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How to Play Piano – The Ultimate Guide

Charmaine Li  /  Guides / Jun 11

Want to learn how to play the piano? You’ve come to the right place!

With 88 keys, a rich history, and many associated celebrities, the piano can be an intimidating instrument. But it’s also an accessible one. Anyone can learn the piano at any age and have hours of fun on it.

This comprehensive series will take you from never touching the piano to playing your first chords and first song. You’ll also learn fundamental skills, good habits, and some shopping tips.

🎹👉Start strong! If you prefer watching videos over reading, check out Getting Started on the Piano, a FREE four-part course on getting started on the piano. If you’re in a hurry, watch this short and sweet video.



PART 1: GETTING STARTED

Bird's eye view of piano keyboard of wood finish piano.

Chapter 1: Before You Start

1.1 Why Learn How to Play the Piano? (5 Reasons)

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already excited to learn how to play piano! But in case you’re not convinced yet, this section is for you 🙂

We think the piano is the best musical instrument to learn. Of course, we’re biased as pianists, but there are compelling reasons to pick up piano as your first musical instrument:

Lisa (woman with short white-blonde hair in boat neck top) sitting behind keyboard in calming, white tones.

Reason #1: You can make amazing sounds from day 1

Some instruments, like the violin or the trumpet, take skill just to make a decent sound.

But piano is rewarding from day 1 because you don’t have to “make” the sound yourself. All you have to do is press a key that’s attached to a hammer that hits a string to create a perfectly clear note.

Most people can figure out a simple melody on a keyboard by playing around. Of course, there’s more to playing piano than eking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but at least you won’t be squeaking through your first few lessons!

Reason #2: You learn both melody and harmony, treble clef and bass clef

A neat thing pianists can do is play both melody and harmony. Most instruments can’t do this.

As a pianist, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of both melody and harmony — that is, both the foreground and background of music.

Knowledge of both treble and bass clef also helps. Many instruments only use the treble clef, but if you decide to pick up the tuba later on, that bass clef knowledge will come in handy.

Reason #3: You are an independent music-making machine — but you can also have fun with other people

Since pianos handle both melody and harmony, you don’t require someone to accompany you. Other instruments, such as the violin or guitar, require bands, backing tracks, or an accompanying pianist to sound “complete.”

But pianists aren’t doomed to be alone! Pianos are a pillar instrument in many ensembles, from jazz bands to church worship teams. If you play piano, we encourage you to jam with other musicians. It’s a wonderful experience.

Screenshot of 10 Easy Piano Songs -Lisa as pianist with guitarist and drummer playing together in Pianote studio.

Reason #4: Pianos can play practically every musical genre possible

Whether it’s classical, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, rock, pop, or experimental avant-garde stuff, the piano can handle them all.

Now, the skills required for different genres can be very different. But you don’t need a whole different instrument (such as going from steel-string to nylon-string guitar) to learn a new genre.

Reason #5: Piano knowledge lets you pick up other musical instruments with ease

Because piano requires fine motor skills, knowledge of both treble and bass clefs, and good musicality, when you learn piano, you gain transferable skills for other instruments.

Since learning piano, I’ve learned flute, electric and acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a few basic drum patterns. I believe these instruments were definitely easier to learn because I had piano skills as a foundation.

Are there any disadvantages to learning piano?

This is a legitimate question. After all, no musical instrument is perfect.

I can think of two potential things pianists have to watch out for.

  1. Ear training. Violinists and guitarists have to tune their instruments before every practice session, which trains their ear. Pianos don’t require daily tuning, so pianists may lose out on built-in ear development.
  2. Isolation. Pianists can feel isolated because the piano is such a self-sufficient instrument.
Bird's eye view at an angle of Lisa playing on studio piano.

These aren’t unfixable problems, though. To develop a good ear, actively listen to lots of music, gain a deep understanding of chords and harmony, and learn how to play by ear.

We also encourage you to find a community with other pianists and musicians. Community is something we’re very passionate about at Pianote, which is why we’ve created an online space for students to gather, discuss, and troubleshoot. 

1.2 What to Expect

Playing piano isn’t cheap. And it does take up time.

We want you to be prepared and know what to expect. In this section, we’ll go over the cost of making piano a part of your life, as well as the time commitment involved in becoming a competent pianist.

How much will playing piano cost?

The core costs of learning piano include:

  • Your piano or keyboard
  • Lessons and books
  • Accessories
  • Maintenance

Your instrument will likely be your biggest cost, but there are plenty of options here. Some pianos cost as much as a luxury car while entry-level keyboards can cost just a few hundred dollars.

Side view photo of red keyboard - Roland GO:KEYS.

You may also be able to grab a piano for free or very low-cost if you buy used!

Piano instructors can cost anywhere from $20 to $100+ per hour, and you should factor in transportation too. However, online piano lessons (like the Pianote Method) can be significantly cheaper. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of online vs. “in real life” lessons in the Shopping Guide.

