The COMPLETE Guide to Learning the Piano
Estimated time to read: 30 minutes
Now, I’m willing to bet that you’ve stumbled upon this article because you’re interested in the piano, and want to learn, but you’re confused as to where to start. And I understand this, because there are so many different styles of music, so many different philosophies and theories on playing the piano and making music, so many companies that have developed learning materials vying for your business, that it can all feel a bit overwhelming.
This is where I come in. I have a pretty extensive background in a particular style of piano-playing, and as someone who was originally self-taught and then sought formal tuition, I understand all too well the frustrations of trying to learn how to play the piano.
My intention with this article is not to actually teach you how to play the piano. You can’t learn to play just by reading some text. What I want instead is to give you an overview of learning, how to go about finding a teacher, how to teach yourself if you so wish, and certain milestones and steps you can aim for over the course of your piano-learning career. Think of it almost like a cheat sheet while you’re learning, that you can refer back to along the way. I’m also going to give you a basic overview of learning to read sheet music and other music theory concepts.
One thing I’d like to stress at this point is that learning the piano is a very unique exercise. One can draw parallels with lots of other activities. It’s in some way an athletic activity; if you see a concert pianist pour their heart and soul into a piece and finish dripping with sweat you’ll understand what I mean. It’s also an intellectual activity that requires a lot of concentration and brainpower. As a result, it can be incredibly challenging if you approach it the wrong way.
What I’d like to do with this article is to guide you in the right direction along your piano learning journey. And that’s exactly what it is; a journey. You shouldn’t start learning the piano with a specific end-point in mind; for example, you want to get to a particular level or play a particular piece. You should be learning the piano for the sole purpose that you enjoy learning the piano. Of course, everyone has ambitions, pieces they want to play, things they’d like to do with their music. Just don’t pin all your hopes on one thing; this is absolutely a marathon and not a sprint.
With all that said, let’s get into this. Be warned; this is a LONG one!
Section 1: Preparation
Why Learn the Piano?
I’m going to guess that you’ve already kind of decided that you want to play the piano. But maybe you’re here because you’ve decided that you want to play music, but you’re not sure about which instrument you want to play.
I could sit here and write thousands and thousands of reasons why I like playing the piano, but very few of them are going to resonate with you. What I’d like to do is go through a brief rundown of some of the physical and mental benefits you might experience when learning to play the piano.
It improves your concentration
This doesn’t necessarily occur to some people when they think of learning the piano, but in actuality it makes a lot of sense. When you’re playing the piano, you’re doing several very complicated things, all at the same time.
You’re potentially playing something with your left hand and your right hand at the same time, potentially sight-reading music, using any of the three pedals, as well as constantly listening to and analysing what you’re playing. If you’re playing with someone else, you’re also listening to them and analysing their playing!
What this can do is lead to an increase in your ability to perform multiple tasks at once in other activities, such as at work or at school.
It’s a fantastic outlet
It’s no secret that a record number of people nowadays suffer from depression and anxiety. Now, I’m in no way saying that playing the piano is a cure for clinical depression, and if you think you’re affected by this you should see a doctor. However, if you’ve had a bad day at work, or something has gone wrong in your personal life, you’d be amazed how much sitting down at the piano and playing some of your favourite music can lift your mood.
It’s something that I’ve experienced on numerous occasions and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about playing the piano; the ability to completely lose yourself in working on a piece of music that you love that you temporarily forget what’s been bothering you. It also works if you’re angry or upset; find some angry music and play it as loud as you can. Just make sure your neighbours aren’t home!
The beginning stages are easier than other instruments
I’m not suggesting playing the piano is easy (it most certainly isn’t.) However, the piano is one of the easiest instruments for you to actually generate a sound from. All you have to do is press a key. Now, because it’s fairly easy just to create a sound, composers respond by writing exceptionally difficult music for the instrument, music that in terms of complexity and density would never be matched on any other solo instrument simply because it wouldn’t be possible.
The beginning stages of other instruments are not so easy. With a stringed instrument, you need to learn proper bow technique and wait for the skin on your fingers to harden, otherwise you will be in perpetual pain throughout all your music lessons and practice. With wind and brass instruments, you have to train the muscles around your mouth to position themselves in a certain way, otherwise your instrument will not make a sound. All you have to do on a piano is press a key.
The piano teaches you perseverance and discipline
This is one I truly believe in. There is no pianist that has reached any level of competency without disciplined practice. Pianists must practice frequently and work hard constantly over the course of their learning journey. Coupled with this, you are very likely to experience hardship when playing the piano. You will get stuck on certain things, and you will ask your teacher to explain them and you will not understand.
The key to anything in life that’s worth having is perseverance. In your career, in your relationships and in your playing. Being able to play the piano is, in my opinion, a skill worth having, but you won’t get there without patience, perseverance and discipline. All skills that you will find exceptionally useful in all other areas of your life.
The amount of music you can play is ENDLESS
I really mean this. Whatever type of music you like, or want to learn, it exists for the piano, where it doesn’t necessarily exist for the trombone or euphonium, for example. Piano playing is a rich tradition that has been enjoyed by people for centuries. And even before that, people played harpsichords and organs, so keyboard playing has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Because of this, nearly all types of music are available for the piano. Any pop song within the last seventy years? I guarantee there’s piano sheet music out there somewhere, no matter how obscure the song is. There’s also a significant catalogue of music written exclusively for the piano that stretches back since the late 1700s. Music before then, written for harpsichord or clavichord, can also be played on the piano. So you have a whole tradition of music stretching back to renaissance and medieval times at your fingertips.
It’s not just Western music, either. The piano has also been embraced in Asian countries such as China and Japan, and there is plenty of Asian music transcribed or even written for the piano. It’s even possible to find ancient Chinese music or Indian classical ragas transcribed for the piano. To me this just shows that the piano is the most versatile instrument ever created, and no matter what kind of music you want to learn, you will be able to learn to play it on the piano.
It’s a whole lot of fun
Playing the piano is fun. When you know how to play it properly, and you’re making some of your favourite music, you just can’t beat it. Well, actually, you can; play with your friends! Some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had have been playing the piano with other people. There’s an incredible amount of great music written for piano duet, or even two pianos.
One of the best experiences I’ve ever had was when I was in a practice room at my local conservatoire with my fiancee, and we were playing through the finale from Scaramouche by Milhaud for two pianos. If you don’t know this piece, you can listen to it here:
You don’t know fun until you’ve experienced the kind of noise two full-size grand pianos make when they’re being played together. If you ever get the chance to play a piano duet, or to play two pianos, absolutely you should do it.
These are just some of the reasons you should consider picking the piano over another instrument. Other instruments will give you these skills too, but for me, it’s the sheer versatility and accessibility of the piano over other instruments that for me, make it the most attractive and worthwhile instrument to learn for a beginner.
Let’s get on to what you need to look out for when you’re buying a piano.
Buying a piano
Buying a piano is a minefield. For every website offering decent advice, there are a million trying to get you to buy something that won’t be suitable for you. I’m going to try to give you some objective advice here to try and help you. There’s a lot of information on my site already about what kind of piano to buy, and I’d encourage you to check out some of my other articles as well as this one. On top of this, there are plenty of industry websites that exist to help you come to the right decision; some of my favourites are listed below, and I'd encourage you to check them out.
An industry-leading site that offers free sheet music, recordings as well as a very popular forum.
Another forum site, although this one has been around for over 20 years, making it the longest running piano forum on the internet.
Pianos are expensive. Why buy one?
So, you may be thinking that should you find a teacher, they’ll have a piano ready for you to use. Why bother buying one when you can just use your teacher’s piano?
This might seem a little odd, but I’ve actually come across a few parents and students with this idea, so I wanted to address it here first. Buying a piano or digital piano should be seen as an investment in your musical future, rather than an expense. Admittedly pianos are not cheap, but that is for good reason; they are very complex pieces of kit with lots of moving parts that are expensive to make.
It’s a sad fact that many students take up the piano, don’t practice, and wonder why they aren’t getting anywhere. And how can you practice unless you have your own instrument? Deliberate, frequent practice is the ONLY way you will progress at any musical instrument, especially the piano. You can’t go to a 30 minute piano lesson once per week and expect that you’re going to improve if you don’t touch a piano outside that time.
