Few musical instruments are as elegant and versatile as the piano. Ever since it was created in the mid-1600s, this gorgeous instrument has given countless people a way to express themselves, stimulate their minds, and appreciate the beauty that music can hold. Not to mention: Classical piano compositions have played key roles in shaping humanity’s various cultures into what we know today!
Learning how to play piano might seem intimidating after you’ve just listened to a professional pianist give a stunning performance of one of Chopin’s masterpieces. However, you should always remember that even the masters had to start somewhere, and you can learn to play the piano yourself with dedication and hard work.
If you’re ready to start learning how to play the piano, take a look at these suggestions for how to play the piano in nine easy steps!
Learning How To Play Piano Step by Step
1. Learn Your Notes and Musical Keys
Piano notes are the foundation of excellent piano playing! Just as you have to learn your letters before you can write complete words and enjoy a good story, you must learn your musical notes before you can learn to play a beautiful song.
One great trick you can try out is to say or sing the name of each note while you play it. This will help you build a mental bridge between the note’s name and sound. Honing this skill to the best of your ability will give you an invaluable leg up when the time comes to sight read as you play!
Another surefire way to get well-acquainted with musical notes is to obtain a set of musical flash cards. Shuffle through them at various points throughout the day and test yourself on how many notes you remember. Study them in different environments to help brand them into your long-term memory. When you can consistently name them all without any mistakes, then graduate to testing yourself on speed! The faster and more accurately you can read musical notes, the more effectively you’ll be able to play the piano–even when it comes down to sheet music for songs you’ve never heard before.
Also, remember to switch things up. Don’t just learn notes in succession as they scale up: Learn to recognize them independently and at random as well. You don’t want to find yourself unable to recognize the sound of a B unless you hear A and C on either side of it to jog your memory!
Alongside learning the individual notes, you’ll need to study up on playing in specific keys. To start with the basics: Whichever key your octaves or scales begin and end on is the key you’re playing in. Many simple pieces designed to help beginners get a feel for playing in different keys will also line up your right hand so that your thumb is on the key you’re in. That means that if you’re playing in the key of D then your thumb will be right on the D key, giving you a straightforward starting point for your melody.
Each key also comes in several different varieties. The key variations that most people are likely to be familiar with are major and minor. Major keys generally sound more cheerful or lively, while minor keys tend to be interpreted as melancholy or ominous. When a song has become familiar to you, trying to play both major and minor variations of it. Take note of how the key shift changes the mood of the song. Compare E Major with e minor, and do the same for every other key until you get a feel for the differences in sound.
As your playing becomes more advanced and you start to probe deeper into the world of music, you’ll find that these can be broken down even further into natural, harmonic, and melodic keys as well! But for now, just make sure you’re comfortable starting out with major and minor in each key.
2. Practice Your Scales
Scales provide another great opportunity for you to build a strong association in your brain between the name of the notes and how they sound. Once you learn the sound and the name of each note individually, practicing scales will help you get a feel for how the notes flow with one another when they climb or descend in pitch.
A great basis for comparison here is the iconic scene from the movie classic The Sound of Music. Listen to how Julie Andrews sings the scale “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do!” and follow along. You can also bring in your tactic of singing the notes’ names while you play them, octave by octave. Don’t hesitate to experiment: A varied and well-rounded approach to learning is the most likely to help you build up an applicable set of skills!
Make sure you remember to practice your piano scales with both hands simultaneously after you’ve gotten comfortable playing them with only one hand. Practicing scales with one hand will help you begin to train your ear one note at a time and ease into the basic familiarity you need to have with each octave. Practicing with both hands will help improve your coordination so that you can keep your hands in perfect sync.
Playing simultaneous scales with both hands is also important when it comes to recognizing the same notes at different pitches. For instance, it takes some people a lot of time to recognize the similarity between a high C and low C! Learning to recognize the same note at different pitches will help you avoid losing track of your melodies and more complex harmonies later on.
Something else to keep in mind is that, even when you move on to more advanced playing, it’s always good to warm up your fingers before a long practice session. Scales are perfect for this! You’ll undoubtedly find that, if you take a few extra minutes and play some familiar scales, your fingers will feel more limber and you’ll make fewer mistakes. This might seem unimportant, but it can make or break your level of frustration when practicing more difficult songs. A little bit of warming up goes a long way in improving your dexterity and helping you stay motivated to practice.
3. Familiarize Yourself With Black and White Piano Keys
In order to learn the piano thoroughly, you’ll have to learn how to navigate the white and black piano keys effectively. The primary thing you want to keep in mind here is that each white key is a whole step, and each black key is a half-step. The half-steps to black keys are formally known as sharps and flats.