Unlike other instruments with amplifiers and moving parts, accessories for the piano are mostly optional. But you’ll likely need a metronome, a few books, a music stand and pedal (if your piano doesn’t have those), and some hardware and software if you want to record yourself.

If you buy an acoustic piano, you’ll have to hire someone to tune it once in a while. But electric keyboards don’t need a lot of maintenance.

Vertical bird's eye view of Sam (young man with brown hair in black shirt) playing piano.

How much do I need to practice?

You’ve probably heard stories of professional pianists practicing an insane amount of hours from a very young age.

The piano has a long history, and the calibre for performers today is very high. If you plan to become a professional pianist, expect to practice a lot.

But you don’t need to practice eight hours a day to jam with a band, lead your church worship team, or even teach beginners. If you just want to play your favorite songs and have fun, practicing 15 minutes a day will allow you to progress.

Of course, in general, the more you practice, the faster you’ll improve. But practicing is less about putting in the hours and more about honing the right skills.

The awesome thing about piano is that you don’t need to be a top-level performer to reap incredible rewards. Pop songs can be as easy or difficult as you want them (see 5 Levels of Tiny Dancer for an example of this!). And even classical icons like “Für Elise” are considered intermediate pieces.

1.3 Learning Piano as an Adult

Main article: Learning Piano as an Adult

Are you too old to learn the piano? Nope! If you’re an adult beginner, you may actually have several advantages:

Adults tend to be purpose-driven. Whether it’s a song or a skill, you’re in charge of what you want to learn — not your parents or teachers! And when you’re in charge, you’re more motivated to take initiative.

Adults understand hard work. After a lifetime’s experience with responsibilities (school, work, childcare, etc.), you understand what it takes to learn something new.

Adults can manage their time. While adults are busy people, they also have initiative, which makes them perfect for self-paced learning. It only takes 15 minutes a day of practicing to see results.

Adults already know music. Unless you never listen to music ever, chances are you’ve had more exposure to music than most children. If you know how to keep a beat and sing a melody, you’re well on your way to success.

Old man with white beard plays piano with young girl in white dress behind him standing on a stool covering his eyes with her hands.

For an encouraging discussion on learning piano as an adult, watch this video where Lisa shares some exercises you can get started on right away to kickstart your learning.


Chapter 2: Shopping Guide

2.1 Buying Your First Piano or Keyboard

Main article: How to Buy Your First Piano

Buying your first piano or keyboard can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

What is your budget? The price range for pianos and keyboards is huge. There are keyboards going for less than $150 on Amazon. Meanwhile, concert grands can net six digits.

How much space do you have? Measure the area you intend to fit your piano in and bring your measurements to a store.

Blue keyboard - MX61.
Black and white puppy with paws on piano.

Who do you live with? If you live with roommates, family, or in an apartment building, you may want to choose a piano you can use headphones with. Many acoustic pianos also come with a quiet practice pedal.

Acoustic, digital, or hybrid? The sound quality of an acoustic piano is unparalleled, but digital pianos and keyboards are way more affordable and often come with useful features. A hybrid piano has elements of both.

Rent or buy? If you’re uncertain about committing to the piano, you may want to rent one first. You may also be able to find affordable, high-quality second-hand pianos.

Features to Look For

There are so many products available — how do you know what features to prioritize? We have the following recommendations:

  1. Aim to get 88 keys. This is the standard number of keys on a piano, so you won’t run out of notes. If you can’t get 88 keys, get at least 61.
  2. Look for touch-sensitive weighted keys. This means the piano can be played loud or soft depending on how much pressure you put on it.
  3. Try before you buy! If possible, play a piano before you buy it. See how the keys respond to you playing them hard (loud) or softly.
Lisa and Sam sitting on the ground looking at books and playing on red keyboard.

Resources

We have a short guide on how to buy your first instrument. For even more in-depth information, check out these free resources:

  • Piano Buyer is a comprehensive online e-book on how to navigate the piano market
  • Piano Dreamers has a yearly digital piano buying guide and several in-depth articles that compare acoustic and digital pianos
  • YouTube channels also present in-depth product reviews and comparisons, including sound comparison
  • Lisa has gear recommendations you can find here

These videos may also help!

2.2 Piano Accessories and Maintenance

Pianos are pretty self-contained. But you may have a more rewarding experience if you invest in a few accessories.

Piano bench. Unless you plan to use your piano like a standing desk, having something to sit on is a must. While any old chair will work in a bind, a specialized piano bench gives you plenty of space to maneuver your body. Many piano benches are height-adjustable and offer storage, too.

Pedal. If your keyboard doesn’t come with a pedal, we highly recommend you invest in one. Pedaling makes a big difference and can even help you sound better when you’re first learning a song.

Music stand. Most pianos come with a built-in stand. If yours doesn’t, invest in a hardy stand that can hold up sheet music, books, metronomes, and stationery.

Metronome. If you want to bring your playing to the next level, expect to practice with a metronome. You can buy a stand-alone metronome, download an app, or even search Google for “metronome” and use their free tool.