There’s a very limited amount of work your teacher can do during your lessons. Your lesson should be more of a guidance session; your teacher reviews the work you’ve done in the week, helps you in the areas that you’re stuck on and provides guidance on a way forward. Your lessons shouldn’t be practice sessions.
I understand that it’s tough, and that you might struggle to afford a piano at the start. Fortunately, there are plenty of guides online about which piano to buy, including which piano or keyboard is best to buy for those just starting out who aren’t sure they’ll stick at it. I’ve written a few myself:
I’d encourage you to check these out, because it might put your mind at rest as regards to the financial investment. Unfortunately though, having your own instrument is going to be a necessity if you want to get anywhere with your piano playing, unless you have a neighbour or friend who is happy to allow you to use their instrument to practice on.
Having said this, there are ways for you to get a piano for free. I’ll address this later in this section.
Digital or Acoustic?
Now you’ve decided that you’re going to buy a piano. That’s great; if you get the right one it will give you many years of musical enjoyment. However, the acoustic and digital piano market is extremely saturated, with numerous manufacturers producing very high quality instruments. It can be very difficult to decide what to buy.
I am going to try to steer you in the right direction, but ultimately what you buy is up to you. You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of each option and come to the best compromise. Fortunately, whatever you decide, there will be a model of acoustic or digital piano out there to suit your needs.
The age old debate when buying a piano is whether you should buy a digital or acoustic piano. Both have their benefits and drawbacks.
I will say that as an experienced pianist and teacher, the absolute ideal is for everyone to own a good quality acoustic upright or grand piano. There are subtle things an acoustic piano that set them apart from a digital piano. The possibilities for music making are, in my opinion, much more varied and diverse on an acoustic piano. The experience you get is much more authentic and pleasurable. The piano’s sound will change over time, giving you the impression the instrument is aging, living and breathing.
To me a digital piano can be a bit soulless, a bit sterile. Nothing about it ever changes; it never goes out of tune, the sound never develops, it’s always the same. For me this is a major turn off, and whenever I play a digital piano it feels like the music I’m playing is in some way lacking the sense of vitality and life that it otherwise would have had were I playing an acoustic.
Of course, I’m speaking philosophically here, but there is some substance to what I’m saying; I feel a connection with the instrument when I play an acoustic piano; I do not feel this with a digital piano.
You may not care about this, however; you are at the beginning stages of your piano journey, and until you build this connection and rapport with a particular instrument, it may not bother you. I recognise that the ideal is never the reality, and you must pick what’s most appropriate for you at the time. Many people reading this will live in apartments where there just isn’t the space for an acoustic piano.
There is nothing wrong with a digital piano at all, even for the most experienced players. You won’t go far wrong if you pick the right digital, but in my opinion, as a pianist and teacher for many years, a good quality acoustic piano is more expensive. However, I will say that an excellent quality digital piano is probably a better bet than a very poor quality acoustic piano. It’s up to you to make the judgement about what’s most appropriate for your living situation and your needs.
You may think I’m talking rubbish here, but ask any musician; especially violinists. People become attached to their instruments, and were you to replace them with an electronic instrument, it wouldn’t be the same experience.
Why you should buy a digital
I’ve been through why an acoustic is usually a better choice than a digital. However, there are lots of circumstances where digital pianos are more appropriate. Let’s go through some of them.
They take up less space
Digital pianos are much smaller than acoustic pianos; they don’t contain all the internal moving parts that acoustic pianos do. This means it’s easier to fit them into tight spaces and small apartments. You don’t even need to buy a console digital piano; if you’re really tight for space, you can buy a keyboard-style digital piano and even put it on a table. For portability and flexibility, a digital piano wins hands down.
They are quieter
Again, if you live in an apartment, or live with other people who are sensitive to noise, a digital piano may be a better bet because you can adjust the volume, and even put headphones on as and when you require. An acoustic piano is at a fixed volume; some instruments come with a practice pedal which mutes the sound, but overall the volume is much louder. If you can only practice at 11pm, you’re much better off going for a digital piano.
They are cheaper
This won’t come as a surprise, because digital pianos are much cheaper to construct and ship than acoustic pianos are. As a result, they’re cheaper. One of the most expensive digital pianos is the Yamaha Avantgrand series, which tops out at around $7,000. This doesn’t come anywhere close to the most expensive acoustic piano you could buy. Of course, for you, the beginner, you’re most likely to be spending around $500 on a new digital piano. Even then, a new acoustic piano that will provide you the same functionality will set you back at least $3,000. If you’re on a budget, a digital piano is almost certainly the way to go.
They’re also cheaper to maintain; a digital piano will never require any tuning or any other work done to it; generally a digital piano is pretty low maintenance and as long as it’s looked after, can go many years without any kind of issue.
They are easier to move
A digital piano is often much much lighter than an acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos are exceptionally heavy, on account of the cast iron frame and numerous components inside made out of wood. A digital piano generally has a particleboard case with everything else made out of plastic. This makes it much easier to move a digital piano. If you want more information about this, take a look at my article on this subject:
They are easier to maintain
As mentioned, a digital piano won’t ever require tuning, regulation or voicing. The sound is always the same. For me this is a downside, because I like the more organic feel of an acoustic piano, but it means that you will spend less time worrying about whether you need to get your piano tuned or have any other work done to it and (hopefully) more time making music.
Why you should buy an acoustic
I am going to advocate for the good old acoustic piano here, because it’s the right choice for some people. While they have drawbacks in terms of maintenance, there are benefits. Let’s go through some of them.
The playing experience is much better
When you press a key on a digital piano, you’re essentially pushing a button, or activating a switch. When you press a key on an acoustic piano, you’re forcing a hammer to hit a string. This kind of playing experience is always much better; you feel like you’re actually making music as opposed to playing back a recording as you would be on a digital piano. This means that your practice is much more pleasurable, and if you enjoy playing your piano, you’re more likely to practice.
Much higher resale value
There’s a limited market for the resale of digital pianos. If you look on Craigslist or eBay, you’ll struggle to find any digital piano model over five years old. There are simply too many models coming out every year for these old models to hold any kind of value; they’re obsolete within a few years, and you can most likely buy a new one for not very much money.
Acoustic pianos are very different. If you buy a well-known brand, it will hold its value very well, to the point where it’s very possible for you to sell it for the same or more money than you paid for it. There’s a booming market for used and reconditioned pianos, and as long as you look after your piano, there’ll be someone willing to take it off your hands for a decent price as and when you decide to sell it.
They last longer
As we’ve mentioned, acoustic pianos hold their value better. They also last a lot longer. Pianos are built generally to have around a 30 to 50 year service life before they require any kind of major rebuilding. However, if you do rebuild a piano, you can expect another 30 to 50 years or more out of it. As long as the piano is maintained well, it will probably outlast you. A digital piano, even though it might well last you 15 - 20 years, is going to be obsolete within five years. Acoustic pianos are built for longevity. Digital pianos aren’t. If you’re in any way ecologically conscious, an acoustic piano is a better bet.
The sound is far, far better
This kind of goes without saying, but as you press a key on an acoustic piano, the hammer strikes the string and you are generating the sound yourself. When you press a key on a digital piano, you play back a recording of an acoustic piano. This can lead to a pretty soulless, lifeless experience, because all you get is the sound of someone else recording a note. You don’t get any of the other resonance or tone you’d get from an acoustic piano. This feeds back into the playing experience; it’s just far superior on any kind of acoustic piano.
You don’t require a power source
This is an interesting one. An acoustic piano doesn’t require any electricity. A digital piano does. So, you may find that if you use your digital piano a lot, you’re consuming quite a lot of power, and the money you would have saved by not having to tune an acoustic piano, you’re spending in electricity bills. I can imagine a cost of $100 - $200 per year to maintain an acoustic piano; if your digital piano uses more than $100 worth of power in a year, the actual cost of maintenance may well be comparable to an acoustic piano.
Coupled with this, your digital piano always needs to be next to a power outlet, whereas your acoustic piano can go anywhere.
