Whether you’ve just purchased a new keyboard, or have one laying around that you’ve been meaning to play, the task of learning a new instrument can be daunting. It seems as if piano proficiency is some sort of “magic” or something that only people with natural born “talent” can do.

It’s not. And that’s why this article is aimed at providing keyboard lessons for beginners that are straightforward enough to follow so that you can slowly begin to master playing your new keyboard or piano.

Everyone who knows how to play the piano started out not knowing the first thing about where “Middle C” is or what a basic chord progression is. If this describes you, then this article can provide you with some basics to start making music in three crucial lessons for beginners who want to learn how to play the piano:

This article can be used in conjunction with a learning method or can be used on its own.

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What’s What?

Before jumping in, it is necessary to learn some piano “vocabulary”: finger numbers and note names.

Hands

“Right hand” is abbreviation with RH, and “left hand is abbreviated” with LH. On sheet music, often the editor will provide finger numbers (especially when it is not intuitive) over right hand notes and under left hand notes. The finger numbers proceed like this: thumb=one, index=two, middle finger=three, ring finger=four, pinky=five, in both hands, respectively.

White Keys

Numbers label fingers and letters label notes. The notes on the piano follow alphabetically from “A” to “G”, then starting over on “A” again. However, instead of thinking of “A” as your “anchor” note, musicians often think of “C” as an anchor (hence “Middle C”). To begin practicing how to find notes, begin with finding each “C” on the piano. If you have a keyboard with 61 keys instead of the standard 88, you will have less, but it is doable.  A shortage of a few keys will only affect playing a very limited amount of repertoire (mostly classical, think Beethoven Sonatas and Chopin Ballades).

Notes to the left on the keyboard are referred to as “down” or “low” and notes to the right are referred to as “up” or “high”. To experiment with high and low sounds, play some notes in the high register (to the right) and notice how they resemble the sound of tweeting birds. Then play some notes in the low register (to the left) and notice how they resemble a low growl.

To find “C”, look to the black keys for assistance. If you examine the notes on your keyboard, you will notice that the black notes occur in sets of two and three. Each set of two black keys (but not three) has a “C” just to the left. Begin at the bottom (the left) of the keyboard and play every “C” you find up to the top. This will help familiarize yourself with an “anchor” from which you can easily locate other notes.

When you have become the master of “C’s”, then proceed to learning the “F’s”. Finding “F” is like finding “C”, except instead of being just left of the group of two black keys, “F” is just left of the group of three black keys. Once you have learned the two basic “anchors”, you will be able to find any note quickly. For example, if I said, “find ‘G’”, you would know that your closest anchor note is “F” (thinking alphabetically) and go up (right) one note to G. With a bit of practice, this is the most efficient way to learn every note on the piano.

Black Keys

The black keys are for some reason intimidating to new pianists, but they are the simplest concept. To understand the names of the black keys, you will need to know what a “half-step” and an “accidental” are. A half step on the piano refers to a note that is exactly one note away from the original note. An “accidental” in music refers to either a “sharp” (), flat (), or natural (). Sharp means “raised” and flat means “lowered”.  The note “D-flat”, or “D”, is one half-step down from “D”. Natural means resume to the original note. Another example is “C-sharp”, or “C”, is one half-step up from “C”. These notes are enharmonically equivalent, meaning that “D-flat” and “C-sharp” are the same note on the piano. Enharmonic equivalents are notes that sound the same but are spelled differently.

Staff: the set of five lines on which music is written

Grand staff: includes two staves (plural of staff); the entire picture above (not including middle C)

Treble clef: the symbol that indicates which music will generally be played by the right hand/music that is played higher on the keyboard

Bass clef: the symbol that indicates which music will generally be played by the left hand/music that is played lower on the keyboard

“Middle C”: is located in between the two staves on a ledger line (the line that is drawn through the note when there are not enough lines on the staff)

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Step 2: Reading the Treble Clef

It is traditional to learn how to read the treble clef first, then the bass clef. Two acronyms are useful when quickly learning treble clef.

