Learning to play piano is more like a journey than a destination. For some people it can take a year or more of practice to become proficient. Others can pick it up fairly quickly. Playing the piano for beginners is really all about knowing how to read notes, keys and chords. Along with understanding how a piano works and a good deal of practice, you will also need to prepare your body to do something it’s not used to doing. Today’s discussion will be about the basics of learning the piano. This will be based on the grand staff for the piano. We’ll also discover how to read notes and the actual parts of the piano as well as how they work, as well as discuss some muscle memory exercises to get you started down the road to actually playing. Ready?
How to learn to play the piano
Learning to read sheet music
Learning the piano begins with knowing which key to hit and when. That’s where reading music comes in. Many of us can’t necessarily afford a real piano right away, so we recommend looking into buying a MIDI keyboard, digital piano, or even a synthesizer if you’re able.
Although I personally learned at first by just hitting keys and remembering what sounding good and the sequence I needed to press them, reading sheet music is really not that hard once you know what it is you’re actually looking at. Starting with the staff, you’ll see 5 horizontal lines on the top, a space and 5 lines on the bottom with 4 spaces between each line per set and a brace on the left side connecting them. Since sheet music is read from left to right and line to line just like a western book, all of the initial information you need to know is right there next to the brace. The clefs are the first symbols you read and tell you the pitch range. Since this is learning the piano for beginners, we will try not to venture too far into the forest of music theory. First though, you should understand that the treble is played on the piano with the right hand and the bass is played with the left hand. Therefore, the treble clef on the top tells you where to place your right hand to start and the bass clef on the bottom tells you where your left hand starts. The treble clef contains all of the high notes and the bass clef contains all of the lower notes.
With that in mind, we’ll start with the “G” clef (or Treble Clef) which is called the “G” clef because it looks like the cursive letter G and tells you where the “G” note starts. The way the treble clef works is that the lower part of the G that looks like a spiral shows exactly which note the right hand starts on. The “F” clef (or Bass Clef) is called the “F” clef because it looks like an F and shows you where the “F” note is located. The line between the two dots on the “F” clef shows exactly where the left hand should be placed. Seems pretty obvious now that you look at them doesn’t it? Now, the next thing you’ll notice are the little symbols that look like oval dots. Those are called note heads and each note head is placed exactly on the staff where it corresponds to a key on the piano. The space between the 2nd and third lines on the treble clef is “C”, but the same space between the 2nd and third lines on the bass clef is actually “E”. This is because the spaces and lines represent different notes in each clef.
What this means to you as the beginner is that reading sheet music becomes a memorization exercise. Typically this is done through some sort of mnemonic. One of the most common ones is “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. What this does when you memorize it, is allow you to remember the 5 lines of the treble clef (E-G-B-D-F) which leave the 4 spaces in between as “FACE” or (F-A-C-E). For the bass clef it’s “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always”, or (G-B-D-F-A) which leaves “All Cows Eat Grass” or (A-C-E-G) for the spaces in between. As you climb up the keys, you will also notice that you are also climbing up the staff.
So how do you read the notes that don’t fit onto the staff? Here’s where it gets a bit weird. Ledger lines are the small lines that appear above, below or through the note heads that don’t fit onto the staff. All they really do is tell you which key to strike and they work just like the staff without actually adding a whole new line to the staff. For example, on the bass staff if you wanted to write the note for the very first key on the piano, (the far left white key “A”) then you would draw seven of the small ledger lines below the bass staff and place the note head on top of the lowest line (between the sixth and seventh lines). For the next white key up on the piano (“B”), you would draw six lines and place the note head with the sixth line through it (remember that each note on the staff goes from below the line, to on the line, to the top of the next line). Then you would continue decreasing the number of ledger lines for each note until you reach the staff where you don’t have to add any more lines. When you reached the top of the treble staff you would repeat the process with the ledger lines in the opposite direction (going up). It really is like a reflection, with the bass ledger lines getting smaller as the note gets higher, then as you pass middle “C” the treble notes go up from there.
Okay, so when learning how to play piano, reading the treble staff and the bass staff as a sheet of music, you will notice that sometimes the notes are in the same vertical plane on both. All that means is that they are played together simultaneously. Learning to play piano also involves knowing the black keys on the piano. Before we can really understand them, we must have an understanding of accidentals. The accidentals on the staff are called a sharp and a flat and they are always written right before the note. Sharps change the note upwards and flats change the note downwards. The sharp looks like a hashtag and the flat looks like a “b” so if you were to read the bass “A” and it had the hashtag (#) in front of it, you would strike the black key right above the “A” to the right (because remember the scale goes up and down with the pitch) for “A sharp”. If you were to see the little “b” in front of “A” you would strike the key above and to the left for “A flat”. Here’s where the accidental part comes in. If you were to strike the “A flat” and then try to strike the “G sharp” notes, you would find yourself pushing the same key twice. This is called enharmonic equivalents and it occurs whenever you have two notes that sound the same but are written differently. What you should also take note of is that all the way down the piano, there is no black key between the “B” and “C” notes and the “E” and “F” notes. This makes an “F flat” the same as “E” and “E sharp” the same as an “F”. The same applies to the “B” and “C” keys on the piano. Sharps and Flats at the very beginning of the staff affects everything in that key signature.
