 1:21 pm

    Hi John,

    Sounds like a keyboard just short of four octaves, which is a little unusual. You will probably still find that “middle C” is by default the most central “C” (ie to the left of a group of two black keys). You should be able to chop off the edges of a longer diagram to get the layout you need.

  28. Alicia on May 16th, 2010 4:27 pm

    im 13 years old and im trying to teach myself piano i know i can learn but i just cant find the right notes. all the websites ive gone to are like 56 notes and i have a totally different keyboard so can someone pleaseeeeeeeee help me thanks. and can you tell me what it starts with because ive heard it starts with the note C and ive heard it starts with A so im sooooo confused thanks -alicia

  29. Alicia on May 16th, 2010 4:29 pm

    oh ya and i have a 36 note keyboardd. forgot to say at the top.

  30. Andy on May 16th, 2010 9:35 pm

    Hi Alicia,

    Can you tell me whether that is 36 keys in total, or 36 white keys? 36 total keys seems rather small, but 36 white keys would be about 5 octaves.

    If you let me know what the make and model of the keyboard is I can find out exactly what note it begins with. Alternatively, take a look at the diagram on this page — although it’s larger than your keyboard, the same pattern repeats, so you should be able to work out what note your keyboard starts on.

  31. tasha on May 19th, 2010 7:57 pm

    hello, i have a keyboard with 36 white keys and i would really appreciate some help with labeling them so i can just download sheets of music and learn to play them, i’ve so severly begginer its quite sad so please help me. it says on it 100 song bank then CTK-481so i think thats the model or something. please help, tasha

  32. brianna on July 29th, 2010 7:09 pm

    can someone tell my how to label a 32 key electrical keyboard

  33. Andy on July 30th, 2010 9:58 am

    Hi Brianna,

    Is that 32 notes in total (black and white notes) or just 32 white notes?

  34. deepika on August 18th, 2010 2:44 pm

    hi sarah,

    i think it is a very good opurtunity to learn keyboard those who are having internet connection in there homes.
    i think you are having it . please try it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…………………………..

  35. Shubhanshu on September 20th, 2010 3:51 pm

    do you have a diagram fr a 32 key keyboard…..plzzz….send me if u hav 1….

  36. Hakana on September 22nd, 2010 11:17 am

    Thank you so much for this information. I just started to learn how to play the 54 key keyboard and this site has made the beginning so much easier. Cheers

  37. katie on November 10th, 2010 2:01 am

    This really helped me. You did well explaning what to do. Thank You.

  38. Maria on November 13th, 2010 4:53 pm

    How do you label a keyboard with 19 white keys and 13 black keys?

  39. Roxy Harlick on December 14th, 2010 6:30 pm

    How do you label a keyboard with 50 white keys?

  40. Geo on December 27th, 2010 6:00 am

    I noticed your different octaves are labeled differently than I was taught in your diagram. It is my understanding that the numbers after the note ie; C5 are supposed to change on the C not the A. So the A note just below middle C should be A3 not A4. Correct me if I’m wrong but I learned that from a pretty reputable source.

  41. Andy on December 30th, 2010 1:26 am

    Hi Geo,

    You may be correct that there are systems like this. I wrote this for those who wanted a quick way to write out simple music that they could then play back themselves, so it may not be compatible with some other systems.

  42. Leo on March 24th, 2011 11:12 pm

    Hello, I recently brought a 54 key Keyboard for my son.

    I found your article very helpful sir, but could you please explain one part again.

    I have found my C4 in the middle, it does sound like the link you provided earlier.

    To the right it goes to C5 and C6 then it ends.

    But like others, the problem I’m having is that to the left it goes to C3 then C2 then it finishes.

    Does it matter that there isn’t a C1?

    Your help will be very much appreciated.

  43. Andy on March 25th, 2011 10:55 am

    Hi Leo,

    No, it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a C1. The idea of C4 being “Middle C” is that if you played a piece of music on another keyboard, it would be at the same pitch.

    A piano keyboard, which usually has 88 notes, will have more “Cs” on the keyboard than your 54 note keyboard, but its Middle C will still be C4.

    Hope that helps.

  44. Leo on March 25th, 2011 7:32 pm

    Thank you very much, it did help.

  45. Pam Diana on April 25th, 2011 11:38 am

    This helped so much, especially the diagram you provided.
    Thanks for sharing~ :]

  46. Alison on July 29th, 2011 9:59 am

    I was wondering if you could give me the rest of castle on a cloud in the format you showed please and thank you!!!

  47. Alison on July 29th, 2011 10:03 am

    Also i confused on labeling my keyboard it’s has 36white keys, 25 black keys, and it’s a Casio LK-100 key lighting system please help!!

  48. Andy on July 30th, 2011 11:23 pm

    Hi Alison,

    I’ll try and work something out for “Castle on a Cloud” in the next couple of days.

    As for labelling your Casio LK-100 keyboard, first find out which note sounds like Middle C, then look at the keyboard diagram and label your keyboard from that.

  49. marshall on August 15th, 2011 12:37 pm

    how do i know which is wat all thye notes makes to be a letter

  50. Caria Carter on January 14th, 2012 11:48 pm

    i want to learn how to play the keyboard now!!!

  51. Erendida on March 22nd, 2012 2:17 am

    Thank you so much this was VERY helpful! I have one quick question though…I’m still a little confused about the black notes. For example in “castle on a cloud” you play G#3. so would that mean that its just the 3rd black note for that set of keys? since there’s five of them on each set.

  52. Andy on March 30th, 2012 1:18 am

    Hi Erendida,

    G#3 would be the black note in between G3 and A4 – the middle black note in the group of three

    Andy

  53. D'Anthony on April 7th, 2012 8:41 pm

    can sombody help me label a piano with 36 white keys. please

  54. Meeley on September 23rd, 2012 7:15 pm

    I have 36 keys on my keyboard, what are the letter notes? can someone send me a picture : emiliadrag@gmail.com

  55. Littlebighorn on December 2nd, 2012 8:15 am

    Can someone tell how to make a chord with dotes on a paper piano indicating the chord to be played. Is there a certain sofeware to use? I cannot do it with Photoshop. My altimate goal is to put the finished product in microsoft word to help make up a piano tutorial that will be added to my website. Would appreciate advice anyone can come up with.

  56. maddalyln on November 22nd, 2013 10:25 pm

    how do you play the letters for castle on a cloud

  57. purahan on February 15th, 2014 1:38 pm

    hi,
    i have a casio sa-77 which has total 44 keys , 26 white keys and 18 black keys .
    can somebody help me to mark abcd on it.

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