  1. FACE (easy to remember)- the spaces in between the lines, from bottom to top
  2. EGBDF (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge)- the lines, from bottom to top

        Treble clef is sometimes called the “G clef” because the clef spirals around the “G”. This can be a quick reference point if you need to count notes, or in case you forget the acronyms.

Step 3: Reading the Bass Clef

There are also popular acronyms for the learning the bass clef:

  1. ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass)- the spaces in between the lines, from bottom to top
  2. GBDFA (Great Big Dodos Fly Anywhere)- the lines, from bottom to top

 Bass clef is sometimes referred to as “F Clef” because the colon surrounds the “F”.

Tips for Quick Success

Like learning a foreign language, learning how to read music takes time and practice. The fastest way to familiarize yourself with the notes are to purchase flashcards or find some online courses. Practice your flashcards every day, even if just for two or three minutes. The first and most obvious way to practice them is to look at the note, try to recall the name, and then check yourself. When this gets easier, then combine this procedure with finding the note on the piano. Once you become an expert at doing this, you can officially read music, and theoretically, sit down and sight read simple tunes.

Playing by Ear

Playing music by ear can also seem to be somewhat of a mystifying talent, but it can be learned with a bit of practice. If you want to stick to learning music by reading scores (sheet music), that is fine, but there is another world outside of just reading music that includes playing by ear and improvising. Counterintuitively, improvising is very beginner-friendly.

Improvising seems just like it sounds: making it up. This is partially true, but even in the freest forms of improvisation there lies structure. A painter’s boundary is the edges of his canvas; a dancer’s boundary are physical limits… etc. The boundaries for a musician are usually an established key and/or chord progression from which they can improvise. A chord progression is a sequence of chords and a chord is three or more notes played together.

This chord progression is I-vi-IV-V (then back to I). Chords can be called by their name as shown above (C major) or as roman numerals. The Roman numerals are necessary to learn because they apply to every key. C major is roman numeral “I”, because the bottom note (the root) of the chord is the first note in the C major scale. If you build a chord on this note (C – E – G), it is called “I” (“one”). The next chord is A minor, or “vi”, because it is built on the sixth note of the C Major scale: “A”, and so on and so forth. This chart demonstrates how to name and build chords in the key of C Major. Scale degrees refer to notes and Roman numerals refer to their chords.

If you are a beginner wanting to improvise, this chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) is a great start, considering it is the chord progression utilized by many pieces of music in many genres, especially pop. The I-vi-IV-V progression should be played with the left hand alone using finger numbers 1, 3, and 5. To move between chords, your finger placement stays the same, but the position changes to different notes. Practice playing the chord progression until it becomes comfortable. After learning I-vi-IV-V, there are many songs you can play. In fact, there is a Wikipedia page entirely dedicated to songs that use this progression.

This chord progression is also ideal for improvising. It is your only “boundary”. While the left hand plays, experiment with sounds in the right hand until you find something you like. You might find that while “E” sounds pleasant with a C major chord, and “F-sharp” does not. Or you might quite enjoy the sound of an “F-sharp” with a “C”. The process of improvisation can be incredibly rewarding. If you dedicate time every once in a while to sit at the piano and improvise, it does wonders for the musical ear, even if it is the simplest of improvisations.

All these things take practice, but learning note and finger names, reading music, and training your ear are some fantastic skills to add to your musical “arsenal” when beginning to learn the keyboard. The sections start with the most important, basic information: “What’s What”, and the next two sections can both be completed, or just one can be chosen. If you are aiming to play classical music, section two, “Introduction to Reading Music”, is vital, and if you are aiming to play jazz, section three, “Playing be Ear”, will be more important. If your goal is to become a proficient pianist who plays music for fun, in any genre, the information in all the section will help you succeed.

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