How to find a piano for free
Did you know it’s actually possible to find a piano for free? Believe it or not, there are people willing to give pianos away for no money at all. Usually, people who’ve had pianos in their house for many years may want to get rid of them for various reasons. Maybe it was a family heirloom, maybe the person who plays has passed away, who knows. There was once a time where nearly every family in America would have had a piano in their home. Many of these pianos still exist, and lots of people want to get rid of them.
You can find these pianos on Craigslist, or on specialised websites designed for the purpose of piano recycling. Usually these instruments are old, out of tune and potentially broken. However, if you’re on a real tight budget, they could be a good alternative until you can save up for something better. You will, however, have to arrange for the piano to be transported by yourself, and this might get expensive. Just don’t do what these guys are doing:
I’ve used this image before a few times on this site, but it’s because it’s an absolutely perfect example of the worst thing you could do when trying to move a piano.
Finding a teacher
So, you’ve bought your piano, and now you need to find a teacher. It’s possible to learn piano without a teacher, which I’ll come onto later, but for now I’m going to assume that you’d prefer to find a teacher and take formal lessons.
Unfortunately finding a competent teacher can be difficult. Most if not all piano teachers have worked with beginning students, but there are a select few that specialise in teaching beginners and know exactly how to get the best out of beginner piano students.
First; scope out your local area
Get hold of the local Yellow Pages and get a list of piano teachers in the local area. If you can’t find any, check out online directories, see who’s running ads or showing up in the search results when you type “piano teacher + your area” into Google. Prepare a list of potential candidates that are a reasonable distance from your house. Chances are most major cities have several piano teachers, especially so if they have a university or conservatoire; university students will graduate and settle in the city, and begin teaching the piano, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find someone.
Of course, you should initially find out what kind of music they teach; classical, jazz, pop, etc? Some teachers will do everything, but most will specialise in one particular area. If there’s a specific area you’re interested in, then you should add this to your search and narrow down teachers that specialise in this genre.
What you should also consider is teachers that offer online tutoring. There are guys like Josh Wright who teach over Skype, as well as numerous services you can sign up to and get a teacher who will teach you remotely. If you’re comfortable with this, then great; you don’t have to leave your home to take piano lessons. Just be sure that you have all the technology required; a good camera, a microphone and a stable internet connection.
Vetting your list of piano teachers
After you’ve narrowed down a list of teachers that you’d be willing to travel to/take lessons from online, it’s time to go about eliminating some of them. What I’d recommend is that you talk to them on the phone, send an email or even meet them in person to ask them some questions.
- Establish their teaching background. Have they been teaching for many years, or have only started within the last six months?
- How much experience do they have actually playing the piano? Have they given recitals, played in a band, etc?
- What kind of credentials do they have? Do they have a teaching diploma, or a university degree in music, or are they just someone who’s played the piano for a long time and have decided to teach?
- Do the lessons take place at their home or will they come to you?
- What is their specialism? Do they specialise in classical, jazz, rock, etc? Do they specialise in teaching beginners or adults?
- Do they subscribe to a particular method? This could be something like the Suzuki method, or do they have their own ways?
You’ll learn a lot about how your lessons will go just from meeting and talking to your teacher. Are they someone you see yourself getting on with and enjoying taking lessons from week after week?
Once you’ve decided on your teacher, it’s time for a trial. Often teachers will offer this for free, so if you’ve narrowed this down to the last three or four teachers, you should take a trial with all of them. Assess the teacher’s demeanour; whether they are polite and respectful (some teachers aren’t), whether they show interest and positivity, whether they have charisma, leadership and likeability. It’s important that all these traits are there before you commit long term. A good teacher will also demand excellence; make sure that this is evident, otherwise you will not get the best from your lessons.
After you’ve done some trials, choose your teacher. This is a long process to go through, but it’s absolutely worth it; if you don’t get on with your teacher, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll commit to music-making long term. Taking the time to find the right teacher can be the difference between quitting the piano early, and enjoying a lifetime of music making.
Learning on your own?
Despite what many say, it’s entirely possible to teach yourself piano. I do believe that having a teacher is the best way to go, but I appreciate there are some circumstances where this isn’t really possible. For example, teachers can be expensive. It may not be possible for you to get to a teacher on a regular basis, or maybe the only teacher in your area doesn’t have any space in their schedule to accommodate a new student.
The best way to do this is to have some sort of online content to guide you. You can sit down at your piano and trawl YouTube and blogs like this one for some inspiration as to what to learn, but something more structured will save you time and arguably give you better results.
Apps like Flowkey, Simply Piano and Yousician provide a semi-structured learning experience that’s more budget-friendly than finding a teacher. However, these methods usually have no clear lesson plan, and have so much content that it can be difficult to know where to start. What’s more, there’s nobody to correct your mistakes when you go wrong.
However, if you can live with these downsides, the flexibility that self-learning affords you may work well if you have a busy lifestyle and can’t commit to a weekly lesson, or if you are put off by the high price of piano lessons.
Reading music; to learn or not to learn?
This is a contentious one, but I’m going to give my honest opinion. Many people say that reading music is pointless, and it’s entirely possible to play the piano without having to read music. Let’s go through some of the more pressing issues in more detail.
Often there’s a lot of fear around note-reading. People want to learn how to make music, but then they realise they might have to learn how to read music, which is potentially akin to learning to understand another language. This can put a lot of people off, and understandably so.
Despite this, I believe that learning the piano without knowing how to read music is actually much, much harder in the long term. If you don’t learn how to read music, you are totally reliant on your musical ear in order to learn how to play. If you’ve never had any kind of training at this, this is going to be very, very difficult.
In the short term, of course, you can ask your teacher to show you which notes to play to play a piece, but this is so laborious and time-consuming that in my view, it’s not worth it. You can work on your musical ear, to the point where you can hear a piece and be able to play it to some extent, but it takes an extremely gifted musician to be able to hear a piece of music and play it back. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us don’t have this gift.
Learning to read music is a challenge, but the liberation and independence it gives you is absolutely worth it. Imagine wanting to learn a new piece, and you don’t have to rely on anybody else; all you do is buy the sheet music and learn it yourself. This is what is ultimately going to give you a life-long experience of playing the piano. If you’re relying on the internet or on your teacher to teach you a new piece, your musical growth and independence will be stunted.
So, to sum up; I recommend you bite the bullet and learn how to read. It’s not as hard as it seems, and the sense of independence you get from it is always far better than struggling to listen to a bad recording and trying to copy it. Remember; learning the piano is a marathon and not a sprint, and this also applies to sheet music learning. As mentioned previously, the right teacher will massively help here.
My specialisms, and what my learning plan will focus on
As you’ll know from some of the other things I’ve written about, and from my biography, I’m primarily a classical pianist. I play a little jazz on the side, but the vast majority of the music I play is classical. As a result, this lesson plan is going to focus on primarily learning to play classical music.
However, because I’m only covering the basics here, this material is of benefit to anyone, irrespective of the type of music you want to play. I’d recommend reading through this first, because it will give you a good grounding in playing the piano. You can then graduate to whatever you want to play, and this material will serve you well. Just bear in mind that there’s going to be a little bit of a classical bias simply because it’s what I play and teach.
Let’s get going!
Section 2: The Learning Plan
Semester 1: The Absolute Basics
Sitting at the piano
In this semester we are going to cover the absolute basics of piano playing. It may be a while before you even play a note, but it’s important that we get certain things locked down before progressing any further.
The most important thing to do when starting off is to ensure you are sat at the piano correctly, with good posture. This is the foundation of all good piano playing.
Position your stool in the middle of the keyboard. If your piano has a decal for the manufacturer’s name in the middle, position your stool so that when you look straight ahead, you are looking at the manufacturer’s name.
You should be sitting far away enough that you have room to move, but not so far away that you have to stretch or lean forward to reach the keys. Position yourself that you can comfortably put your hands on the keys with your elbows bent at a roughly 20 degree angle inwards. You don’t want to have your elbows locked straight, but at the same time you don’t want to have to have your elbows too wide; this would indicate you’re too close.
Adjust the height of the stool so that you can comfortably reach the pedals. If you have to stretch your legs to reach the pedals, you are either sitting too high, or your legs are too short. This is the reason many children require a footstool. You shouldn’t require one as an adult, so if you can’t reach the pedals you’re sat too high.