Recording equipment. Recording and then hearing yourself play can make a big difference in improving your technique. Many keyboards come with built-in recording capability. Otherwise, you may want to invest in a microphone and some software.

Tuning. Acoustic pianos need to be tuned by a professional and this will cost between $100 and $200.

2.3 How to Find a Piano Teacher

See also: How to Find a Piano Teacher and What’s the Best Way to Learn Piano Online?

Other than your piano, this is probably your most important investment.

Not too long ago, the only way to learn piano was to visit a teacher once a week. Today, thanks to the Internet and new technologies, we have many more options.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of three major ways of learning: in-person lessons, app learning, and online learning.

In-Person Lessons

Lisa sits next to man with brown hair and glasses playing piano.

Pros:

  • One-on-one personal attention
  • Live feedback
  • No additional technology required

Cons:

  • Higher cost
  • Lack of flexibility

App Learning

Man with headphones playing keyboard in front of computer.

Pros:

  • Can be very fun
  • Gamified experience is motivating

Cons:

  • May require additional equipment (ie. USB connection)
  • Gamified experience may simplify playing, neglecting certain skills

Online Lessons

Woman playing console keyboard (upright piano) at home with book and iPad.

Pros:

  • Flexible and affordable
  • No additional equipment required

Cons:

  • No real-time feedback

Of course, we at Pianote are biased towards the Pianote online learning method. But Sam, Lisa, and I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe in our method.

The Pianote learning experience was crafted as a “best of both worlds” solution. Here’s a comparison between traditional lessons and Pianote to give you an idea of what we offer:

TRADITIONAL LESSONSPIANOTE
In-person, personalized attentionPersonal attention through Student Focus and contacting instructors
Can add up to $1700+ per year$197 per year
Weekly lessons (you won’t see your teacher every day)Learn as often as you like, whenever you like
No built-in communityImmediately be welcomed into the Pianote student community!
Unlikely to offer extended free trial90-day money-back guarantee
May be against local Covid-19 restrictions100% virtual and socially distant

If you’re on the fence about joining Pianote, take a peek at the membership here.

Combine Methods

If online, traditional, or app learning doesn’t cut it for you on their own, try combining methods. For example, you could take lessons with Pianote and connect with an in-person instructor once a month.

Whichever method you decide on, keep these two things in mind:

  1. Make sure your teacher’s style aligns with yours. If not, it can be frustrating if you want to play jazz and your teacher only teaches classical.
  2. Find a teacher who is encouraging and patient. I personally studied under a traditional, classical piano teacher who had high expectations. But I stayed with her for over 10 years because she was conscious of my needs and had a wonderful sense of humor.

PART 2: MASTERING THE FUNDAMENTALS

Upright piano keyboard with hammers exposed.

Chapter 3: Take a Seat

3.1 Good Piano Posture

See also: Perfect Posture at the Piano (A Chiropractor’s Guide)

Good habits start from day one. Before you start playing, always stretch, warm up, and check your posture.

Sit down on your bench facing the middle of the piano. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor, your shoulders relaxed, and your arms are gently bent at the elbow.

Remember these posture tips:

  • Don’t sit hunched over
  • Warm up with a few stretches before each practice session
  • Pay close attention to your wrists, forearms, and shoulders

When you place your hands on the keyboard, relax your wrists. Don’t tense your fingers—keep them loose so that they’re slightly bent, not straight. Be careful not to let your wrists droop.

Good posture is essential to enjoying your time at the piano. If you’re comfortable, you’ll be more motivated to practice, and you’ll play with better technique too.

Chapter 4: Basic Skills

4.1 Keyboard Navigation and Musical Alphabet

See also: Getting Started on the Piano and Piano in 7 Days

The piano keyboard may look dizzying with its vast array of keys (88, to be exact). But once you understand the patterns that make it work, it’s actually quite simple.

How to Find Middle C

Take a look at your keyboard. Notice the black keys—see how there are sets of two and sets of three? We’ll use these sets of twos and threes to find Middle C.

Middle C is the first note you’ll learn on the piano. It’s smack dab in the middle of the keyboard, usually where the brand name of the piano is.

Find a set of two black keys in the middle and play the white key on the very left: this is Middle C!

Remember where Middle C is. You’ll use it to orient yourself around the rest of the keyboard.

The Musical Alphabet

Now for your first theory lesson! In music, we name notes after the alphabet. The white key after C is D, the one after is E, and so on. The musical alphabet stops at G, however, so instead of a note called H we just repeat from C again.

Keyboard diagram with white keys labelled in red: CDEFGABCDEFGAB

If you’re wondering what all those black keys are called, they’re half-steps between the white notes and they’re called sharps or flats. We’ll cover sharps and flats more in the theory section of this guide.

Once you understand the musical alphabet, you can move on to the five-finger scale!

4.2 How to Play the Five Finger Scale

The five-finger scale is a basic skill that will introduce you to a finger movement that is fundamental to piano-playing.

