Understanding piano sheet music

Learning the piano as an adult is difficult. It often seems to be about learning not one thing (the piano, because what does that even mean?) but a combination of many things – language, theory, technique, and discipline. As an adult when time and energy is scarce, and there are no ambition driven goals (it is close to impossible to become a piano maestro), it may seem like an intimidating venture with little gain. However, it is a pursuit that is full of discovery and joy.  With determination and some luck, it may even become a hobby for life. Above all, in the process of learning how to play a piece of music on this instrument, it enhances the appreciation and awareness about music as a whole.

One of the first few pieces one learns is a short piano piece by Edward MacDowell.

Edward MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches

Edward Macdowell,  American composer and pianist,
Edward MacDowell American composer and pianist, 1860-1908, Wikimedia commons

The Woodland Sketches are short piano pieces composed by Edward MacDowell, an American composer from the 19th century. MacDowell spent his life in America and in Europe. He composed To a Wild Rose and the other woodland sketches while staying at the family summer home in New Hampshire. MacDowell is  said to have thrown away the piece when he first wrote it. His wife salvaged it and then upon further editing, the piece we hear today was created.

Interpreting the sheet music for ‘to a wild rose’

to a wild rose piano sheet music

The title of any piece of classical music typically tells us a lot about the music such as the key, type of music, the instrument it was written for  and so on.

For example:

  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”: I. Adagio sostenuto  is the 6th symphony composed by Tchaikovsky. The key is in B minor. It is also his 74th work overall. The common name is ‘Pathetique’ but this seems to have been mistranslated into French because the original name was ‘passionate symphony’. The tempo is adagio sostenuto (slow and sustained, the same tempo as the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata)

The name of the song, To a Wild Rose from Woodland Sketches, Op 51 indicates that to a wild rose is a song from a suite called woodland sketches. Op 51 shows that the woodland sketches was the 51st piece of music MacDowell wrote. Another common name for this song is also ‘To a wild rose – A major’, so we know the key is A major which means C, F, G are all sharps unless indicated otherwise.  We see ‘with simple tenderness’ up front, which suggests the style of the song is tender and slow. Metronome is 88 quarter notes per minute so the tempo is likely andante. The time signature is 24 so 2 quarter notes per measure.

first part wild rose

pp shows there is a lot of pedalling in this song. There are also many ties so a note stays pressed for a long time.

last part wild rose

Learning Music Theory

There are several resources to learn music theory but to an adult learner, the concepts seem abstract and difficult to connect back to actual musical pieces.

Understanding the A major scale in more detail makes interpreting to a wild rose much more fulfilling. These two comprehensive and free online resources appear to break down learning the scales well:


Thinking about a structure for practice makes the piece seem less intimidating. This is the suggested structure by London Piano Institute.

1: Practise of technique, scales and sight-reading
2: Pieces (Repertoire)
3: Playing or creating or improvisation

Following similar rules for to a wild rose:

  • learn how to read music notes
  • learn the A major scale
  • learn about parts of music theory such as time signature
  • structured practice by breaking it down in chunks.
  • get faster at reading notes. Sight reading of the sheet music may be difficult so doing it in phases also gives a feel for the notes being used and the relation between them. The last part is the hardest so spending more time there.
  • work with a teacher to spot mistakes and get better at technique

Here is one rendition of To a Wild Rose. It sounds a little sentimental and looks easy at first, but it is gentle and playing it is as a beginner is satisfying, particularly as the last few measures are trickier than they sound.

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