Make sure your forearms are level with the keyboard. Your elbows should be the same height as the keys. If they are higher than the keys, you are sat too high and need to lower your stool. If they are lower than the keys, you are sat too low, and need to raise your stool.
If your stool or chair isn’t adjustable, you’ll either need to find another chair if you’re sat too high, or find a cushion or some books to sit on if you are too low until you can get another one.
Your posture should be relaxed. Don’t sit bolt upright, because this will give you back pain. Slouching will also give you back pain. If you have trouble keeping your back straight, you should consider using a chair rather than a stool until you can get used to sitting upright. This is one of the major causes of injury and strain among pianists and it’s important that you get into good habits now to avoid back problems in the future. If you have to slouch or lean forward to reach the keys, you are sat too high.
Take a few moments to practice your posture and seating position before you start practising every day. You will eventually get used to it and it will become second nature to you, but for now it’s important to consciously practice and solidify these good habits.
Finding Middle C
The first note that we’re going to learn is Middle C.
The easiest way to find Middle C is to use the location of the black keys. Look at the way they’re oriented; you have a group of two black keys, and then a group of three black keys. This continues all the way up the keyboard.
I want you to think of this as a group of 5 black keys. 2 keys + 3 keys = 5 keys. The group always resets after 5 keys, with the first of the group of 2.
Find the leftmost key of the group of 2 black keys. Now, the white note immediately to the left of this key is C. It doesn’t matter which group of two you pick on the piano; the note immediately to the left of the leftmost black key in the group of 2 black keys is always C.
Now, all you have to do is find the group closest to the middle of the keyboard. The note immediately to the left of the group of 2 black keys is “middle C.”
It should sound exactly like this:
If you’re having trouble, follow the instructions above and try to match the sound. If it sounds lower or higher, you’re in the wrong place. Only when it sounds exactly the same do you have middle C.
Middle C will be your anchor point. While you’re in the first few weeks of lessons it’s the place you’ll always find as soon as you sit down at the piano. Practice finding middle C a few times a day. Before you know it, you’ll be able to find it without even looking for it.
Now that you’ve mastered sitting at the piano and finding middle C, it’s time to learn the other notes.
The layout of the keyboard
We touched on this before, but I’m going to go through this in detail just so you know how the keyboard is laid out. It’s really important that you learn this; when you do, you’ll be able to find any note on the piano without having to think about it.
The piano is laid out in groups of notes, called octaves. A full size piano consists of 7 ½ octaves. Each octave contains seven white notes, and five black notes.
When we get to the highest note of the octave, the next note is just a repeat of the lowest note of the octave; just higher. This is why people refer to something as being “an octave higher” or “an octave lower.” What they’re referring to is the same note, just one repetition of the pattern up or down the keyboard..
This repeating pattern continues up the keyboard until we run out of notes.
Challenge: You already know middle C. Find it on the keyboard. Knowing what you know about the layout of the keyboard now, try to find all the Cs on the piano. You can hover your mouse over the diagram below when you think you’ve got it to check whether you’re right!
Click to reveal the answer!
Half steps, whole steps, sharps and flats
Let’s get onto why these notes are laid out the way they are. When we understand this, we can go onto their names. It’s important you understand why the notes are named what they are before you start learning them; it will be much easier to ingrain them in your memory, and even to work out the note names if you’ve forgotten them.
In order for you to do this, you need to understand the concept of half-steps and whole-steps. These are also sometimes called semitones and tones.
In music, there are 12 notes. Don’t worry about where they are on the piano just yet.
The notes are C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B.
“#” means sharp. There also exists “b,” or flat. All this means is that sharp or flat is the smaller distance between two notes, or the “half-step.” It takes the name of the lower note if it’s a sharp, to indicate that it’s the lower note but raised a half-step, and takes the name of the higher note if it’s a flat, to indicate that it’s the higher note but lowered a half-step.
This is confusing, but it will be second nature once you learn it properly.
For example, C to D is a whole step. A whole step consists of two half steps. The note in the middle is called either C-sharp, written “C#,” or D-flat, written “Db”. They are the same note, and they sound the same.
All you need to understand here is that “sharp” means plus one half step, and “flat” means minus one half step. D-flat is the note of D, minus a half step. If you were to minus a further half step from D-flat, you would get C.
The exceptions to this are E to F, and B to C. These are half-steps and not whole steps. E-sharp does not exist; E-sharp would just be F, because it would be E raised a half-step. The same is true for B to C; There is no B-sharp; B-sharp would just be C, and C-flat would just be B.
I know this is hard, but stick with me. You won’t learn this overnight because it’s a complicated subject. I’d suggest you spend a few days or even weeks going through this information and practising some of the challenges below until you understand it.
Have a look at the following diagram, which tells you the half-step and whole-step relations between each note.
Challenge: Using the diagram above that shows you all the notes, find out the alternative names of the notes below. We’re looking for the same note, but a different name.
Click to reveal the answer!
Learning the notes of the white keys
If you understand the previous section, this next one will be easy. All we do now is take the notes we’ve learnt in the previous section, and apply them to the keyboard. Let’s look at the white keys only in this section, and we’ll move on to the black keys in the next section. However, if you’re paying attention, you might be able to figure out the black keys already after reading this section. If you can, well done; it means you really understand what’s going on.
Let’s revisit the notes we learnt in the last section.
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B
I’ve used the sharp names, but you’ll now know that D-sharp is also E-flat, A-sharp is also B-flat and so on.
The white keys contain seven of the twelve notes. They are the “unmodified” notes; i.e., the notes without sharp or flat names. Pretty easy, right?
C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
Here’s a diagram as to where they are on the piano.
Resist the urge to write the note names down on the keys. You need to learn these note names off by heart. Revisit this diagram as often as you like; download it and print it off and keep it next to your piano if you must. Just don’t write the note names on the keys, because it doesn’t teach you anything. You need to be able to find the notes without having to look at their names.
Learning the notes of the black keys
You may have already figured this out, but we will go through in detail.
The white keys are the “unmodified” notes without sharps or flats. The black keys are the “modified” notes, WITH sharps and flats.
C#, D#, F#, G# and A#.
They can also be called:
Db (remember, “b” means “flat”), Eb, Gb, Ab and Bb.
These two lists are the exact same group of notes, just called by their different names.
Here’s a diagram as to where they are on the piano. I’ve used both note names because you will need to know both.
Again, use the diagram I’ve included below in your practice; print it off and refer to it when you need to. Please don’t write the note names on your keyboard; this won’t help you learn the notes long-term, and it’s really important that you know the note names off by heart.
Semester 2: Moving on from C-major
Numbering the fingers
Before we move into this section, I want to give a brief lesson on numbering the fingers. You’ll read a lot about this later on when we start talking about scales and arpeggios.
Each hand has numbered fingers, and when you work out fingering, the numbers will tell you which fingers to put on which notes.
The fingering is the same for both right and left hands. Thumb is always 1, index is 2, middle finger is 3, ring finger is 4 and little finger is 5. This is the same for both hands.
Keep this in mind as we go through this section and the following sections.
Learning basic scales and keys
So, now we have learned the notes, let’s talk about scales. You might look at this and struggle to see the point, but there’s a huge advantage given to pianists who have learned to play scales. They make actually playing pieces so much easier. Everyone should practice scales, or at least know how to play them.
A scale in music is just an organised sequence of notes. For example:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and so on.
If you play these notes (you should be able to find them by now) you’ll notice they make up the following pattern:
Whole step, whole step, half-step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half-step.
This is called a major scale. This also teaches you about keys in music. Whatever note you begin this pattern on, as long as you follow the guide above, you will have played a major scale in that key. For example; let’s examine the C major scale.
These scales are tremendously useful because if you are playing a piece in a particular key, most of the notes will be made up of that scale. If you play a piece in C major, most of the notes in the piece will be made up of the C major scale. This can make things very easy for you if you understand the relationship between the notes, and the fingering, which we’ll come onto later.
For example; let’s work out some more scales.
Let’s take G major. Following this pattern:
Whole step, whole step, half-step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half-step.
Let’s try to figure out the scale of G major.