The Right Hand

Let’s go back to Middle C. Place your right thumb on Middle C. In piano, we call this finger 1.

Next, place your index finger on the next white key, D. This is finger 2. Place your remaining fingers on the other white keys. This means finger 3 goes on E, finger 4 goes on F, and finger 5 (pinky) goes on G.

Try playing these notes in order (1-2-3-4-5). Then, play it in reverse (5-4-3-2-1). Congratulations, you’ve just played your first C major five-finger scale!

If this feels weird at first, that’s totally normal and okay. It’s a new movement, so it’ll take time to get used to. Your fingers may want to stick together, especially fingers 3 and 4. To improve, challenge yourself to play all five notes as evenly and articulated as you can.

Play the right-hand five-finger scale a few times. Once you get the hang of it, move on to the left hand.

The Left Hand

Find the C below Middle C and place your left pinky (finger 5) on it. Then follow up with the rest of your left-hand fingers.

Again, play these notes up and down a few times until it feels more familiar.

But…how do pianists play more than five notes in a row without running out of fingers?!

This happens quite often, especially with scales. Pianists use techniques like tucking under and crossing over to quickly play long, unbroken streams of notes. This is why practicing scales is so important for pianists who want to play faster.

4.3 Your First Chords

You may be interested in: Chord Hacks – a set of 6 free lessons to jumpstart your understanding of chords.

Chords are the building blocks of music. They’re used in most Western music traditions, including pop, jazz, and church songs. Understanding chords will help you progress in piano on both the practical and theoretical fronts.

Now, there’s a lot of theory behind chords and chord progressions — theory that’s quite fascinating — but to make things simple in this guide, we’ll learn four basic chords in their root position and how to move between them.

The names of the four basic chords we’ll learn are: C major, G major, A minor, and F major.

Diagram of root position chords on the right hand. C major chord is CEG played with fingers 1-3-5. G major is GBD fingers 1-3-5. A minor chord is ACE fingers 1-3-5. F major chord is FAC with fingers 1-3-5.

We’ll learn these chords in their triad form in root position, which means they’ll all take a similar “shape.”

C Major Triad in Root Position

Diagram of C major chord on right hand with keys colored red: CEG played with fingers 1-3-5.

On your right hand, place finger 1 (thumb) on C and finger 5 (pinky) on G. Play these notes together. They are the outer “shell” of the C major root position chord. Once this feels comfortable, try playing E with finger 3 (your middle finger).

C major chord diagram with keys colored red: CEG with fingers 5-3-1.

Try the same thing on your left hand. Place your left-hand finger 5 on C and finger 1 on G to form the chord shell. Then, play E with finger 3.

The same fingering applies to the other root position G major, F major, and A minor chords.

It’s worth repeating: chords are the building blocks of music. Therefore, mastering them will take you to the next level of playing, improvising, and connecting chords with riffs and fills.

Check out our free Chord Hacks resource if you want to dive deeper into chords. Otherwise, we’ll revisit chords in a later theory section.

4.4 Playing with Both Hands

Main article: Play Piano with Both Hands

Let’s get one thing out of the way: playing with both hands feels weird. At least at first.

Hand independence is something you’ll continually work on as a pianist. Even advanced pianists have challenges with hand independence.

Bird's eye view of piano keyboard in wood finish with blurry hands.

The Five-Finger Scale in Both Hands

You already know the five-finger scale. Now let’s try playing it with both hands.

When you play the five-finger scale up with both hands, the fingering with look like this:

Right hand: 1-2-3-4-5 (C-D-E-F-G)
Left hand: 5-4-3-2-1 (C-D-E-F-G)

When you play the five-finger scale down with both hands, the fingering will look like this:

Right hand: 5-4-3-2-1 (G-F-E-D-C)
Left hand: 1-2-3-4-5 (G-F-E-D-C)

If this feels easy, try playing loudly in one hand and softly in the other. Then, switch.

4.5 How to Play Scales (Hands Together!)

Main article: How to Play Piano Scales – Hands Together

If you’re curious about scales, now is a good time to start.

You’ve mastered the five-finger scale, but what happens when you want to play the entire C major scale, from one octave to the next?

Unless you master the right technique, you’ll run out of fingers! So, before playing hands together, be sure to practice playing a full-octave scale on your right and left hands.

C Major – Right Hand

Up:
Notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Fingering: 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5

Down:
Notes: C-B-A-G-F-E-D-C
Fingering: 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1

C Major – Left Hand

Up:
Notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Fingering: 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1

Down:
Notes: C-B-A-G-F-E-D-C
Fingering: 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5

Putting hands together takes practice. The technique is more easily explained through video, so watch this lesson to get the basics.


PART 3: MUSIC THEORY

Archaic sepia toned manuscript of the first line of Fur Elise.

Chapter 5: The Grand Staff

If you want to master rudimentary music theory, check out our free Music Theory for the Dropouts series.

5.1 How to Read Music Notation

Main Article: How to Read Notes

You know the musical alphabet. Now let’s learn how to spell some music!