Learning the parts of the piano
Playing the piano for beginners also includes a tour of the piano itself. For this explanation we will use the grand piano for our model. The Grand Piano has been around for more than 300 years now, and is usually used in concert halls. You may see some popular musicians use these pianos during their concerts too. The first part we will discuss is the lid. The lid is the main cover for the piano and is used to reverberate the sound from inside toward the crowd and keep dust from gathering on the strings. Inside you will find the strings that are attached to a heavy cast-iron frame. The strings are pulled very tight, thinner and shorter toward the treble side and thicker and longer as you go down toward the bass side. The keys used to be made of ebony and ivory, but as hunting began to take its’ toll there had to be an alternative. The result is plastic keys on the piano. When the key is struck there is a chain reaction that results in three strings being struck all at the same time, although that’s not the case for every key. For example the higher notes hit three strings, the middle notes hit two strings and the lowest notes only hit one.
When the hammer strikes the strings there are several things happening that is called the “piano action”. It’s a complicated process of levers and jacks that control the power of the hammer which releases the damper. The damper sits on the strings to keep them quiet and when it is lifted, the string is allowed to vibrate and the sound is produced. The highest notes don’t have a damper because they don’t need one. The sound goes away so fast that there’s no point to having one. The foot pedals are another item that you will need to understand to learn how to play piano. There are three pedals on a grand piano, some different types of pianos have only two and still others only have one. Each pedal has a different function. The left pedal is called the “Una Corda” pedal, also more commonly known as the “soft pedal”. When you press the soft pedal what you’ll notice is that the keys all shift slightly to the right. What this does is move the dampers over so that instead of striking all three strings, it only strikes one creating a softer sound. The middle pedal is called the “Sostenuto” pedal.
Some songs have notes that have to stay playing for long periods of time. If you strike a key without pressing any pedals the sound occurs, but if you keep the key held down the sound goes away. The way the Sostenuto pedal works is you press and hold down the keys to the notes that you want to hold and press the pedal. Now when you release the keys the dampers hold those notes open for you so when you strike those same keys again they create that long, beautiful note you associate with the piano. The right pedal is called the “Damper” or sustain pedal. The “Damper” pedal controls all of the dampers at once by raising them when you hold the pedal down, allowing you to extend the notes until you release the pedal.
Muscle memory and piano playing exercises
As a beginner, learning how to play the piano comes with its own set of challenges. Most people don’t have the finger dexterity needed right off the bat to be able to sustain a long, grinding session at the piano. In order to become proficient, you must practice properly in order to be comfortable and develop the skills needed for this demanding instrument. With that in mind, let’s go over a few simple exercises to train your muscles to get in shape to play the piano. First up is actually sitting at the piano. You should be in an upright position without any slouching. This will keep you from getting a sore neck and back as a result of hours of practice. Make sure you can comfortably press the pedals without having to reach or shift your weight around to get to them. Now relax your shoulders and slowly bring your arms up with your hands relaxed like a T-Rex. There should be a nice arch to your hands and the wrists should be relaxed. Find the two black keys in the middle of the piano (if you aren’t sure just count the sets of two black keys from the left side of the piano, the fourth set is the one you’re looking for).
Now we are going to count your fingers, the thumb is number one, the index is two, the middle finger is number three and so on. Do this for both hands. You should end up with one through five on each hand starting with the thumb on each as number one. It should literally take you two seconds. Take the thumb (number one) on your right hand and slide down the black key on the left of the two you found earlier. When you reach the end of the black key, slide it off to the left onto the white key, that key is the middle “C”. Without tightening your wrist place the other fingers on your right hand on the next corresponding white keys until you have every finger on a different key. Now we will go up and down the scale, press these fingers in order: one, two-three, four, five, five, four, three, two and one. Repeat this process 10 times. It should start slow, precise and comfortable without tensing up.
As you improve, you can go faster and faster as long as you keep your wrist relaxed. It may seem simple and boring, but this is the core of creating muscle memory for your fingers. Moving on to the left hand, find the third set of two black keys from before. Place your number five-finger on your left hand on the farthest left black key and slide it down just like earlier. Slide it off the black key to the white key on the left and now you’re on the bass “C” note. Repeat the exact same exercise from the right hand with your left hand now. 10 times up and back, keeping a good arch on the hands and the wrists relaxed. Training is not just for muscles, it’s also for your brain. Now we’re going to put that to the test with your first challenge. Place both hands on the keys in the same places that you did for your earlier exercises. This one may be hard at first, but with practice it will become easier and fun later.
So here we go. Follow this order on both hands: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. This exercise will be the easy one. Practice this order 10-15 times until it becomes comfortable. Remember, the wrists and shoulders should remain relaxed and a good arch should be in the hands. Now we find out how connected your left brain is to your right brain by changing the order of the fingers. The numbers will work like this, the left hand number, then the right hand number, then the left hand number, then the right hand number and so on. Play them together, so if I say “15”, then that means to strike with the 1st finger on the left hand and the 5th finger on the right. Ready? Okay, here’s the next exercise: 15, 24, 33, 42, 51, 51, 42, 33, 24 and 15. How did it go?
Concluding how to learn the piano
Playing the piano for beginners is all about understanding the notes, knowing where to put your fingers and when to strike the keys. At its’ core, that’s all playing the piano really is. It will take many hours of practice, perhaps hundreds. In the end though, learning the piano is not about talent, it’s about determination.