Learn to Play Piano

Kathy Adams
pixabay

Learning to play piano does not have to be complicated, nor should it be boring. After learning the notes and fingerings, one of the best ways to get playing is to begin with simple songs that are familiar. Once you learn the basics, then work up through songs you enjoy playing.

The Basics: Learn the Notes

Learning the names of the notes is a must if you ever want to read chord charts, sheet music or even jam with others. Notes on a piano are easier to learn than on many other instruments since the notes repeat in the same visual pattern all the way up and down the keyboard.

Note that the black keys repeat in a series of two or three throughout the piano keyboard (other than at each end, since those contain partial octaves). Many simple piano songs are in the key of C (all white notes) and spotting the C notes is equally simple:

  1. Find a set of two black keys anywhere on the keyboard.
  2. The white key just to the left of the first of the two black ones is a C, every time.

The notes of the white keys follow the alphabet up to G, then start at A again. In other words, the white keys following the C are D, E, F, G, A, B and then C again. Each C is one octave apart from the previous -- the exact same note, just in a higher or lower register, moving right or left, respectively.

To practice finding C and learning to recognize the notes:

  1. Find all the sets of two black notes next to one another.
  2. Touch the white note just to the left of the first of two black notes in any set of two black notes. This is a C.
  3. Touch each successive white note past the C to find the D, E, F, G, A and B notes. The next note, a C, is again just before two black notes next to one another.
  4. Play these notes in succession, naming each note out loud as you go.

Sharps and Flats

Sharps and flats are easy to figure out too; they are the black notes. When moving up the keyboard, every black note is the sharp version of the white note just before it. For instance, the black note next to the C is a C sharp. When playing your way down the keyboard with the notes getting lower, the black keys are called flats. This means that the C sharp note mentioned previously is also a D flat, since it is the black note next down the scale from the D key.

Most songs generally feature only sharps or flats rather than both to avoid confusion.

When you think you know the notes quite well, try this online keyboard trainer to test your knowledge.

To practice and become familiar with the sharps and flats on the keyboard, try this exercise:

  1. Locate the first black note in a set of two, anywhere on the keyboard. This is a C# (sharp) and a Db (flat).
  2. Locate the black note next to the C#. This is a D# or an Eb.
  3. Locate a set of three black notes anywhere on the keyboard. These are F#, G# and A#, or Gb, Ab and Bb if moving downward (lower) on the keyboard.
  4. Practice moving your finger up and down the keyboard and randomly touching notes, trying your best to name the correct notes as you go. Use this chart if you forget the names of any of the notes.

When reading sheet music, it also helps to familiarize yourself with all of the notes and symbols that appear to indicate sharps, flats, and many other nuances.

Playing Triads

A triad is three notes played at the same time; in many cases these notes make up a chord. The easiest chords are triads played by skipping every other white note. For example, play C, E and G for a triad that is also a C chord. (C is the only major key that requires no sharps or flats, so it is the easiest to work with until you're more familiar with the piano.) The F, A, C triad is an F chord and the G, B, D triad is a G chord. These are all the major chords that require only white keys.

As the video below shows, you can play the old rock song Stand By Me with simple triads using only white keys. Play the progression a few times until your fingers feel comfortable playing the triad chords in rhythm and time.

If playing several notes at a time doesn't feel natural yet, practice with a simpler song such as Mary Had a Little Lamb until the movement and timing of the notes feels and sounds natural. Alternate your fingers when playing the song instead of hitting the notes with the same finger each time; this will train your right hand for playing more complex songs.

  1. Place the fingers of your right hand on the C, E and G keys. Press the keys down to make a C chord.
  2. Press down on the F, A and C keys with fingers of your right hand to make an F chord.
  3. Press down on the G, B and D keys with fingers of your right hand to make a G chord.