The first thing you should familiarize yourself with is the grand staff:

The grand staff with the names and positions of notes in the C major scale.
The Grand Staff with the names and positions of notes in the C major scale.

Most piano music is written on the grand staff. The grand staff is special to the piano because there’s a top and bottom part, usually denoting right and left hands.

We’ll briefly touch on the parts of the grand staff here, but for a more thorough breakdown, we recommend watching this lesson.

Treble clef in dark red.

Treble Clef

In general, pianists play notes on the top staff, the one with the treble clef, with the right hand.

Bass clef in dark red.

Bass Clef

Notes on the bottom staff, the one with the bass clef, are usually played with the left hand.

In each staff (treble and bass), there are five lines with spaces between them. This is where our notes sit.

5 lines and 4 spaces numbered.

The higher up we move the lines and spaces, the higher the pitch!

Notes occupy lines and spaces and they all have names. At first, it’ll feel intimidating to memorize all the notes and their locations, so these acronyms might help.

Grand staff with space notes FACE in treble clef and ACEG in bass clef.

SPACE NOTES

Treble clef: FACE
Bass clef: All Cows Eat Grass

Grand staff with line notes EGBDF in treble clef and GBDFA in bass clef.

LINE NOTES

Treble Clef: Every Good Boy Deserves Fries
Bass clef: Good Boys Deserve Fries Always

But we’re going to let you in on a little secret…

You don’t need to read every single note!

To read music faster, we musicians employ some tips and tricks, such as:

Landmark notes. Pick a few notes on the staff to know really well, such as G in the treble clef. Then, everything else is just in relation to G. For example, a step up from G is A, and the line note below G is E.

Red staff with G in half note, landmark arrow pointing to G.

Intervals. Being able to tell the distance between notes is also a shortcut. You can learn more about intervals here and see this shortcut broken down in this post.

Red staff with middle C and. Din whole notes.

Patterns. Music is made up of patterns. Knowing how to recognize patterns is a shortcut to reading music. For example, if you can recognize a scale, you’ll know that notes are just going up or down step by step.

Measure from Sonata in C major by Mozart showing C major scale up and down.

This is a section from Mozart’s Sonata in C Major and you can see that it’s really not much more than a scale of notes stepping up and down.

Rhythm

What a note looks like can tell you how many beats it has. In 4/4 time signature, the following notes have this many beats:

Different note values. Quarter note is worth 1 beat and colored in. Half note is not colored in worth 2 beats. Dotted half note is half note with dot worth 3 beats. Whole note is not colored in note without stem, worth 4 beats.
From left to right: quarter note, half note, dotted half note, whole note.

These notes have fraction names like quarter note, half note, dotted half note, and whole note.

Time Signatures

See also: Basic Time Signature

The time signature consists of two numbers at the beginning of the staff. The top number tells you how many beats there are per measure (a measure section of music enclosed by bar lines). The bottom number tells you what note value takes one beat.

3/4 and 4/4 time signature on treble clef.

“4” means quarter note so 3/4 means “three quarter notes per measure” and 4/4 means “four quarter notes per measure.”

Key Signatures

The key signature is located right before the time signature. It tells you what key you’re in by listing all the sharps and flats (or lack thereof) in the piece.

So, if you see the following key signature, it means all Fs in the piece should be played as F sharp (F#) unless a note has a natural symbol.

Key signature of G major in treble clef with 1 sharp - F sharp.
Key signature of G major. G major has 1 sharp (F#).

To understand the key signature, you’ll need to learn about key. In a nutshell, each key (ie. C major, F sharp minor, B flat major) has a unique number of sharps and flats.

Understanding keys is not absolutely vital when you’re first starting out on the piano, but knowing the Circle of Fifths will come in handy. So check out this lesson if you want to learn more about keys.

5.2 Music Symbols

Main article: Making Sense of Music Symbols

You can probably tell that there’s a lot more than notes and staves in sheet music. Here are other things you may run into when sight-reading music.

Accidentals

A sharp means we raise a note up by one half-step. A flat means we lower a note down by one half-step. Therefore, F sharp is the black key immediately right of F, and B flat is the black key immediately left of B.

A natural tells you not to sharp or flat a note.

Accidentals are sharps, flats, and naturals outside the key signature that appear in music. The general rule is, if a note has a sharp (or flat, or natural), all instances of that note thereafter in the same measure should also be sharped.

Section of Sonata in C Major by Mozart with added flats and sharps. -accidentals.
Another section of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major with added B flats and F sharps. Note that there are no “default” flats and sharps. in the key signature because C major has no sharps and flats.

Dynamics

Main article: What Are Dynamics?

Dynamics are what makes a good piano performance sound great.

