Where to Begin: Learn Middle C
Whenever begging something new, it’s always good to have one set starting point to work from. Out of the 88 black and white keys (standard number of piano keys) in front of you, the best starting point will be the singular note ‘Middle C’. Start out small, first learning that single note and soon moving on to short chord progression.
Learn C Major Scale
From Middle C, you’re going to learn how to play a complete ‘C Major Scale’, easy because it consists entirely of white keys. Starting at Middle C, the note directly to the right is D. Continuing to the right, you have E, F, G, A, B, then finally a return to C (this last C an octave higher than Middle C). The C Major scale can start or end on any C on the keyboard.
Scales are important musical building blocks, used to both create melodies and construct chords (chords: collection of 3+ notes, all played simultaneously).
C Major Scale: CDEFGABC
Learn a Triad & C Chord
Go back and play Middle C. Then skip a note, playing E. Skip another note, and play G. Three notes from a chord are called a Triad (because there are three notes). Now that you know them, play the notes of the C chord all at once.
F Chord & G Chord
First hit the F key, then follow the same pattern you did with the C chord, skipping a note to A, then another note to C. Playing all 3 together gives you an F chord. Using the same method to play the G, B, and D keys simultaneously gives you the G chord.
Start out playing a C chord. Keeping your first finger on the C, play an F and an A note with the other two. You’ve just played an F chord with a C on the bottom, not the top. Moving the notes around in this fashion is called ‘inverting the chord’. Taking the root note and placing it on top is another way to ‘invert the chord’. Using this method with the G chord will give you notes D, B, and G. Playing all three chords together sounds much smoother because your hands aren’t jumping all over the keyboard!
Root Notes, Musical Phrase, & Chord Progression
As you play a chord with your right hand, try to play its root note (the note the chord is named after) with your left. Try playing a C note with your left hand while simultaneously playing the C chord with your right. Do the same with F and G chords. Playing chords in order like this is called a ‘Musical Phrase’, this particular type called a Chord Progression because you’re progressing in order through a series of chords. C-F-G-C is called a 1-4-5 progression.
Root note examples: C for C chord, F for F chord, G for G chord, etc.
In previous sections, notes were given letter names. They can also be numbered. The first note of any scale (in our case, ‘C’) is called its root. Counting from B to C will get you 7, the scale repeating itself at 8 (the same note as the root). Chord progressions are often given numbers in order to easily transfer them into a scale. The 1-4-5 progression we are currently working on is made of chords based on the first, fourth, and fifth note of our C Major scale, the notes being C, F, and G. Chord progressions are often given using roman numerals.
Learn a Simple Song
Play the C chord twice, followed by an F chord, C chord twice, G chord, then finally ending with a single C chord. Try playing around with this set of chords a little bit by adding your own variations, like changing up frequency of chords or playing each individual note separately.
When you finally feel comfortable with that simple song, you can move on to experiment with simple melodies!
At first, playing a tune that actually sounds pleasing and impressive might seem complicated. Thankfully, the notes in a scale already complement each other, the notes within a chord complimenting that particular chord.
Try playing the previous song again, this time using your left hand to play the root and playing the chord with your right hand, but this time playing that chord in any order that pleases you. When you find any pattern you like, continue through the chord progression, playing your pattern of notes in combination with the notes making up the chord you’re currently playing.
In just a few short minutes, you’ve gone from staring at a random piano keyboard in confusion to:
- Learning Middle C
- Learning the C Major scale
- Picking up a few chords
- Learning chord progression
- Finally a simple song that sounds great!
As you learn additional scales and techniques, you’ll begin to be able to perform more complex pieces, your ‘bag of tools’ only growing!
Piano Chord Progressions
A piano chord progression is a series of chords that are combined together to form a pattern. For example, the chord progression in the Key of F is F, B flat, C, B Flat, and back to F.
Because chord progressions are based around Piano scales, saying a song is in the key of F means its chords are based on the F major scale. B flat is the scale’s fourth note, C is the fifth note of the chord, and the root of the scale is F.
Try playing around with the chords on your piano keyboard, putting them in any order you like that sounds good to you. Pick out individual chord notes, changing up the pattern however you like, or change up individual inversions. The more familiar with these simple piano keys you become, the better you will be!
Now, try a different set of chords from a new key this time, using E major. Like F major’s F root, the root of the E major scale is E. Hit the II chord next from the scale’s second note, F sharp minor. Continue on to play the V chord (B chord), than returning to a couple of measures of the E chord.
We haven’t used the VI chord yet. C sharp is the sixth note of the E major scale, so try playing a measure with the C sharp chord. Continue to the IV chord (an A chord), the V chord, and then back to the root chord of E.
Learn to Create Your Own Custom Chord Progressions
Though we’ve used various different chords in the last performance, all of them were still based on the scale of the key the song was in. Even though there are several common chord progressions, playing around with chords in order to become familiar with the way they sound together will eventually better prepare you to create your own custom chord progressions!
Starter Books and Teachers
First beginning to learn to play the piano can seem like a daunting task, but there is help in sight! Any number of books are easily found for general technique, both for children and adults! As you become familiar with more and more fundamentals, you can begin to increase the length and difficulty of pieces you want to play.
