Keeper of the Keys: A Beginner’s Guide to Piano

The first piano was invented in 1700 in Florence, Italy, by harpsichord craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori. Since that time, the piano has become the staple of Western music, played by some of the greatest musicians throughout history, from Beethoven and Bach to Ray Charles and Elton John. The piano also became a foundational instrument for music theory and education. Whether you want to become the next piano virtuoso or add a new compositional tool to your arsenal, here are some beginning tips to help you navigate your way through the world of piano.

Understanding Theory

piano player
Some musicians may roll their eyes and prepare their yawns when they hear the word “theory,” but theory is a necessary part of any musician’s education. Theory puts music into a standard language and improves your abilities to read and perform music. If you plan to compose your own pieces, learning more advanced theory is a must. For now, let’s look at some basic elements of music theory.

Notes – There are 12 basic notes. These 12 notes are comprised of 7 natural notes, which are represented by the letters A through G, and 5 sharp or flat notes, which are represented by the sharp symbol (#) and flat symbol (b) next to a natural note. Some notes have different names (e.g., A# and Bb below) but sound the same and are played the same way. Therefore, A# and Bb are two different names for the same note. These kinds of notes are called enharmonics. The 12 basic notes are:

  • A
  • A#/Bb
  • B
  • C
  • C#/Db
  • D
  • D#/Eb
  • E
  • F
  • F#/Gb
  • G
  • G#/Ab

As you can see, when you reach a G, you loop back to A. On a piano, the white keys are natural notes, while the black keys are the sharps and flats.

  • Middle C – C is the base note for most instruments. For piano, middle C (also known as C4) is the starting point for most songs and acts as the divider for notes played with the left hand and notes played with the right hand.
  • Octaves – An octave is a progression of eight notes. Pressing eight successive keys on a piano gives you an octave.
  • Scales – A scale is a collection of notes played in proper order. The most fundamental scale is the chromatic scale, which involves all twelve notes. For example, to play the chromatic scale, you would play all 12 basic notes in the order they are listed above. As a pianist, it’s a good idea to at least know the minor and major scales in the more popular keys (C, G, F).

Don’t worry if this is confusing. Putting these ideas into practice on the piano will make a world of difference! Try using our handy infographic about music theory basics as a reference sheet.

Striking the Right Chord

Chords comprise three or more harmonious notes played together at once. They are a basic unit of music and, on the piano, form the building blocks for musical sound. There are several different types of chords, including

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Chromatic
  • Pentatonic
  • Dorian
  • Diminished

Most basic chords appear as a triad, which consists of three notes:

  • The first note is the root.
  • The second note is 4 half-steps higher than the root note.
  • The third note is 3 half-steps higher than the second.

As useful as chords are, it’s better to learn the notes first as all chords are built using the notes on a scale. For example, let’s take the F major scale, which is comprised of these notes: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F.

Following the triad rules, an F major chord would be F, A, C, but we can go even further than that. If you go one step up to the G and play that triad (G, Bb, D), you get a G minor chord. Start with the A (A, C, E) and you get an A minor chord.

Posture and Motion

Your body’s position has a direct effect on how you play, from clarity of sound to general comfort. While you should feel free to experiment with your body position to determine what works best for your specific body shape and playing style, here are some basic tips for maintaining good posture at the piano.

  • Sit in the middle of the bench instead of all the way back. This forces your back to naturally stay straight when you play.
  • Your head, neck, and shoulders should all line up with the base of your spine.
  • Adjust the bench so that your hips stay level with your knees. This keeps the weight off your lower back and on your legs and feet instead.
  • Keep your feet below or slightly in front of your knees, not curled under your body.
  • Your knees should be in line with your hips.
  • Your shoulders should be relaxed and down.
  • Just moving your elbows a few inches forward should be enough to reach the keys. If you find yourself straining to reach the keys, move your body or your bench closer to the piano.

Once you have your posture down, it’s time to get your movements right. Although your fingers are what make contact with the keys, most of the power comes from your entire arm moving as one unit. Your arm muscles and torso propel that unit. When starting out, think of playing as simply dropping your fingers on the keys and let your arms and gravity do most of the work.

Everyday Practice Tips

The best way to improve in your piano-playing abilities is to practice, but there is a right way to practice.

  • Keep your practices short. We all have our own limits, but 40 to 60 minutes is the ideal length for any practice session. Any longer and you’ll find your concentration keysdipping and your frustration rising. For kids, you may want to shorten that practice time even further, or break practice into two or three separate sessions.
  • Keep it simple. The simpler the exercise, the more time you spend concentrating on your hands, fingers, and playing, instead of worrying about the exercise. Practice simple scales and arpeggios and consult your music teacher for some exercises to get your fingers moving and your mind thinking about new techniques.
  • Practice away from the piano. Just because you’re away from your piano doesn’t mean you can’t practice your fingerings and dexterity. Place your right hand on a table or your knee. Keeping your thumb pressed down, push the table or your thigh with your first and fourth finger, then switch to your third and fifth finger. Alternate these thirds until you can control the movement consistently.
  • Practice slowly. There’s no need to rush. Practice at a slow tempo until you’re familiar with the notes. Then gradually increase your speed.
  • Don’t look at your hands too much, especially when you’re still learning a piece. When you stare at your hands, you learn the piece with mistakes, instead of learning the sheet music. If you struggle with this, have your teacher or a family member hold a book or piece of paper over your hands so you can’t look down at them.

Notable Pianists

One of the best ways to improve as a pianist is to listen to others. Listen widely, across all genres, cultures, and time periods. Here are a few piano players to get you started:

  • Frederic Chopin – The classical composer is recognized as one of the greatest Romantic composers in history, linking restless harmonies with poetically expressive melodies in technically demanding pieces. Listen to a full collection of his nocturnes.
  • Martha Argerich – Born in Buenos Aires, Argerich began studying piano at the age of five with Vincenso Scaramuzza. Her repertoire includes an expansive range of classical composers, from Ravel and Prokofiev to Lutoslawski and Messiaen. Listen to her interpretation of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.
  • Art Tatum – Despite his impaired vision—blindness in one eye and partial sight in the other, Art Tatum became one of history’s most legendary jazz pianists. Tatum displayed amazing technique, particularly with high speed pieces, though he had no trouble slowing things down for more relaxed, down-tempo ballads. Listen to him play “Tiger Rag.”
  • Yann Tiersen – Tiersen is a multi-instrumentalist known for creating the score to the film Amelie. His music is filled with whimsy and grace, mixing French folk, chanson, street music, waltz, rock, and countless other genres. While he is a multi-instrumentalist, Tiersen displays an amazing combination of fun and melancholy in his piano pieces. Listen to some of his best piano compositions.

Playing the piano is a ton of fun, and it’s a great way to learn theory in a visual, practical way. It’s never too late to learn, so whether you’re looking for a new hobby or exploring new musical avenues, stretch those fingers and get ready to tickle the ivories!


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-“Piano” by Dr J Clarke is licensed under CC BY 2.0