Dynamics are markings that tell players whether to play something loud, soft, or something in between. Here are some common dynamic markings:

  • Forte (f) – loud
  • Piano (p) – soft
  • Mezzo forte (mf) – medium loud
  • Mezzo piano (mp) – medium soft
  • Fortissimo (ff) – very loud
  • Pianissimo (pp) – very soft
  • Crescendo – gradually get louder
  • Decrescendo – gradually get softer
Section of Mozart's Sonata in C major with crescendo, forte, legato, phrasing, and staccato.
Excerpt from the 2nd movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major with dynamic and expression markings: crescendo, forte, legato, phrasing, staccato.

Crescendos and decrescendos are the “alligator mouth” symbols that indicate the music should be growing louder or softer.

Expression

There are many other symbols that indicate how a piece of music should be expressed. As a beginner, you might run into these:

  • Phrasing: curved lines above music that indicate those notes should be connected, as if sung in one breath
  • Legato: play lightly and connected in phrasing
  • Staccato: shown by dots above/below a note head, this means playing notes short and detached (like hopping)
  • Ritardando (rit.): slow down

There are also special words that direct speed (tempo):

  • Largo: play slowly and broadly
  • Allegro: play fast
  • Moderato: play at a moderate speed
  • Presto: play very fast
  • Andante: play at a “walking pace”
  • Lento: play slowly
  • Vivace: play at a lively and fast space
  • A tempo: return to previous/original tempo

It may seem overwhelming to memorize all these words off the bat, especially since most music terms are traditionally in Italian, French, or German. Don’t overwhelm yourself at first! As your exposure to sheet music grows, you’ll naturally pick up the language of music notation. Just learn terms one at a time when you encounter them.

Chapter 6: More About Chords

6.1 How Chords Work

We’ve mentioned that chords are the building blocks of music, but what does this mean?

In a nutshell, a chord is a group of notes played together at the same time, that sound nice together. Chords often have names, like “C,” “Amin7,” or “Gsus4.” I like how classical piano teacher Cassi Falk explains chords and their names:

You can think of [chords] like you would a word in a sentence. When you see the word ‘cat’, you don’t think of the individual letters, c-a-t. You think of the whole system of letters that forms the word and makes you think of a cat. That’s basically the idea with chords.  

Cassi Falk, Music Theory for the Dropouts #5
White cat walking on keyboard of upright piano.

As a beginner, the chords you’re most likely to encounter are triads. These are three-note chords and there are two main types.

Diagram of C major triad. C to E is 4 half steps. E to G is 3 half steps.
How to form and play the C major triad.

Major triads sound “happy.” The middle note can be calculated by counting four half-steps up from the root (bottom) note and the top note can be found by counting three half-steps up from the middle note.

A minor triad diagram. A to C is 3 half steps; C to E is 4 half steps.
How to form and play the A minor triad.

Minor triads sound “sad.” The middle note can be calculated by counting three half-steps up from the root (bottom) note and the top note can be found by counting four half-steps up from the middle note.

Chord Progressions

The magic of chords happen when we play several in a row, forming a chord progression.

Chord progressions harmonize and move a piece of music forward. You may be surprised to learn that in virtually all of Western music history — from J.S. Bach to Justin Bieber — is based off similar chord progressions.

To see this in action, check out this video (You Love Classical Music – You Just Don’t Know It!).

Once you’re comfortable playing a few chords, check out the I-V-vi-IV progression, which will unlock hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of songs.

6.2 How to Use Chord Charts

A chord chart is a document that shows a song’s lyrics with the names of chords above the lyrics as the chords change.

Knowing how to read and play from a chord chart will take you far. That’s because these days, you can find the chord chart of almost any pop song on Ultimate-Guitar.com for free.

Excerpt of chord chart of "yesterday" by the Beatles showing major, minor, and seventh chords.
Screenshot of the chord chart for “Yesterday” by the Beatles (source).

Major chords are indicated by just their letter, like C for C major or F for F major. “Yesterday” begins with a simple F major chord.

Minor chords will have a lowercase “m,” such as the Dm and Em7 chords in “Yesterday.” You can play a lot of songs with just major and minor chords, but other types of chords add color to music.

Slash Chords

A slash chord, like F/E in “Yesterday,” means you play the note after the slash as your bass note while your right hand plays the chord F on top.

Seventh Chords

Standard major and minor chords like Em have a root, third, and fifth (E-G-B). Seventh chords like Em7 have an added seventh (E-G-B-D).

Seventh chords have a dreamier sound and are often used in jazz piano.

Sus Chords

No, sus chords are not suspicious. “Sus” means “suspended” and it’s when you switch out a note for another. So Gsus4 would mean switching out the third (B) for a fourth (C) to form G-C-D.

To learn more chords, check out Read and Play Complicated Chords on the Piano.

6.3 How to Use Lead Sheets

Lead sheets are somewhere between a full score of sheet music and a chord chart. A lead sheet shows you just the melody of a song and the chords above the melody.

Excerpt of first line of Happy Birthday lead sheet.
Our lead sheet for Happy Birthday, which you can find here!

Lead sheets are useful because you can confidently play the melody of a song without needing to figure it out by ear, while having ample creative room to experiment with the accompaniment.

