“Piano Man” by Billy Joel is an excellent tune to show off your skills at the keys and impress your friends.
It’s the perfect party song that everyone can sing along to, and the great news is it’s not all that hard to learn!
Just follow the simple steps below and you’ll be jamming on “Piano Man” anywhere from your living room to the local open mic night.
The Key of C
The first thing to learn is the key signature of the song, which makes understanding the rest of the chords much simpler. Fortunately for beginners – and for simplicity’s sake in general – this song is originally performed in the key of C. All this means is that the “home” note, or the note that would be “Do” in the scale, is C.
You can find C on your piano by looking at the black keys. As you’ll notice, these black keys come in sets of two and three. If you go to the white key directly to the left of one of these sets of two, you’ll be playing a C. The C in the center of the keyboard is called middle C, and this is an excellent register for you to play your chords; it’ll allow them to sound clear and full without being piercingly high.
The great thing about the key of C is there are no sharps or flats! This means that you don’t have to worry about the black keys at all, unless there are accidentals. An accidental in music is when a note is played that breaks away from the notes in the scale of the key you’re playing in. Since C has no sharps or flats, you can play an entire C major scale just by playing all the white keys starting and ending with C.
There is one chord in this song that breaks away from the standard C major scale, we’ll worry about that later. For now, just remember that you’ll be sticking to the white keys to make things easier for yourself.
The time signature or meter of a song is simply the way that the rhythm of the tune is organized. It’s what allows you to count out the beats in a way that creates a consistent pattern. Many songs are in 4/4 time, which means each measure is four beats long, but “Piano Man” is one of the exceptions to this rule.
Instead, there are three beats in each measure because the song is in what’s called 3/4 time. All that you need to know about this time signature is that you’ll be counting to three over and over again to keep time. Since most of us can count to three already, you don’t actually have to learn anything new to keep perfect time in this great song.
It’s important to understand this basic concept of counting in time so you’ll be able to play the chords in time with the melody of the lyrics. It’s also the way to capture the original feel of the song. If you start playing without having the correct meter in mind, you might have a hard time recognizing the song you’re trying to play because there will be extra beats where there shouldn’t be.
You can practice getting the feel for 3/4 time simply by counting “1, 2, 3” to yourself repeatedly at a steady tempo. Once you’ve gotten the hang of that, try emphasizing the “1” so that it feels more like the first beat of a measure.
After you’ve mastered your “1, 2, 3” on your own, it’s helpful to listen to the song and count along. Do you notice the beats falling into place more naturally? It should feel somewhat like a waltz and might even make you want to sway along to the beat. In fact, moving around a little bit can be a big help when trying to hold down the tempo, so don’t hold back! Once you have the feel of 3/4 time, it’s much easier to play through the whole song without losing this feel and accidentally reverting to 4/4 time.
To start, let’s list the piano chords that make up the verses for quick reference. From there, we’ll go over each chord individually and break down the verses into smaller sections to make it easier to practice. The key to learning any song is repetition, so the more you’re able to parse out these sections and play them over and over, the better you’ll get at playing with accuracy and ease.
If you’d like to watch a video that makes this easy as well, here’s a great one:
C | G | F | C
F | C | D | G
C | G | F | C
F | G | C | G
As you can see, there are only four chords total that make up the verses. If this seems intimidating at first, remember that you can tackle each of them one at a time and learn at your own pace.
Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the notes that make up each of the chords. These three-note chords are known as triads and are quite simple to play on piano because, in the case of the key of C, they are simply white keys with one white key separating each one. In other words, you’ll be starting with the root note – the note that’s in the name of the chord – and playing every other key above it for the other two notes.
C: C, E, G
G: G, B, D
F: F, A, C
D: D, F#, A
For example, to play the C chord, start with your right-hand thumb on the C key – which, as we covered earlier, is the white key directly to the left of the set of two black keys. Moving up the keyboard to the right, skip one white key and put your middle finger on the next white key; this is your E note. Moving to the right again, skip a white key and put your pinky on the white key after that; this is the G that completes the C major triad.
Keeping your hands in this type of pattern where you’re playing each of the three notes with your thumb, middle finger, and pinky is important to build finger strength and dexterity. It might be tempting at first to spread out your thumb and index finger to play the first two notes and stretch your ring finger over for the top note, but this will only make things more difficult later down the line. If you start building these good habits now, you’ll make it much easier to change chords in a fluid and natural way. It’ll also open up more possibilities of playing passing notes in between chord changes once you’ve really mastered the progression.
The trickiest chord to master – and the only one where you have to play one of the dreaded black keys – is the D chord, which is technically not part of the C major scale. Because of the particular way it breaks away from the key signature, it gives the song a bit of an unexpected lift that keeps the melody interesting and emotional.
To play this chord, follow the same pattern you did with all the other triads, starting with your thumb on the D key. This time, you’ll move up two white keys and one black key above that; this is your F sharp, meaning it’s one half-step above F. Play this note with your middle finger, and move up two white steps to play the A with your pinky. Just like that, the hard part’s over – that’s all there is to it!
Now it’s time to work on moving from chord to chord in time. Start by practicing one chord change at a time at least three times in a row. Once you build up enough muscle memory, you’ll find your hands naturally move to the right place on the keyboard without even having to look. Make sure to keep counting to three for each chord so that you’re giving enough time for the singer to get all the words in.
If you’re starting to feel like you’ve got the hang of these changes at a slower tempo, you can start building up the speed until you’ve reached the original tempo of Billy Joel’s version. Remember that it’s not a race, and you’ll learn much faster if you get the hang of it slowly instead of trying to rush through.
The next section of this tune is a bit of an in-between part that bridges the verses to the chorus, fittingly called the interlude. It’s an easy part to pick out because it’s where Billy Joel sings, “La, la, la, diddy, da.” To play this section, you only need to learn one addition chord: A minor, broken down below.
A minor: A, C, E
Am | Am | D | D
Am | Am | D | D
G | F | C | G
The exciting news about the chorus is that you’ve already learned it! The chords for the verse and the chorus are identical, so as long as you follow the same pattern, you’ve already got them both mastered.
The best part about getting these basic chords down is you can then start to play along with the original recording to see even more improvement. Practicing along with the real song will ensure that you’re playing all the right chords in time and that you’re not straying from the beat. Keep practicing and you’ll be playing just like Billy Joel in no time!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.