And now D major.
See? It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.
There are other types of scale, including natural minor, harmonic minor, pentatonic, chromatic, etc, which we won't go into here. However, the fundamental nature of any musical scale is that it’s made up of a combination of whole-steps and half-steps.
Challenge: Now that you know how a major scale works, try and figure out the scales for the following keys.
- F major
- B-flat major
- A major
- E-flat major
I won’t go into scale fingering for each individual scale here, because each scale has its own individual fingering. There are books you can buy that will show you every scale and the best fingering to use.
However, we’ll go through the basic fingerings for C major in the right hand.
The trickiest part when playing scales is that you have 8 notes to play, but only 5 fingers. This means you have to do what’s called a “thumb-under” manoeuvre, to make sure your hands are positioned in the correct way. Follow the diagram below to see the fingering for C major in the right hand.
Notice that you have fingers 1, 2 and 3, and then to play the F, you need to go back to finger 1. You need to do this without letting go of finger 3 on the note E. You may think this is very difficult, but what you need to do is use finger 3 as a pivot. Rotate your wrist to the right, and tuck your thumb underneath your other fingers until it reaches the F. At this point you can let go of the E.
Sound confusing? Have a look at this video which shows you a little more clearly how to do things.
The left hand fingering is exactly the same, but backwards. Tuck your thumb under on the way down, and bring finger 3 over on the way back up.
Once you’ve mastered this concept, you can go onto trying to learn G major in the right hand. The fingering is below. Try figuring it out on your own first. (Hint; it’s exactly the same as C major!)
Playing basic piano chords
Up until now, we’ve only covered playing one note at a time. But there’s a full 88 notes on a piano. How about we try playing some notes together?
What I’m talking about are chords. Groups of notes that are played at the same time. They’re closely linked with scales, because chords in a particular key use some of the same notes as scales in that key. Let me explain.
Basic chords in the key of C major include: C major, F major, G major and A minor.
What’s important to note is that some keys share chords. For example, you can play an F major chord in a piece that’s written in C major, because it shares a relationship with C major. However, an F major chord can also be written in the key of F major or B-flat major and still sound correct. You don’t need to worry about this now; this is for more advanced music theory lessons that are beyond the scope of this article.
A brief note on arpeggios; these are kind of a cross between scales and chords. They essentially use the notes of the chord, but are played one after another and not together.
For example, here’s a C major arpeggio:
Notice it goes from the first note of the scale, to the third, then to the fifth, and finally to the first note, but an octave higher. Then it goes back down again.
You can figure these arpeggios out by yourself by using your knowledge of how scales are put together. A major arpeggio always starts on one note, and then includes the third, fifth and first note on octave higher of that particular scale.
Challenge: try and figure out how to play any of these arpeggios:
- F major
- G major
- D major
- E major
Semester 3: Basic note-reading
I am going to go through some basic note-reading concepts in these next two sections. This article won’t teach you how to read music overnight, but it will give you enough information to get started. Unfortunately this is one of those areas where I feel a teacher will really help you, simply because these concepts are hard to understand at first. Persevere, and you’ll get it.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand all of this material for now. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s something that you’ll need a while to fully understand. I remember it took me years to properly learn how to read sheet music (although I was a pretty lazy student sometimes!) If you’re dedicated and you visit the material on a regular basis, it won’t take you anywhere near as long.
Ultimately, in this section we’re going to go over the main, fundamental concepts of learning to read sheet music. These concepts include the staff, treble and bass clef, the note names in both clefs, note values, time signature/rhythm and key signatures. That’s a lot to take in, but there’s very little else to learn about after you have these basic concepts down; anything else is simply an expansion on what you’ve already learned.
Music is made up of lots of different symbols. The most basic symbol you’ll need to learn is called the staff. This is basically the blank canvas; think of it like lines on a piece of paper.
The staff has five lines, and four spaces. Each line and space represents a note. It’s also possible to have notes outside the staff, which are indicated by lines drawn above and below the staff. It’s helpful to think of the staff as more than 5 lines, but since we don’t use the notes below and above the staff very often, we don’t write those lines in very often.
Here’s what I mean about extra notes.
This is an A. It’s above the staff, so we write a line through it to indicate what note it is. All you need to think of here is that the line is just a continuation of the staff.
The Grand Staff
Piano music is usually written with two staffs. This is called the "grand staff."
Notice the two signs here:
These signs are called clefs. They differentiate the two staffs. The easiest way to think of this is that the treble clef is for the right hand and the bass clef is for the left hand.
Generally, the staff splits at middle C. Anything lower than middle C will usually be written in the bass clef, and anything above will be written in the treble clef.
Middle C is written here in the treble clef...
And here in the bass clef.
These are both exactly the same note; middle C.
As you've probably guessed, the notes are different for each clef, which is what we’ll go through now.
Notes of the Treble Clef
If it helps you remember the note names, you can put together a mnemonic. Here are the two that I used.
For each line on the staff (using the treble clef), the notes are E, G, B, D, F. The mnemonic “Every Good Boy Deserves Football” might help you remember this. There are dozens of variations of this saying; come up with your own if it helps you.
For each space on the staff (using the treble clef), the notes are F, A, C, and E. By far the easiest way to remember this is just to think “FACE”, like the word “face.” The rhyme, “Face in the space” also helped me when I was learning.
Notes of the Bass Clef
Again, there are two mnemonics you can use to remember this.
For each line on the staff (using bass clef), the notes are G, B, D, F, A. The mnemonic “Good Boys do Fine Always” might help you to remember this. Again, just as with the treble clef, there are dozens of variations and alternatives, and if you can come up with your own, even better.
For the spaces on the staff (using the bass clef), the notes are A, C, E and G. Unfortunately, unlike the treble clef, this doesn’t make up a word, but the mnemonic “All Cows Eat Grass” might help you.
This is really important information, and I’d recommend you print off the following diagram and put it next to your piano when you’re learning. It’ll help you ascertain where the notes of the keyboard are situated on the sheet music.
Notes on the staff tell us two things. They tell us which note to play, and how long to play it for.
Each note has a “head.” Where the head sits on the score determines which note you will play. As discussed before, sometimes note heads can sit outside the staff, with ledger lines drawn through them to indicate which note they represent. Again, just think of this as a continuation of the staff up and down.
Each note also has a “flag” and a “stem.” The stem doesn’t serve any real purpose other than to facilitate the “flag,” if one exists. We’ll go onto this shortly. Stems can point up or down; they make no difference to the music, and simply point either way in order to keep the music looking as tidy as possible.
Note “flags” tell you (in conjunction with the note head, whether it is filled with black or is just an outline) how long to play the note. The more flags you have, the shorter the note. Flags are the “flick” from the bottom of the stem to the right of the note.
Let’s go through each individual note value, and what it means.
Basic Note Values
This is an important diagram, so again, I’d encourage you to print this diagram and keep it with you near your piano so you can refer to it when you’re learning.
There are naming conventions here. It’s important for you to understand that I’m British, and we use a certain naming convention here for note values. I’ve no idea what other countries use, but I know the US and Canada have a different naming convention to us, so I will refer to both here.
The most basic note value is a quarter note, also known as a “crotchet.”
This note always equals one beat.
Now we have the half-note, or the minim.
This note always equals two beats.
Finally, we have the whole note, or the “semibreve.”
This note equals four beats.
Notice how for the half-note and the whole-note, the note head is white inside with a black outline. For the quarter-note, the note head is fully black. This helps us to differentiate the note value, as these notes don’t yet have flags.
Let’s go on to slightly more advanced notes.
This note is an eighth-note, otherwise known as a “quaver.”
This note is worth half of one beat.
This note is a sixteenth-note, or a “semiquaver.”
This note is worth a quarter of one beat.
Notice how we now have flags. One flag differentiates a quarter-note from an eighth-note, and two flags make it a sixteenth-note.
There are more notes; thirty-second notes, sixty-fourth notes, etc, but they're beyond the scope of this article. All you'll need to know for now are the five note types we've already gone through.
How these notes fit into one another (subdivisions)
You may have worked this out already, but by the magic of mathematics, we can work out what these note values equal relative to one another.