The fun comes when you know a melody and the chords well enough to add in your own riffs and fills.

Chapter 7: Your First Songs!

7.1 Easy Piano Songs to Learn First

Can you play songs as a beginner? YOU BETCHA. Here are a few song tutorials to check out

“Imagine” by John Lennon

One song we like to recommend beginners try out once they master the fundamentals in Part 2 is “Imagine.” (Yes, that “Imagine” by John Lennon.)

“Imagine” is a good song for beginners because it’s in C major (all white keys and no flats or sharps!) and sounds great even when played slowly.

Someone You Loved (In 7 Minutes!)

Pop songs are a brilliant place to start because chances are, you’re familiar with the tune already and most pop songs use similar chord progressions.

“Someone You Loved” is an iconic song that’s actually very simple. This tutorial will teach you the basics in seven minutes!

Happy Birthday

“Happy Birthday” is a simple must-have in your piano playing arsenal. This song is perfect for birthday party sing-alongs. After all, how else can you embarrass your friends on their birthday?

We’ll show you a basic way to play this as well as a jazzier version.


PART 4: NEXT STEPS

Black and white photo of band playing with keyboardist in the foreground. Man in flowery shirt plays Nord keyboard with bassist and guitarist.

Chapter 8: Exploring Genres

8.1 Jazz Piano

Jazz band playing on stage with red light sign "JAZZ" behind them. Left to right: woman playing grand piano, man playing bass, man playing drums, man playing trumpet.

If you’ve ever seen a jazz or cocktail lounge pianist play, you may have found it a magical, surreal experience. Jazz is rooted in improvisation, so how the heck do these brilliant musicians conjure up delightful melodies seemingly from thin air?

Well, it’s not exactly magic. Jazz pianists have a very solid grasp of chord theory which gives them shortcuts to improvise upon. If you want to get started with jazz, we recommend learning seventh chords, understanding the ii-V-I progression, and mastering syncopation. Then, start adding riffs and licks to your jazz back pocket.

Jazz Piano Tutorials

Here are some free lessons to help you get started:

The Pianote Members Area also has a jazz learning path that teaches you how to improvise on a jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves.”

8.2 Worship Piano

Socially distanced worship band in dark studio playing in front of crucifix.  Each band member has their own rug. Left to right: bassist with hands apart in praise, keyboardist singing, acoustic guitarist with one fist raised.

We’ve noticed that topics about playing piano for a religious community are among some of our most popular content. Which is awesome because music is all about community!

Playing for your place of worship can be incredibly rewarding because you get to be part of a team. Collaboration takes practice, and playing with a band builds very useful skills.

Worship Piano Song Tutorials

Here are some tutorials to get you started:

Pianote also offers a full course on how to play with a worship band (comes free with your Pianote membership!).

8.3 Classical Piano

Woman plays grand piano in ornate old gold gilded room.

When most people think of piano, they think of classical music.

The piano has been a mainstay in classical music for centuries. And people like Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy have defined what many people imagine as the “piano sound.”

Classical music is often considered more advanced because you need to be pretty comfortable reading sheet music. (Even though, contrary to popular belief, classical music has a rich improvisation history!)

Classical Piano Tutorials

We have several simplified classical piano tutorials available that break down iconic pieces:

One good thing about classical music is that most sheet music has expired copyright and is available for free through the Petrucci Music Library.

8.4 Pop Piano

Man playing keyboard and singing in colorful smoke.

Playing pop music is fun because, for many of us, pop music is what we listen to on a daily basis. You know these songs in and out.

The advantage of playing pop music is you can make songs as simple or as complicated as you’d like. You can see this in action with Lisa’s “5 Levels of ‘Tiny Dancer'” video. You can also choose to play along to your own singing or play the melody on the piano.

Pop Tutorials

We have lots of free tutorials available for famous pop songs, such as these four easy ones:

  • “Cups” – Anna Kendrick
  • “Hello” – Adele
  • “Just the Way You Are” – Bruno Mars
  • “Someone You Loved” – Lewis Capaldi

Here are some other tutorials to check out:

Chapter 9: FAQ and Resources

9.1 Free Online Resources

Playing piano can get expensive.

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, there are numerous free ways to develop skills, play your favorite songs, and master music theory. Here are several 100% free online resources to help with your journey.

Shopping Guides

Piano Dreamers is a super in-depth blog that covers piano learning options and gear. They write very detailed articles like The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Digital Piano and product reviews for keyboards, recording equipment, learning methods, and more.

Piano Buyer is a biannual publication that covers what’s new and hot in the piano-buying market. It is accessible for free on the internet and includes in-depth articles on subjects like how to best buy used instruments.

Man tuning upright piano.

Sheet Music

Lisa in yellow sweater holding up Gymnopédie No. 1 sheet music.

The Petrucci Music Library a.k.a. the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) is an online database of (mostly) public domain sheet music from classical composers like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart, whose sheet music copyright has expired.

8notes is a library of sheet music for popular tunes, arranged for beginners.