‘Learn and Master’ is an absolutely fantastic resource to both help you on your way and enhance your overall experience. Some other good resources are listed below:
Beginner Book Examples:
- Michael Aaron
- Faber and Faber
Teachers are also highly valuable assets, because they already know the struggles you are going through, have both made and learned from the same mistakes you might be struggling with, and know exactly how to go about playing to learn the quickest and best ways!
Proper Body & Hand Posture
Good posture is important for any type of good piano playing, and should be worked on from the very start!
Sit Up Straight
The first rule of thumb is: No Slouching. Slouching limits your keyboard mobility, bearing a negative impact on your piano playing. Slouching also doesn’t look very attractive or appealing when performing for audiences of other people. Be sure to sit up straight every piano lesson!
Keeping your elbows at a 90 degree angle is the next rule of thumb you want to follow. Setting your piano bench too far back will cause you to outstretch your elbows further. If your elbows are pushed back behind your body, your piano and bench are too close to each other. On top of these two, sitting a good distance from your piano provides full mobility and reach needed for great playing!
Naturally leaning into the piano or hunkering down as your emotions begin to flow is called artistic movement, and is perfectly acceptable! As long as you understand the basics of good posture, don’t worry about limiting self-expression!
First, ensure your hands are level with the piano. Wrists too low will give more difficulty hitting the keys properly, and wrists too high will limit the control you need. When you strike the keys, make sure you push your fingers straight down with even strength, avoiding ‘flicking’ the keys.
How Pianists Number Fingers
It may seem odd at first, but pianists number their fingers. An instructor might tell you to hit a key with your first or fifth finger; it’s important to understand the reference. Your thumb is your first finger, index finger is number two, middle finger three, ring finger four, and little finger number five.
Increasing Finger Speed
Start out with your finger exercise in C Major. With either hand you choose and using all five fingers, play the first five notes of the scale. Work your way from C to G and then back again, starting off nice and slow. Make sure the notes are all the same volume and slowly build speed over time! Make sure you move your fingers in a steady, straight down motion.
Continue on to the full F major scale, starting slowly at just one octave. Once you’re confident the notes are played steadily and evenly, begin picking up speed. You can ensure a good sense of musical timing by playing alongside a metronome!
Arpeggio Finger Exercise
Playing the individual notes of a chord instead of altogether is called an arpeggio. Play the notes of your preferred chord, working your way up the keyboard with higher and higher octaves of that chord.
No matter the methods you choose to practice finger speed, remember to start off slow and steady, slowly building speed once you are sure everything is perfect!
In 4/4 time (common time), there are four beats per measure. A whole note takes up the entire measure. There are two half notes in that measure, and four quarter notes.
Reading sheet music might seem difficult at first, those seemingly random notes. Though it may seem hard at first, being able to read sheet music opens up a whole new world of compositions to both learn and practice!
Musical notes are represented by filled in or empty oval marks called heads, either with or without ‘stems’ and ‘hooks’ on a set of horizontal lines called a staff. This starts at a particular note which needs to be memorized based on the clef, or symbol, at the forefront of the staff.
Lengths and Styles
Different lengths are represented by different styles of notes. A whole note is represented by a hollow head without a stem, while an eighth note (one eighth as long as a whole note) is represented by a filled in head with a stem and hook. Purchasing a guidebook will help you understand all of the notes in greater detail.
Each note is written from the left to right, the same way we read any book, and from high to low based on how high or low the instrument is. Notes along the same vertical line are supposed to be played together.
Measures and Bars
The notes are divided into ‘measures’ or ‘bars’ in order to add structure and regularity, noted by vertical lines through the staff. Each bar is supposed to be played the same length of time. Either a few long notes or several shorter notes might fit into any given bar, but need to always add up to the same total.
At the start of the music, the two numbers next to the clef form the time signature, showing how many of certain lengths of note meant to be played per bar. For example, the common 4/4 time signature indicates four quarter notes are supposed to be played per bar.
Special symbols for pauses in play, called ‘rests’, are written into bars and read just like notes.
Pianos were using effects pedals long before the electric guitar to change quality of sound emanating from piano strings, one model actually having six! Most pianos have two or three pedals, each with its individual purpose. Special notation is used in classical compositions to explain each pedal’s intended use.
The soft pedal usually sits on the left, also called ‘una corda’. It softens both the volume and the note being played tone color. Beethoven’s compositions use the soft pedal pretty extensively!
On the right sits the sustaining pedal, lifting the dampening elements of the strings and allowing notes to blend, ring, and resonate more easily. Using the sustaining pedal cleverly could actually connect both harmonies and notes in interesting and provocative ways, commonly seen in compositions dating back from 19th century romantics and onward!
If found on a grand piano, the third and central pedal is normally referred to as the sostenuto pedal. Holding down only the current note being played, the sostenuto pedal sustains notes. It’s likely the central pedal on an upright piano, if there is one, selectively holds down certain notes in the lower register.
On an upright piano, the central pedal is often the ‘silent piano’ pedal, dulling the sound of your piano. Early morning or late night practicing won’t bother the neighbors!