Piano Theory for Beginners: Guide to Playing Piano

I’ve said the following many times in my 23 years of teaching piano and had many successful attempts at applying an antidote for students’ negative thinking: There are only 7 letters in the musical alphabet. We all have the same tools, so it’s not what you’re using that matters most but how you’re using it.

Learning and teaching piano theory is the same as food: portions, purpose and perspective.  So, in this article, we’re going to examine all three in depth, which should allow you a better understanding of music theory and a better confidence and ability ti play the piano.


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Casio PX 560Casio PX-560

Portions, Purposes and Perspectives of Music Theory

The reason you need to study music theory in appropriate portions is because the following list is only an outline of what you must mentally ingest:

  1. The Musical Alphabet
  2. Notes w/Pitch (assigned to the letters of the musical alphabet)
  3. Note Types w/Rhythmic Value (notes that take up as you play them, double whole to 64th note)
  4. Intervals (the distance between two notes)
  5. Accidentals (naturals, sharps, flats, double-sharps and double-flats that alter the pitch of a note to make it sound either higher or lower)
  6. Enharmonics (notes having more than one letter/name)
  7. Chords (3 or more notes specific distances apart played simultaneously or in succession)
  8. Block Chords or Arpeggios (see above in number 7)
  9. Scales (a series of notes in a particular order/formation)
  10. Keys and key Signatures (a sonic foundation for a song/piece and the accidentals used to create/display it)
  11. Quality (the tone and/or “mood” of the intervals, chords and keys)
  12. Modes (variations on scales used primarily in jazz, blues, classical and/or experimental music)
  13. Rhythm [this entails a volume of topics including time signatures; beats; syncopation; styles such as Salsa, straight beats, shuffles, swing, etc.; note values; note placement; downbeats; upbeats and much, much more)
  14. Measures/Bars (the space in which a certain amount of beats are allotted for the purpose of making songs easier to read and perform)
  15. Bar Lines (lines that separate measures)
  16. Tempo (how fast a song is played)
  17. Expression Markings (Legato; Staccato; directions/suggestions from the composer on how to play the piece in his/her vision)
  18. Tempo Markings (Allegro, Rubato and changing the tempo from one speed to another, either suddenly or over time, etc.)
  19. Staff (a set of 5 lines and 4 spaces upon which notes are place for the reading and performance of music)
  20. Staves (more than one staff)
  21. Ledger Lines (the lines of a staff or staves)
  22. Clefs (treble, bass and more; specifically for piano they designate what notes are played by the left and right hands)
  23. Genre-based theory (theory specific to Jazz, Blues, Country music, Counterpoint, etc.)
  24. Slurs (playing a group of notes smoothly in one phrase/”musical sentence”)
  25. Performance-based Markings (trills, glissandos, etc.)
  26. Accents (an emphasis on certain notes or chords indicating to play them with more force and/or volume)
  27. Inversions (the way you “voice” or play the notes of a chord in various ways)

It’s a long list and it’s not even complete or comprehensive. It’s merely an example of the many pieces there are to the music theory puzzle. We must learn to assemble over our time as musicians/students (and we are all, always students).

Do you really want to shove all that in your brain at the same time? I know I wouldn’t, and didn’t.

And it’s certainly not a “beginner” list of information, even in its incomplete state.

That is why I say “portions” are so important to both the teacher and the student when it comes to the digestive process of music theory education.

Be encouraged! … because the “Purpose” and “Perspective” sections in this article both simplify and give meaning to that long and unfinished list above.

If you’re interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard in a fun and interactive fashion, then look no further then Piano for All. This course features 10 in-depth eBooks that contain 200 video lessons and 500 audio lessons. And best of all, the course works on PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, or any Android phone or tablet.  Get your copy of Piano for All today while supplies last!


This really falls back to number 21 in the “Portions” list referring to Genre-based theory. While I believe that music theory is simply “music theory,” I will say that the specific application of it varies with each style of music.

Think of this more like your favorite foods at a buffet. You walk the line and put what you want on your plate and you eat it. Then you walk the line later for a second course and finally for dessert. 

Some people even get second courses of dessert.

No judgment here.

Jazz music uses different chords and melodic structures than Pop.

Classical music uses different instrumentation than does Bluegrass.

EDM (Electronic Dance Music) many times doesn’t use actual music theory at all and instead leans on mood, vibe and pure, impulsive passion and sound creation to be written/performed.

Music theory is indeed simply “music theory” and it’s all-inclusive. But you don’t use or need to know it all each-and-every-time you play the piano or keyboard.