Sharps and flats are invaluable in the development of rich, captivating piano music! They add an extra layer of interest and intricacy to a melody, and some people find that they take a bit of extra practice to learn. The interesting part is that each black key serves as both a sharp and a flat, and which one it’s called depends on whether it’s being named relative to the white key above or below it.
A black key that’s a half-step up from the note in question is called a sharp, and a half-step down is called a flat. An easy way to remember this is that sharps are always located to the right of the corresponding white key. Flats are always to the left, as if you’re “flattening” the note down to a slightly deeper pitch.
Most of the time, you won’t need to worry about sharps and flats when you’re playing very basic songs in a major key. However, when your chords get more complex and you begin to experiment with minor keys, sharps and flats will come into play more often.
4. Get Comfortable With Chords
Speaking of chords, they’re the next natural step once you learn the individual notes and get comfortable with scales! Some new piano players find chords to be intimidating, but there’s really no need to stress over them. While it initially might seem complicated to group notes together and play several keys at once, it will soon become second nature after a bit of dedication and practice.
Let’s start with the basic definition of a chord: Chords are generally defined as three or more notes played simultaneously. A great deal of the time, especially in beginner-level piano pieces, chords will be played with your left hand, leaving your right hand to play the melody.
There are all kinds of different chords that depend on which key you’re playing in. You will learn to play major and minor chords first and eventually advance to augmented and diminished chords as well. When you’re just starting out, it’ll probably feel least overwhelming to begin with some simple major and minor chords. Explore the depth that chords add to your playing and take note of how they develop each key to make the song more complete.
Major and minor keys, along with all their different forms, come back to play a huge part in how you form chords as well! For example, minor keys bring in sharps and flats that can make a piece sound completely different. Play major and minor variations of the same chord back-to-back so that you become very familiar with how they compare.
If you find yourself struggling with chords, remember that it’s always a great idea to get a reference book to have on hand. Just keep in mind that learning is a highly personal journey. If you prefer to learn chords in a different order than they’re presented in a book, then that’s totally fine! Part of the beauty of teaching yourself to play music is that you have much more flexibility in terms of which path you take to reach your ideal results. All you have to do is commit yourself to whatever learning style suits you best and practice diligently.
5. Keep Time And Feel The Rhythm
Getting used to keeping perfect time is imperative when developing your skills as a piano player. The rhythm of any musical piece is core to its effectiveness and plays a huge role in making a song recognizable. Nothing will throw off your practice session or dismantle your performance like wonky timing that jumbles a once-familiar song into an uncomfortable mess.
Bear in mind that the tempo is just as important as uniform timing, and you’ll need to practice your music at varying speeds in order to learn thoroughly. In order to get a better feel for the piece you’re learning, try playing it and counting at different speeds. Just make sure you spend the most time of all practicing it exactly as it’s written so that you’re reinforcing the right way to play!
Many pianists recommend the use of a metronome to learn to keep time. This handy little tool can be set to varying speeds to click in a uniform manner so that you have a flawless point of reference for your rhythm. A metronome is, essentially, an auditory ruler that helps you make sure you’re counting accurately while you play. Metronomes are also generally quite affordable to purchase online, making it easy to start practicing in perfect time.
An important thing to keep in mind in case counting starts to feel tedious is that you have to learn the rules thoroughly before you can bend them. Drawing out the perfect note at just the right point in a song can make it swell with emotion and stir your audience like never before. However, artistic expression through timing must be done will skill and finesse in order to be effective–so keep counting!
6. Practice With Sheet Music . . .
There’s no way around it: The ability to read and play from sheet music reliably and accurately is essential as a musician. Learning to read sheet music well will also help you naturally stretch your limits by enabling you to learn progressively harder songs.
Just as you have to train your ear to attune to the rhythm of different tempos, it’s important to train your eye to see and recognize those same rhythms in sheet music. When you build the strong associations needed to know how a song will sound when you look at the sheet music, you’ll be able to make it around the learning curve of each new song much faster!
In addition to practicing a variety of different rhythms in order to teach yourself how to recognize them on the page, you’ll want to experiment with different musical styles as well. Switch things up and throw yourself some curveballs! Try practicing a classical piece for a while, and then switch to an old ragtime melody and finish off with some slow jazz or something gentle and dreamlike. Each piece will teach you something different that you can put to good use.
7. . . . And Practice Without it, Too!
There is a lot to be said for learning to play the piano by ear as well as by sight reading sheet music. While you should never neglect sheet music or sight reading during your practice sessions, the ability to learn music by ear shouldn’t be neglected either.