Let’s take the quarter-note, or the crotchet. This is worth one beat. As a result, it can fit two eighth-notes, or four sixteenth-notes. Both take up the same amount of time. That means for every quarter note, you need to play an eighth-note twice, each individual note being exactly half the value of the quarter-note.
A half-note is worth two quarter notes. You have to play two quarter notes, each exactly half the duration of one half-note, to match the value of one half-note.
Let’s look at the diagram below to show exactly how this works.
Dotted notes and tied notes
Dots and ties can change the value of a note. Let’s find out how this works.
A dot means that the note is now worth 150% of its original value. To find out exactly how much it’s worth, there’s a very simple trick you can use to work it out.
Let’s take this dotted quarter-note, for example.
We know a quarter-note is worth one beat. To figure out what a dotted quarter note is, let’s half the original number of beats that the note is worth. So, half of one beat is half a beat.
Which note equals half a beat? The eighth-note. So what we now to do work out the value of the dotted quarter-note is add the eighth-note on to a quarter-note.
So, a dotted quarter is worth one and a half beats. To figure out a dotted note value, ignore the dot. Half the note value, and add that on to the original note value. That’s the value of your dotted note.
Ties are similar, but easier to understand. A tie indicates that you must hold the note for the value of both notes. A tie can only occur if both notes are the same. So, let’s say you have the following quarter tied to an eighth note.
This note needs to be played and held for the duration of the tie. You must add the note values that are tied (in this case, a quarter and an eighth note) and instead of playing a quarter and an eighth, you hold the quarter through the eighth note. You don’t play the eighth. This is commonly used to signify notes that must be held between bars or measures, as in this situation it’s not possible to use a dot. We’ll come on to this later.
Each piece of music has what’s called a “time signature.” This indicates the pulse of the music.
Each piece of music is split up into bars, or measures. These measures are determined by the lines between notes. Each bar adds up to a certain amount of beats, and the note values in that particular bar won’t exceed this number of beats.
You find this number of beats by looking at the time signature. The time signature is at the beginning of the very first bar, and is indicated by two numbers, one on top of the other.
So, let’s take this time signature of 4/4. The top number shows you how many beats are in each bar. So in this particular piece, each bar is worth four beats.
The bottom number shows you what each beat is worth. In this case, it’s 4. This means that each beat is worth a “quarter-note.” So, there are 4 quarter notes in each bar.
If the bottom number was 8, there would be 4 eighth notes in each bar. See how this works?
All this means is that you have the top number of notes, that are worth one of the bottom number each, to play with in that bar. Each bar must have that number of beats in; no more, no less.
So let’s take the 4/4 time signature and see what we can fit in this bar.
We could fit….
One semibreve/whole note.
Once you understand how this works, it’s really just simple maths.
However, there is another concept that you need to learn to fully understand this.
If we don’t want a note to be played in a particular section, we use what are called “rests.” Very simple concept; a rest means you don’t need to play anything for the duration of that beat. Rests correspond with the note values, meaning that you have different symbols for whole note rests, half note rests, quarter note rests, and so on. Here’s a diagram to indicate what these rests look like.
All this means is that instead of playing a note, you remain silent for the value of that note. So if you see a sixteenth note rest, you don’t play for the duration of a sixteenth note. It’s that easy!
The final thing I want to discuss in this section is the concept of key signatures. We’ve spoken before about the concept of keys, but how does this translate to written music?
To do this, we need to understand sharps and flats and how they’re written in music. You’ve already read through my explanation of how sharps and flats work; a sharp raises the note a half-step, and a flat lowers a note a half-step.
Now, key signatures tie closely into our whole-step/half-step scale pattern that we learned in Semester 2. Now, as we know, if you start a scale on a note other than C, you will need to use sharps or flats in order to maintain the pattern. In music, we don’t write sharps and flats for every single note, seeing as this would be time consuming.
What we do instead is use a “key signature.” This groups all the sharps or flats together, and is written next to the time signature at the beginning of the piece. This way, we instantly know what key a piece is in before we even play it.
Let’s go through the key signatures in the treble clef.
You’ll need to learn these, but as you practice your scales, they will become easier to recognise.
Semester 4: More advanced note-reading; rhythms
This section is much more advanced, but it’s worth covering in this guide. Don’t be concerned if you don’t understand it; this kind of theory knowledge will come in plenty of time.
Reading more than one note at a time (chords)
Now, we’ve gone over simple, individual note values. However, you may have noticed that you have much more than one note on your piano that can be played at any one time. Playing more than one note at a time on the piano is called playing a chord. The way this is notated is very simple.
To notate a chord, you simply stack notes on top of one another. If you ever see this in music, it means all these notes have to be played at the same time.
This applies to both staffs, so if you see several notes stacked on top of each other in both staffs, it means that they must be played at once. For example, all these notes are played at the same time, even though they include notes in the treble and bass staff.
More complex rhythmic features
A triplet means three notes grouped together that fit into the space of two notes. You need to look at the individual note value that is grouped by a triplet in order to figure out the duration of the triplet.
For example, let’s look at this eighth-note triplet figuration.
This is easy to work out. You have three eighth-notes, so you need to fit the triplet into the same value as two eighth-notes. All a triplet means is that a rest that is usually divisible by two equal parts is now divided into three equal parts.
Duplets work like triplets, but in reverse. Instead of fitting three notes into the space of two, we are now fitting two notes in the space of three. This works primarily in time signatures that you can equally split into three, such as ¾, 6/8, 12/8, but it can be used anywhere you have music that contains three equal parts that you now only want to split into two equal parts.
For example, take this quarter note duplet.
What we’re doing there is extending the value of the quarter note, so that we fit two of them in a space that would usually occupy three. As I explained; exactly like triplets, but opposite.
Quintuplets, Sextuplets, etc
Despite looking more complicated, quintuplets and sextuplets are actually easier to understand. They in essence work exactly the same as triplets.
A quintuplet fits five equal parts into a space that would only usually have two equal parts.
A sextuplet fits six equal parts into a space that would usually only have two equal parts.
That’s all there is to it!
Keeping the pulse
It’s important to note that trying to fit so many notes into spaces that previously would have been occupied by fewer notes presents some challenges. For example, if you’re presented by a triplet, and you don’t play a proper triplet, you will elongate the bar and make things sound wrong. It’s of vital importance that you practice this material with a metronome, and that you understand how these complex rhythmic patterns relate to other note values in the bar. For example, if you don’t understand that one eighth-note triplet is the same as one quarter-note, or half a half-note, you won’t be able to play these notes in time and your music will sound messy.
If in doubt, consult your teacher.
Semester 5: How to practice on your own
It’s all well and good going to a piano teacher every week to try to get better at playing the piano. However, we all know that the only way we’re going to get good at playing the piano is by practising. Unfortunately, most pianists have no idea how to practice. This applies across the board, from absolute beginners who’ve taken one lesson, to conservatory students at the masters’ level.
Most people come to the conclusion that more = better. Someone who practices for six hours per day must be six times better than someone who practices for only an hour a day. Makes sense, right?
Not so. Six hours’ practice per day will help you if you’re doing it right, but it will massively hinder you if you’re doing it wrong. There’s a whole host of research out there that suggests that the quality and the diligence of your practice is infinitely more important than the amount of practice that you do.
Developing good habits from the outset
This is one of the most crucial things I teach to any new student. It’s pointless starting your piano career off on the wrong foot, because you’ll develop bad habits and you’ll need to go back and correct them at a later date.
For example, one of my pet hates when it comes to hearing other people practicing is that they will practice mistakes. They will play a section that is going well, and all of a sudden they play wrong notes. They’ll then either do one of two things.
- They’ll keep on playing, and wonder why they can never play that section right. (it’s because they practice their mistakes.)
- They’ll stop, and play the notes at the point where they went wrong over and over and over again. Then they’ll go back and play through, and make the same mistake they did at the beginning. Then they’ll just give up and move on.
This isn’t helpful to anyone. The only thing that you need to know in order to fix this is to practice slowly and deliberately. That’s it. This is a bit of a vague term, so what I’m proposing is that when you practice, you play everything slow enough for your mind to keep up with what’s going on. You should be almost telling yourself a story in your head about what’s going to happen next in the piece, and what you need to prepare to do. You’re much less likely to make a mistake if you do this. Most pianists just switch off when playing, and rely on their muscle memory. This just doesn’t work, and you need to be actively engaged in your practice in order for you to improve.