Familiarize Yourself With Common Chords

Once you're comfortable plinking around the piano and figuring out simple songs you remember from childhood, it's time to learn basic chord fingerings. For instance, the C (major) chord is played as C, E and G using fingers 1, 3 and 5 on your right hand (thumb, middle and pinky, respectively), but the D chord is D, F# and A played with the same fingers. The easiest way to learn is to practice from a chart that shows all the root chord fingerings until you know them well. Playing them in natural order - C, E, G - is called root position, while playing them in another order - E, G, C - is called an inversion. Inversions come in handy for some songs once you've mastered root positions; inversions add a slightly different sound to the chords.

Listen to the differnce in sound between a major and minor chord. For instance, a C major chord - C, E, G - sounds cheery or happy, while a C minor chord - C, Eb, G - sounds a bid sad. As you practice chords without looking at a chart, you'll be able to tell the difference between major and minor by their sound; you'll also know when you hit a wrong note as it will not sound as melodic.

To practice major and minor chords:

  1. Press down on the C, E and G keys to play a C major chord.
  2. Move your finger from E to Eb and sound the chord again. This time it is a C minor chord.
  3. Repeat the process with the F and G chords, each time changing the middle note (A or B, respectively) to its flat black-note position. The new chords are F and G minor chords.

For further practice, try these scale and interval exercises.

Chord Tips

Keep these tips in mind while practicing chords:

  • Major chords can start on sharp or flat notes, too. For instance, Bb, D and F add up to a Bb (major) chord.
  • Minor chords can be all white notes: A minor (A, C, E) and E minor (E, G, B) are played with only white notes.
  • Practice pressing chords up and down the keyboard, quizzing yourself on all chords, such as C major, Db, F minor, and so on. If you get stumped, use the online chord finder to show you the notes.

Many songs can be played with several simple major chords and one minor chord, as shown in this video:

Simple Rock Songs

Rock songs that are easy to play on a guitar are easy to play on a piano, too. Any song that has only three or four chords is great for practicing your rhythm and timing. Pick songs you're familiar with from a list of easy songs, such as Wild Thing by the Troggs (A, D and E chords) or Knockin' on Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan (G, C and D chords). Play along with their recordings or videos, or by memory.

The best part of playing a song based on chord knowledge is that you can utilize guitar tab sites that show chords above the lyrics. The chords will be the same for guitar or piano, when a song is played in its most basic version. There are plenty of four-chord songs that are both fun to practice and simple to learn.

Have fun experimenting with familiar songs until your versions are recognizable, too. Start slowly and repeat sections of each song until you're feeling more confident and can put it all together at the right tempo. Learning piano should be fun rather than tedious; if you enjoy playing, you're bound to practice enough to become fairly skilled with the basics. Playing piano is always a work in progress. There's always more to learn and room to improve, and the reward is in the playing itself.

Here's an example of how you can play a simple, popular song with only a few chords:

  1. Play the C, F and G chords again. These chords make up the song "Down on the Corner" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
  2. Practice playing the right-hand portion of the song by playing the chords C, G, C, G, C, F. Follow along with this video to play the song in real time.

Tips for Practicing:

  • Play along with recordings of songs you're learning once you're confident you can keep up. The more you play them, the easier they'll become. If the songs are complicated, play what you can and don't worry about hitting every single note at first. Once you ace the simpler parts of each song, you can hone in on the solos, arpeggios and tricky parts.
  • To master complicated passages, listen to them over and over, then plink them out at a pace that works for you until playing them becomes second nature. After you master them at a slow speed, pick up the pace until you can play them at the appropriate tempo.
  • Challenge yourself by moving on to songs with more chords, and in different genres such as classical.

Keep Learning

Learning to play piano is an ongoing process. The more effort you put into it, the better player you'll become. Once simple three-chord songs seem easy to play in chord form, play the main chord note (a C, F or G, for instance) with your left hand elsewhere on the piano. These "root" notes help anchor the sound of the song. Play or make up simple songs that have more than three chords, or that use major and minor chords. In time, you'll be able to jam along with friends or with recordings, or even make some of your own.

Learn to Play Piano