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How to Play Songs on a Keyboard by Letters

Piano tabs are an alternative to traditional sheet music.
piano image by AlexQ from Fotolia.com

An easy way to notate music is by using letters, or “tabs.” Piano tablature is a popular method for sharing songs on the Internet. Though it is not as efficient a method as traditional sheet music notation, it is easily accessible to non-musicians and musicians alike. Not to be confused with guitar tablature, keyboard tabs use lowercase letters to indicate white keys and uppercase letters for black keys. If you know the first seven letters of the alphabet, you can figure out how to play a song, using keyboard tabs.

Notice that a piano and a keyboard are made up of groupings of two black keys and three black keys. Find the group of two black keys that are closest to the middle of the keyboard. The white key to the left of them is "c4." Find the group of two black keys to the right of the middle group you just found. The white key to the left of them is "c5." Play a C major scale by playing "c4" and each consecutive key to the right until you reach "c5."

The piano tabs for a C major scale starting on Middle C are: c4 d e f g a b c5.

Get used to the numbers that indicate the different octaves ranges. Each octave range starts on a "C" and ends with a "B." “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” starts on "c4", and mostly uses other keys in the “4” range. It also reaches to "c5" and dips down to "a3," which is two keys to the left of "c4." Most piano tabs use a number to indicate the octave range only at the beginning of the song and any time the octave range changes.

The piano tabs for the first line of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are: c4 c5 | b4 g a b c5 | c4 a | g | a3 f4 | e c d e f | d b3 c4 d e | c.

Get acquainted with the black keys on the piano. An uppercase letter in piano tablature indicates the black key to the right of the corresponding white key. For example, "D4" refers to the black key to the right of "d4." Some tabs that use all uppercase letters use the sharp sign (#) to indicate the black key instead, such as "D#4." Piano tabs always refer to the black keys as sharps, never flats.

The piano tab of “Jingle Bells” in the key of E Flat Major looks like this: g4 g g | g g g | g A D f | g

Pay attention to the greater than (">") and the hyphen ("-") symbols. Piano tabs use “>” to indicate holding a key longer and “-“ to indicate rests.

The piano tab of “Oklahoma” uses “>” and “-.“

c5 > > > | > > > > | - - - g4 | f e d c | d > g > | g F g a | g > > > |


The lowest note on an 88-key piano keyboard is "a0." Read piano tabs from left to right. Some piano tabs indicate "L" or "LH" for notes to be played by the left hand and "R" or "RH" for the right hand. The vertical line ("|") symbol represents bar lines separating measures. Numbers on a line under the letters starting with the letter “b” (beat) refer to the rhythm, or beats for each measure. Sometimes chords played by the left hand are written within the lyrics line. More advanced piano tabs have letters lined up vertically. These keys are to be played simultaneously.

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