Maybe you want to learn to play the piano. Maybe you don’t have even a smidge of musical training. If either or both of these two “maybe’s” applies to you, then this tutorial is for you.
Let’s start with the absolute basics and make our way upward from there. There are thousands of music theory elements that we could discuss. If we did so here, this would become a book rather than an article! So let’s narrow things down to a manageable size. Here are the five categories this article will address:
- Basic Elements – Staff, Clef Signs, etc.
- Notes and Rests
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As a somewhat famous song once mentioned, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” For a musician, music notation is the ‘language’ used to write music in a manageable form. No matter what instrument is utilized, music notation is necessary to communicate which pitches we play, their duration and attack, the volume of the music we make, and many other vital bits of information.
To understand music notes for piano, we must be able to write them down. To write this music, we utilize a staff. A music staff consists of 5 lines and 4 spaces. The pitches are identified on the staff by use of clef signs. For pianists, the grand staff is used:
The clef signs are the symbols that appear at the beginning of each staff of music. The upper clef sign is called the treble clef, and it identifies notes in the upper ranges. The bass clef sign is on the lower staff and denotes the lower-pitched notes.
The treble staff line notes are centered on each line of the staff. The space notes fit in the spaces between the lines. The space notes in the treble staff, from bottom to top, spell a word: F A C E.
We use sentences to remember the line notes on the treble staff:
Most people have heard the sentence “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” using the first letter of each word to recall the notes on the lines. That one is old school. My favorite is “Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips.”
In the bass clef, sentences are used to recall both space notes and line notes. A typical sentence for the space notes is shown:
All Cows Eat Grass is an easy to remember sentence for the space notes. The line notes—G, B, D, F, A—are often recalled using Good Boys Do Fine Always. Still boring, unfortunately! One of my students came up with this one: Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart.
Each staff can be extended by adding short lines, called leger/ledger lines. (Whichever spelling you choose to use is correct.) These lines are added below or above a staff, theoretically infinitely, to note much lower or higher pitches.
Notes and Rests
Music is written in notes, which have many values. Those values can change according to the time signature of the musical composition. For purposes of this article, we will assume a time signature of 4/4.
You can keep adding flags and reducing the value of each note as shown in the patterns above.
Music also incorporates symbols called “rests.” A rest means simply “silence in time.” In order words, each rest gets the corresponding value of silence as its ‘brother’ note, or the note from whence it takes its name.
A sharp sign (#) raises a note by a half step, or to the very next key upward. A flat sign (b) lowers a note by a half step, or to the very next key downward. A simple way to remember the difference between the sharp and the flat signs would be to remember that a flat tire is a LOWER tire. Likewise, a flat note is a LOWER note.
Scales are a series of notes played on a musical instrument that have a particular pattern. Here is an example of a C Major scale:
In this particular scale, no black keys are played. This scale begins on white keys and remains on the white keys. The example shown is an ascending scale, which goes up the keyboard (from lower note to higher note). A descending scale would, of course, go down the keyboard.
Minor scales are built differently than their related major scales. There is only one type of major scale in diatonic (Western) music, whereas there are three different types of minor scales: natural, harmonic and melodic. Similarly named minor scales (e.g., c natural minor, c harmonic minor, and c melodic minor) are also similar in their structure, with small elements distinguishing the three types from one another.
Notice that I use lower case letters for the minor scale names? Upper case letters are used for Major scales; lower case letters are used for minor scales or chords.
A major scale and all of the minor scales can be played beginning on any note on the piano or on the staff. Scales, both major and minor, have specific patterns that MUST be followed to be considered a scale. Scales also have specific fingering patterns that have been developed over centuries for ease and speed in playing.
Scales are practiced to increase finger facility, dexterity, and ease of movement at the piano. Most pianists study and practice scales their entire lives. If you want to learn to play piano, you should study them and practice them daily as well.
Simply put, intervals are the distances between musical notes and/or keys on a keyboard or on another instrument. I devised this interval worksheet for my students some years ago:
INTERVALS & Examples
UNISON— Same Note = = = C, same C
SECOND (2ND)— Minor 2nd == 1 half step === C to Db, E to F
Major 2nd == 2 half steps == C to D, E to F#
THIRD (3RD)– Minor 3rd == 3 half steps == C to Eb, E to G
Major 3rd == 4 half steps == C to E, E to G#
Perfect FOURTH (4TH) – 5 half steps == C to F, E to A
Perfect FIFTH (5TH) — 7 half steps == C to G, E to B
OCTAVE (8TH) – 12 half steps == C to C, E to E, etc.
Using the above information including the keyboard diagram, you can easily discover the stated intervals on any given note on a piano. The intervals named above are some of the most used intervals in building chords, although many other intervals can and are used.
Practicing these intervals on all the keys of a piano/keyboard will help you learn to recognize their distinctive sounds.
A chord occurs when three or more tones are played together, either simultaneously or one/two at a time. Chords are used to accompany melodies and add harmony and tone color to a melody.
There are literally thousands of chords in multiple configurations. Obviously, I have neither time nor space to discuss them all. For the sake of brevity, let’s talk about three types of chords: major, minor, and dominant 7th. These chords are the most commonly used chords on any instrument capable of playing chords.
Let’s look at the scale diagram from above once again:
If scale tones were numbered on this diagram, the lowest C of each scale would be 1, the D would be 2, and so on. Chord “formulas” are based on the tones of a major scale. (You can use minor scales, too, but using just the major chords is the easiest way to explain the ways these chords are built.)
A major chord uses the first, third, and fifth tones of a major scale. We write this as 1, 3, 5. Using the C Major scale, for example, the 1, 3, and 5 of the scale would be C, E, and G. C, E, G is a C major chord. Here are the notes of the most commonly used major scales:
C Major = C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C D Major = D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
F Major = F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F G Major = G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
Using the numbering example given above, a C Major chord consists of C, E, G.
A D Major chord would have the notes D, F#, A.
An F Major chord has the notes F, A, C.
A G Major chord consists of the notes G, B, D.
The notes of any Major chord are played with the first (thumb) finger, 3rd finger and 5th finger.
Any minor chord consists of the following tones on the major scale: 1, 3b, 5. This means that the 1st tones of the Major and minor chords are the same, as are the 5th tones. The third, however, is flatted in a minor chord.
Using this numbering system, a C minor chord consists of C, Eb, G.
A D minor chord would have the notes D, F, A. (The F# is flatted, resulting in an F.)
An F minor chord has the notes F, Ab, C.
A G minor chord consists of the notes G, Bb, D.
A dominant 7th chord consists of the following tones of the Major scale: 1, 3, 5, 7b. This is a four note chord that uses the 1st tone of the Major scale, the 3rd and 5th tones of the Major scale, and a flatted 7th tone of the Major scale.
Thus, a C7 (pronounced C-seven) chord consists of C, E, G, Bb.
A D7 chord would have the notes D, F#, A, C.
An F7 chord has the notes F, A, C, Eb.
A G7 chord consists of the notes G, B, D, F.
You can probably see that music is much more detailed than most non-musicians know. This article covers just a very few of the basics of musical understanding. Searching out sources for music worksheets helps to understand some of these basics, as well as many others that weren’t mentioned here.
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