You do need to know your purpose for learning and applying it, however. And that, my friends, comes either instantly/naturally or over a long walk down a winding road.

Either way, Taylor Swift doesn’t need to use the Phrygian Mode to write a hit song.

Neither did the late, great Tom Petty. That man was a master of using three chords and sometimes even a 3-note melody to create a pop-rock masterpiece.

(Check out Free Fallin’ when you get chance. It really is a 3 chord song with a 3-4 note melody we’ll analyze it in-depth in a later article on more advanced composition and music theory).

So you see, while I fully recommend you learn all the music theory you can (and most definitely learn the basics immediately as you start piano lessons) knowing your “purpose” will direct you to which portions to take in at which times.



I spent a few years playing in various churches. At one particular church I split the service piano duties with an amazing April 30th Taurus psalmist who sang like an angel. His piano playing was full of passion and sounded amazing.

We split the service because he also performed at another church later in the morning so I had to cut in and take over for him.

One particular Sunday the service was running long and he had to leave mid-song. The song was booming and the piano sounded bold and challenging.

I didn’t know the song and there was no sheet music as he was playing by ear. He gave me the “secret signal” to take over and I walked up and watched over his shoulder as he played a verse and chorus.

I shed (learn songs) quickly and always have for some reason so I learned the song in one passing of the verse and chorus as he hoped I would. It was awkward but somehow we managed to pass the song to me without missing a beat.

But as soon as I played the 1st chord of the 2nd verse I had to quickly adjust the volume (it was an 88 key digital piano) and adjust my performance approach. The chords were simple and I played the exact same inversions/notes as he did but sounded drastically different.

Now, I was by far a better-trained pianist than he was, although I will never be able to sing the way that man does, but for the life of me I could not match his passion, tone and performance level.

He was/is a psalmist with a purposeful and applicable drive and I was a rock/jazz/blues piano bar player finding my way through churches at the time. His “perspective” on how to approach the performance of the song beat out my technical proficiency.

His “perspective” behind the concept of playing the piano was different than mine, and, in that case, more appropriate for the setting.

Some Subtle Music Theory Insights

Music theory can be confusing because not only does it contain what seems like an endless amount of topics to learn, some terms/words have double meanings.

A prime example of this is the words “keys.”

There are piano “keys” which you press to play notes, which make sounds at various pitches that make up melodies, harmonies and songs. This is different for other instruments, mind you.  For example the guitar has a fret board and strings while a trumpet has a mouthpiece and pistons.

Songs are also in “keys” which are a particular set of notes used to create a sonic foundation and mood.

If you focus on the portions you learn in one sitting, the purpose of why you’re learning it and keep an open perspective of its application, then music theory becomes less daunting and more of a friend that comes with you on a long and wonderful musical journey.

Beginner’s Guide to Playing the Piano

Welcome to the briefing. This subject can be lengthy but in this article we’re going to provide a brief walkthrough of things you, as a beginning piano student, need to consider.

A full-size acoustic piano most of the time has 88 keys on it. There are larger pianos with extensions for concert pianists but as a beginner you won’t be dealing with those.

The good news is those 88 keys use what is called “the musical alphabet” and the musical alphabet has only 7 letters to it (A thru G).

The keys on the piano are assigned letters in really easy to remember patterns that repeat up and down the keyboard. Therefore you don’t have to memorize 88 different keys/notes; just patterns of 7. Well…and patterns of 12 but we’ll get to that later.

Music has different pitches that sound higher and lower. These pitches are played in groups or as single notes to create what are called chords, melodies and songs.

The roar of a fire truck engine has a lower pitch. The squeak of a mouse has a higher pitch

A Tuba has lower pitches. A flute has higher pitches.

The keys/notes on the piano sound higher as you play up the keyboard (to the right and usually with your right hand) and lower (to the left and usually with your left hand).

Music theory can be a life-long journey because as long as you apply yourself you can always push the boundaries of sound and creation.

The piano keyboard has both black and white keys on it. These keys go up and down the piano in patterns of 7 and 12 so once you learn those patterns you can apply them to any area of the keyboard. That means 88 keys is reduced to one area of 7-12 notes and you just play those 7-12 notes in higher or lower areas.

It’s like going to McDonalds 1 mile to the east or 1 mile to the west. They are both McDonalds and they both serve the same things (usually) but which one you go to depends on which way you need to go.

You can (and should) learn to read music on printed pages called “sheet music” or in lesson/composition books. You can also learn (and should) to play “by ear” which means you don’t use the written page to tell you what to play.