Positive Practice vs Negative Practice
I’ve spoken a little about this, but it’s worth revisiting. I’ve already described how to practice positively. If you’re engaged and switched on about what you’re doing, as long as you do it slowly, you will improve rapidly. For example, when you are practising deliberately, it’s much easier to spot mistakes. When a mistake is identified, a deliberate practiser would stop and play through the section very slowly, identifying where they’re making the mistake, and why they’re making a mistake. Perhaps their hand is slightly in the wrong position, or one of their fingers is not reaching the note it needs to play quick enough.
A negative practiser adopts what I like to call the “spray and pray” method, where they just play through technical problems and ignore them. And unfortunately, when they play the piece for other people or in front of their teacher, they make the same mistakes they’ve always made, and wonder why they can’t play things right.
If you do this often enough you will actually notice your playing getting worse, because you are not giving enough care and attention to your music-making. You will start to notice memory slips, wrong notes, and other problems that you will need to ask your teacher to fix. All of which could have been avoided by taking a slower, more diligent approach to your practice.
How long should you practice for?
As long as you follow my advice above there is no hard and fast rule. Practice as and when you have time. All of us are busy, and unless you’re a music major you probably don’t have several hours a day to devote to the piano. Practice as and when you can, but the amount of practice you do in one session is not necessarily so important.What is important is that you practice properly and deliberately, and that you do it consistently.
For example, if you practice negatively for an hour a day, you will find that if you cut down your practice time to half an hour per day and improve your practice technique, you will improve dramatically. Likewise, you will progress much more quickly if you practice for twenty minutes per day on every day of the week, than if you practice for two hours on a Sunday and don’t touch the piano on any other day.
I’d say a minimum practice you should do is fifteen minutes per day. Any less than that and you’ll struggle to get anything meaningful done. If you want to do more, that’s great. Just be aware that your concentration is going to wane after about forty-five minutes, and you’ll want to take a break. And if you find yourself slipping into any of the negative practice habits I’ve spoken about, you’ll want to stop and revisit the piano another time when you’re a little more fresh.
How many pieces should you practice at a time?
Again, there’s no hard and fast rule here. Usually if you’re working on exams your teacher will assign you three pieces at a time, as well as scales, arpeggios and other technical requirements.
I’d suggest that for an absolute beginner, do not work on more than one piece at a time. It will overwhelm you, and learning to play the piano is difficult enough without having to worry about expanding your repertoire. As you improve, you can take on more responsibility and more pieces, to the point where if you’re ready for exams, you should be able to prepare three pieces at a time to performance standard.
Don’t rely on this, however; if all you have time for is one piece at a time, then that’s fine. Don’t pressure yourself into learning too much repertoire. This is a problem even for the most distinguished of pianists; there’s a limit to how much work we can take on. Don’t spread your concentration and your time too thinly.
Just remember my mantra; more hours and more pieces does not make a better pianist. Better practice makes a better pianist.
If you want to read more about practice, I wrote an article about efficient and effective practice, which I’d encourage you to read.
Semester 6: Finding music that you can play
How to assess your own level
Unfortunately, there’s no set rule for what level you’ve reached at the piano. Depending on what you’re learning at the moment, what you’re teacher teaches you, there’s a distinct possibility that your skills span multiple levels. For example, you might be much more advanced with actually playing pieces than you are with sight-reading.
It’s important to keep some perspective when trying to assess your own level. You’ll find a lot of information on the internet that will try to get you to pinpoint your level. It’s also irritating when trying to buy sheet music, as a lot of manufacturers will apply arbitrary labels to their music, classifying it as for “beginners,” for “intermediate/advanced” level students. This can give you a rough idea of how hard the music will be, but it doesn’t exactly help you determine whether it’s right for you.
The best advice I can give you in this regard is to try to play as much music as you can. This doesn’t mean you need to take on 50 pieces at once (remember what I wrote in the previous section.) However, what it does mean is that you should actively seek out new music to learn and to sight-read. Once you’ve got a few pieces under your belt and you’ve been learning for a while, it becomes easier to judge at sight upon seeing a piece of music whether it’s too hard for you or not. You’ll be able to determine what’s within your limits and what isn’t.
Of course, the time may come when your teacher would like you to try a piece that you feel is way beyond you, or that you come across a piece that you desperately want to play but you feel is too hard. This brings me on to my next point.
Should you play music that’s too difficult?
Many musicians feel siloed into a particular grade level or difficulty level, and won’t budge beyond that until they’ve passed an exam, or been given the go-ahead by their teacher. This is really unfortunate, because a lot of students stop themselves from progressing further and playing music they want to play, simply because it’s labelled as a few grades higher than other music they’ve played.
If something is too hard for you, but you really want to play it, then in my opinion, you should try to play it. Within reason. If you’re a beginner that’s taken three lessons and you want to play one of these pieces, then this is not going to end well, seeing as you will pick up bad habits and get frustrated. However, if something’s just a few levels beyond you, and you feel it will challenge you, you should play it. It’s much better to be playing a piece that’s just a little bit too hard but you have a passion for, than playing a piece that’s at your level but you hate.
What’s also important to remember is that you won’t learn anything unless you actively seek out and try to play music that’s too difficult for you. If you only try to play pieces that are at your level, you won’t improve. Don’t wait for your teacher to assign you a new piece; get out there and find some new music!
Finding new music
Lots of students don’t know where to go when trying to find new music. I think this problem is partly because so much music exists out there, and it’s difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, it’s now easier than ever for you to find new music on your own. All you need is a computer. Go to YouTube; a recording of pretty much any piece of music will be available there. Find one of the pieces that you’re already playing that you like. Have a look in the video suggestions on the right hand side of the page, and you’ll see similar music by similar composers. Keep browsing through YouTube until you find something you like.
Now, fortunately, there’s also an amazing free resource online where you can find pretty much any piece of classical music ever written. Once you’ve found a piece that you like, go to:
IMSLP stands for the “International Music Score Library Project.” Think of it as the Wikipedia of sheet music. As long as the music is public domain and isn’t protected by copyright, chances are it’ll be there, and you can download it as a PDF. Then, all you need to do is take your computer or your iPad to your piano, and learn the music! You can even print the PDF off and put it in a file if you so wish.
Now, I still think it’s better to buy the sheet music if you have the option, because you will get a much better experience than using a screen or using sheets of fax paper. However, IMSLP is a brilliant way to get hold of the sheet music for a piece and try it out to see whether it suits you before committing to buying anything.
Unfortunately if the music is not in the public domain and is still protected by copyright, it won’t be available on IMSLP. It may be available elsewhere online, but if it’s protected by copyright it’s illegal to download unless you’ve paid for it. Don’t go looking to pirate sheet music. If you need it and can’t find it available on any of the legitimate free channels, then pay for it.
If you’re really stuck on finding some new music, I’ve given a list of composers below. If you like the music by one, chances are you’ll find something interesting in the music of the others.
Bach: Handel, Scarlatti, Couperin, Rameau, Soler
Mozart: Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Clementi
Chopin: Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Scriabin, Rachmaninov
Debussy: Ravel, Satie, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Albeniz, Takemitsu
Plug these names into YouTube and go nuts listening to some great music! You’re guaranteed to find something within your grasp that you’ll want to play.
Waiting for your teacher to assign you a new piece
Now, this is a contentious one, and it’s going to annoy some teachers. I really don’t think you should be in a position of relying on your teacher to tell you what to play. Some teachers teach like this; they assign every piece to their student themselves and don’t allow them to play anything else. To me, this is wrong. Of course, there needs to be structure to your learning, and your teacher is the best person to advise as to which pieces will be most beneficial to you.
However, I firmly believe that if you really want to play something, you should just play it. It’s polite to consult with your teacher first, as they will be able to offer you their opinion as a fellow musician who knows you and your playing. However, if you go to your teacher saying that you want to play something, and they outright refuse, to be honest I think you should find a new teacher.