On top of allowing you to listen to your favorite songs and then try them out for yourself, playing by ear is a great way to fine-tune your musical senses. The more you practice learning and playing by ear, the more confidence you’ll get in your ability to tell when something sounds “off.” This skill will enable you to catch any mistakes early on while you’re reading music: If a note sounds out of place, check again to make sure you’re reading correctly!
Many pianists also find that, once they’ve built themselves a solid musical foundation with sheet music, playing by ear simply allows them to feel the music better. Without the visual distraction of notes on a page or the rigid constraints that come with each measure, you may find that your passion for music flows much more freely! After all, music is all about striking the perfect balance between practiced precision and freedom of expression.
8. Learn The Appropriate Italian Musical Terms
If you want to get serious about learning to play the piano, then it’s time to learn Italian! Well, maybe not the entire language–but you will need to build up a solid mental library of the key musical terms. Alongside dictating the tempo, plenty of Italian words and short phrases specify what type of mood or feeling you should put into the music when you play the song.
The Italian terms for the tempo and softness or aggression of the music will often change throughout the piece, especially if you’re learning classical pieces. For this reason, it’s imperative that you learn to recognize the Italian words quickly and apply their meanings on a dime. Those little interjections throughout the piece will act as your guide and teach you how to bring out the best in every song. And, who knows: You might write your own music someday as well, and if you do, you’ll want to have a thorough knowledge of all the subtleties that make a piano piece truly great!
Let’s go over a few of the simplest music-related Italian words and what they mean for your piano playing. There are far more to learn and it will be well worth your resources to get an in-depth guide to keep with your sheet music, but for now you can start with a few introductory terms.
Adagio means to play leisurely and with ease.
Allegro means that you should play the notes in a quick, lively, and bright manner.
Andante means that you’ll play with a moderate tempo and a smooth flow between notes.
Other Italian terms in piano music address more technical aspects of a piece. For instance, al fine means “to the end” and dictates that you will apply a specified mood or style to the remainder of the piece. Al niente means “to nothing,” and signifies that you’ll play more and more softly until the music fades gently into silence.
As mentioned before, there are far too many Italian musical terms to list here! It will take some time to familiarize yourself with all of them, but the efforts will be rewarding when you hear your playing take on a whole new level of expression–even when you’re sight reading and playing a piece for the very first time.
9. Look Into Taking Structured Lessons
Everyone’s learning style is different, and it’s important to ask yourself what’s right for you. If you crave interaction and choose to invest in professional piano lessons, then you’re bound to see your skills improve by leaps and bounds! Putting forth the time and money to visit with a good teacher can make all the difference in the world as they point out the areas where you need the most practice and help you fine-tune your playing.
However, if you don’t want to spend much money on piano tutoring or prefer to learn alone, then there is a wealth of information available online for self-guided learning! You can learn to play the piano during your downtime without ever needing to leave home by availing yourself of online videos and tutorials. Many online sources are free, and there are more polished online courses available for reasonable prices as well.
Another great option is learning through structured courses with online teachers. Many piano students feel that this option offers the best of both worlds by providing interactive learning and personalized feedback alongside the convenience of at-home learning. If you have trouble keeping track of your calendar or setting aside time to practice, then the extra motivation of checking in with an online teacher could be exactly what you need to stick with it, too!
Learning how to play piano might seem complicated and difficult when you’re just starting out, but it’s completely doable. Learning anything can feel overwhelming if you get in over your head. But if you take things slowly and make sure you learn each step thoroughly before moving on to the next, you’ll be in good shape!
Start out with fundamentals such as learning the letters that correspond to each piano note and familiarizing yourself with the various keys you’ll be playing in. Say the keys aloud while you play, and experiment with simple variations of basic practice songs to see how they sound.
When you feel comfortable with basic notes and keys, practice your scales. Learn how the notes sound when you travel up and down each octave. After that, the next exciting step will be to start practicing chords! You’ll discover a whole new depth to your music when you learn how to group notes together into the proper chords for each piece. Experiment with major and minor versions of chords.
Don’t forget to keep careful time while you practice, using a metronome if needed! Timing is crucial to effective piano playing. Practice playing piano both with and without sheet music so that you build a strong ability to sight read and hone your ear as well. As you graduate to more complex pieces, take note of the Italian terms that guide the mood and energy you’ll put into each measure.
Lastly, if you give the self-taught approach a solid try and feel stuck, don’t hesitate to look into lessons! You can take piano lessons independently by watching tutorials and conducting extra research on your own if you like. You can also look into meeting with a teacher in person or getting guidance online. It’s all up to you. All you have to do is apply yourself to your studies and practice hard!
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