Ultimate-Guitar.com contains chord charts for piano, guitar, bass, and ukulele. Chord charts can be toggled to “piano” to show diagrams of how to play each chord.

Recording and Composition

Audacity is a free, open-source, multi-platform recording software that allows you to record and edit music.

Musescore is a free sheet music writing program with powerful features.

Lisa in black long sleeve shirt pointing at piano with two hands.

Learning

The Note (this blog!) – okay, we’re a little biased here. But we work every day to make The Note the best free piano learning resource on the web. You’ll find tons of resources including song tutorials, technical exercises, theory explanations and in-depth articles like biographies of famous pianists.

YouTube is another great resource. Content creators on YouTube, from major companies to individual pianists, make how-to videos every day. These include everything from song tutorials to mini-documentaries that explain the theory behind your favorite compositions.

9.2 Pianist Communities

The piano is a pretty self-sufficient, independent instrument. Unfortunately, this means pianists can be isolated.

But communities are great resources because if you’re struggling with something, you can consult with your community. Perhaps someone else has been there, solved that.

That all being said, finding a community isn’t always easy especially with pianists, because pianos aren’t exactly portable. However, there are numerous online communities that are great resources:

You can also upload videos of your playing online and request feedback.

Man and woman playing keyboard together in low ceiling room.

A word about the Pianote community…

We’re very passionate about community at Pianote partly because we share a studio with drummers, guitarists, and other musicians and we’ve seen first-hand the value of collaboration.

Lisa and Sam holding clapperboard together.

That’s why we created the Pianote Members Area as a place for students to learn piano together. Pianote members can also attend live Q&A sessions, post discussions in the forum, and share content in a private Facebook group.

If you’re not sure about committing to a membership, you can take a look behind the paywall here.

9.3 Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re excited to learn piano but are bursting with questions, you’ve come to the right place!

Am I too old to learn how to play piano?

No! In fact, we think age is an advantage.

Adults tend to have established work habits and are often very driven to learn music. After all, you’re taking music lessons for yourself, not a parent or teacher!

As an adult, you’ve also had lifelong exposure to music. You understand rhythm, melody, and may even be able to figure out tunes by ear.

So try learning piano. If anything, the health benefits are excellent reasons to start. As is your passion to create music.

Do I absolutely need to know how to read sheet music?

Some of the most successful musicians ever, including all the Beatles, don’t know how to read music. And Mozart was famous for being able to recreate songs by ear. So, short answer: no.

That being said, knowing how to read music is an incredibly useful skill. Sight-reading is encouraged if you want to play classical music you’re essentially recreating a song exactly how it was written.

However, if you want to play pop music, knowing how to read chord charts should be enough. Sheet music is useful, but it can also limit your creativity. On the other hand, chord charts and lead sheets encourage original improvisation while providing guidance.

At the end of the day, pick a learning method that is rewarding for you and your musical preferences.

What’s the best way to practice?

How and what to practice is a common question we get. You’ve probably heard stories of professional pianists who practice an insane number of hours, but how you practice is more important than how many hours you put in.

Practice with a plan and have goals in mind. A typical practice session may go like this:

  1. Warm-up: 5-10 minutes
  2. Technique, such as scales and arpeggios: 10 minutes
  3. Songs: 20 minutes
  4. Fun/improv: 10 minutes

It’s also more effective and efficient to target things you struggle with, rather than playing songs from beginning to end, over and over again.

Consistency is also important. It may be more effective to practice 10 minutes a day, every day, than one hour of binge-practicing and then no practice for the rest of the week.

My brain knows what to do, but my two hands just won’t co-operate!

This is a very common problem for pianists of all ages. Even experienced pianists struggle with hand independence from time to time.

Struggling is actually a good sign — it means you’re challenging yourself to learn something new. Just keep practicing — it takes time. If a hand independence exercise comes too easily to you, it means it’s too easy!

What’s the best piano to buy for a beginner?

Try to get an 88-key keyboard (or at least 61 keys), and make sure the keys are touch-sensitive. This means if you press on them lightly, you’ll make a soft sound. And if you press on them hard, you’ll play hard.

Lisa also has a curated list of trustworthy products you can browse. For beginners, we recommend the Yamaha P125 and Roland FP30, which are both under $1000.

How long does it take to get good at piano?

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on so many different things: your definition of “good,” how much you practice, and how you practice.

One thing is for sure, though: just because someone can play an impressive-looking song, doesn’t mean they are a good pianist.

But to answer the question, you can learn basic skills pretty quickly if you’re diligent. In fact, you can go from never having touched a piano to playing “Imagine” in seven days.

Progressing from there is a matter of time and dedication. If ever feel frustrated, you’re not alone! There are ways to re-motivate yourself, such as re-visiting why you want to learn how to play the piano.


We hope this guide jumpstarts your piano journey! Honestly, though, we’re so happy you’re here. Welcome to the piano family!

*This article contains affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission from the product seller if you make a purchase. For more info, check out our privacy page.


Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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