There are exceptions to this; if it’s the week before an exam, for example, I wouldn’t expect any reasonable teacher to drop anything and accommodate your request. So there are limits. However, if your teacher doesn’t reasonably offer an explanation as to why they won’t teach you the pieces you want to play, you ought to look for someone else.
Please don’t fall into the trap of waiting for your teacher to tell you what to learn. A good musician and a good student is always learning, and because of this you should actively and enthusiastically seek out new music that you want to play all the time. There’s some really great music out there that you’ll miss out on if you just rely on your teacher to pick your repertoire for you.
Semester 7: Putting it all together; what can piano-playing do for you?
We’ve spoken a little bit about the benefits of playing the piano. I really believe it’s something that everyone should try, and even if they don’t take formal lessons, it’s something everyone can enjoy. However, where can it take you? What can it do for you?
The main gift that learning to play the piano will give you is a lifetime of music enjoyment. Once you’ve learned to play, it’s a skill that can never be taken away from you. It knows no age; people play from as young as three right until their 100s and beyond. And while your finger dexterity may leave you if you don’t practice for a while, you’ll be surprised at the extent to which it comes back. I took a hiatus from playing for a year or so, and I thought I’d lost a lot of my musical skills. I was shocked that within a few days of practice, it was all there again, in some ways stronger than it ever was. The experience of playing music is priceless, and it’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself.
Of course, if you really love playing the piano, you might even find yourself making a career out of it, but that’s a topic for a whole other article!
In the meantime, thanks for staying with me throughout this whole article and as ever, I hope you learned something.
Another name for a sharp or flat. Can refer to either. For example; “that note has an accidental” can mean that the note in question has a sharp or a flat.
Any piano whereby the means of sound generation takes place through a hammer hitting a string and not electronically.
Where the notes of a particular chord are played one after the other as opposed to at the same time. Also referred to as a broken chord.
Refers to the basic unit of time, or the pulse. It’s usually defined as the rhythm that listeners would tap their foot to when listening to a piece of music, or the numbers a musician would count to while performing.
A series of pitches that sound simultaneously.
Serious music following the long-established principles and rules, from around the mid-1600s to the present day. Also refers to a brief period lasting from around 1760 to 1820, where common forms such as the symphony, sonata and concerto were established.
A symbol that is placed on the left-hand side of the staff that indicates the pitches of the following staff.
A school, usually at the university level, that grants music degrees based on practical performance rather than academic results.
A transferable design. In this article referred to in the context of a manufacturers’ logo on the front of a piano.
A type of electronic keyboard that generates its sound through sampling or modelling rather than through acoustic means. Designed as an alternative to the acoustic piano.
Extends the length of a note by half its value, or 150%.
The practice of playing two equal notes in a space that would usually accommodate three equal notes.
A note that lasts half of one beat.
A medium sized, conical, tenor-voiced brass instrument.
Referring to a piano exam; a structured performance where a student plays pieces deemed to be of a particular level, or grade, and is judged on the quality of their performance.
The art of determining which fingers to place on each note when playing a piece of music.
A symbol that lowers the pitch of the note immediately to the left of the symbol by one half-step.
A piano-learning app for iOS and Windows, designed to help one learn to play pieces.
A particular level that one has reached in piano playing, usually set by an examining body such as the ABRSM or the RCM.
The largest of all types of piano; a large, full-toned instrument which has the body, strings and soundboard positioned horizontally to the keys and supported usually by three legs.
Two staffs together, consisting of the bass and treble clef and spanning the whole length of the keyboard.
A note that lasts two beats.
The smallest interval used on the piano, equivalent to half of a whole step, or 1/12 of an octave.
A wooden lever activated by pressing a key on a piano. When the key is pressed, the hammer is forced towards the string, hits the string and generates a sound.
A baroque-era keyboard instrument that is similar to the piano, but generates its’ sound by plucking strings instead of having a hammer hit them.
The International Music Score Library Project; a website where any score in the public domain is available for download.
Music of African-American origin that emerged at the beginning of the 1900s, characterised by syncopation, rhythm and improvisation.
A set of sharp or flat symbols placed next to the time signature on the staff to tell the performer which key the piece is in.
The most common of the diatonic scales. A major interval is one half-step larger than a minor interval. In its simplest form; referred to as “happy”-sounding music.
A segment of time which refers to a specific number of beats.
The second most common of the diatonic scales. A minor interval is one half-step smaller than a major interval. In its most basic form, referred to as “sad”-sounding music.
A pattern of letters that assists in remembering something.
Someone who has chosen to study music at the university level.
The act of practising without consciously thinking about and analysing what the player is doing.
A symbol representing a musical sound.
A curly “flick” to the right of a note indicating that it is worth a smaller number of beats.
The part of the note that sits on the staff and tells the player which pitch to play.
The line that goes up or down from the note head. If necessary it contains the flag.
A series of twelve half-steps.
A keyboard instrument whereby the sound is generated by blowing air through pipes.
The three foot-levers on a piano that alter the sound. The right-most pedal extends the sound, the middle pedal does a number of different things and the left-most pedal softens the sound.
Refers to the physical requirements of being able to play a piece.
In its simplest form, a musical work that has been created for others to play. Also incorrectly referred to as a “song.”
Short for “popular” music, a genre of music characterised by tuneful melody and accessibility to the general public. Emerged in 1950s USA and UK.
Evolved from the earlier “rock and roll” style of music popularised in the 1950s. Characterised by the use of electric guitar, drums and bass guitar.
The act of practicing the piano deliberately and consciously to more effectively identify mistakes and trouble spots. Also referred to as “deliberate” practice.
The act of playing the piano privately in order to improve. Can involve revision of material taught in piano lessons.
A lever on an acoustic piano that will drop a piece of felt between the hammers and the strings to reduce the volume level.
A note that lasts for one beat.
A musical concept where five notes are played in a space that would normally accommodate only two.
The act of translating written sheet music into audible form.
Adjustment of all the parts in a piano so that they operate evenly and uniformly.
The number of pieces one can play at any given time.
The phenomenon that occurs when strings on a piano resonate at their fundamental or overtone frequencies when other strings are sounded.
A symbol that instructs the player not to play for a given amount of time.
Can refer to several things; the basic pulse of the music (see “beat”), a pattern repeated throughout the music, or a pattern of a small group of notes.
Any set of notes ordered by frequency or pitch.
A musical concept where five notes are played in a space that would normally accommodate only two.
A symbol that raises the pitch of the note immediately to the left of the symbol by one half-step.
The art of being able to immediately play a piece of music that one has never seen before.
App-based piano learning method. Similar to Flowkey.
App-based piano learning method. Similar to Flowkey.
A note that lasts one quarter of one beat.
Teleconferencing tool owned by Microsoft. Can be used for video calls and teaching piano remotely.
A set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that represent different musical pitches.
Long pieces of steel wire that are stretched tightly over the cast iron frame of a piano. When they are struck by a hammer, they vibrate and produce a sound.
Method of learning piano that is characterised by its emphasis on musical absorption and mimicking the sequence of language-learning.
A term used to denote pianists who ignore musical and technical mistakes in their practice, and do not stop to correct them.
The speed at which music is played.
A curved line connecting two notes of the same pitch, indicating they are to be played as a single note.
A notation convention used to specify the number of beats in each measure and which note value equals one beat.
The quality of the sound produced by the piano, and whether the overall sound is appropriate for the music being played.
Also known as the “G” clef, usually indicating that the music is to be played with the right hand. Denotes a higher pitch of music, hence the name “treble.”
Known as the “F” clef, usually indicates that the music is to be played with the left hand. Denotes a lower pitch of music, hence the name “bass.”
A musical device where three equal notes are inserted into a space that would only usually accommodate two equal notes.
A brass instrument including a sliding mechanism that the player uses to control the pitch of the instrument.
The act of changing the tension of the strings inside a piano so that the musical intervals between the strings are in tune.
An acoustic piano whereby the soundboard and plane of the strings run vertically rather than horizontally to the keyboard.
The act of adjusting the density of the felt covering the piano’s hammers in order to change the brightness or mellowness of the instrument’s tone.
A note that lasts for four beats.
Also referred to as a semitone. Consists of two half-steps; ⅙ of an octave.