You will need to find a teacher and/or some kind of online learning source such as piano lesson eBooks or video tutorials. I strongly suggest you hire an in-person teacher you like and also use high-quality online products/videos to further advance your learning process.

Be aware that not everything you read, hear or see online is correct. People have good intentions but they don’t always have good enough training to be actually teaching. Make sure you know what you’re learning from online is the real-deal (as far as music education and experience goes).

Your age will largely determine the size of your hands and the type of music you want to play. There are already countless books and courses out there that are written for these various situations. Your teacher can help guide you to use the right beginner material for your age, needs and goals.

Be prepared to practice and be honest about the time you can spend doing it. Even more important than that is for you to be honest with your teacher how much time you actually practiced during the previous week so he/she can help you better.

For example, if you really did practice 30 minutes a day, seven days a week and are still struggling with a particular song or part, the teacher can help you adjust to get it right.

But if you didn’t actually practice and are struggling and the teacher thinks you did he/she is going to have a really hard time helping you overcome your musical struggles.

Below is a list of other things you can expect and should think about as a beginner student:

What piano/keyboard are you using? This is important for your teacher to know. It is also important for your development as a player. I always suggest starting on an acoustic piano or fully-weighted electric piano if at all possible as opposed to a keyboard with no weight to its keys. Using a weighted keyboard changes how quickly you advance, trust me.

Should you use an in-person teacher or utilize online lessons and eBooks, etc. As stated above I strongly suggest you use both.

What are your goals as a student and musician? Do you want to be a professional? Are you just experimenting to see if you like it? Something in between? Be sure to tell your teacher what your musical and piano goals are. This will help them help you the best that they can.

What is your favorite song? I always ask my new students this question. Knowing this answer helps you determine your reasons and direction for taking piano lessons. And while there are definitely some must learn piano songs, knowing your favorite(s) helps the teacher understand your personality and goals as well.

Ask your teacher if they can proficiently teach the endgame style that you want to learn. Seriously. Some won’t be able to get you where you want to go, musically-speaking. Some will. It is in your best interest to find out how far your teacher can take you in your musical journey.

How much time do you have to practice? Be aware of your schedule and how much time you can dedicate to practicing the piano each day. Be realistic about it: it will help you and your teacher set reasonable and achievable goals for your lessons.

Body language and posture are important for all pianists and you’ll need to get used to them at first. This is normal. Believe it or not you can play louder just by leaning forward towards the keys as opposed to pushing them harder. You can also play more softly by leaning back away from the keys as opposed to pushing more softly. Proper posture also helps you play the right notes and keep good hand position.

Hand Position is one of the biggest and most important things you must think about as a beginner student. You don’t have to be rigid about it – just be aware.  Tilting your hand just a little bit one way or the other means a world of difference between playing what you meant to play or not.

This is a big one: Expect to have to play things you don’t like along with playing what you love. Before you start complaining, think about it.

Does an NFL player only play games on Sundays? No. They practice in the heat, rain, cold, wind all throughout the week.

And they train all throughout the off-season, too.

They run sprints and lift weights. They get hit by large men at high speeds and go through pain. They are on diets specific to their positions.

What you see on Sundays is maybe 10% of what they put into their respective careers and preparation. You will have to play scales and exercises along with your favorite songs. This again is normal. I did it and everyone does. In fact I still play exercises and scales because they are what give your hands and brain the strength and ability to play your favorite songs.

Be prepared to work as a beginner student but also expect to have fun. Following this walkthrough and listed guide can seriously help you get the most education and positive experiences out of your piano lessons.

Once I was teaching someone who quickly became one of my most talented and proficient students as he advanced rapidly through his exercises. But after only a couple of months he came in to a lesson with his father and said he wanted to quit because he didn’t’ think I could teach him how to play songs.

I asked him what song he wanted to learn and he said “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. Of course I knew it…I had been on professional stages for decades and knew hundreds and hundreds of songs in that style.

So, I gladly wrote out and showed him the introduction to “Piano Man.” To his extreme surprise he couldn’t “just play it.”

It’s Billy Joel—he practiced and was/is really, really good at playing the piano because of it. And he didn’t get that way just by playing “Piano Man.” He got that way because he developed his skills, strengths and talent through practicing other things, just like the NFL players do before you see them play on Sundays.

So, be open and prepared to not only to work, but enjoy yourself and learn more than you ever thought you could. Playing the piano can change your life in major, positive ways. It did mine!

If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!

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