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The Beginner's Guide to Learning Piano

Chapter 1How to Choose a Piano or KeyboardChapter 2Piano Learning MethodsChapter 3Proper Piano TechniqueChapter 4Starting to Play PianoChapter 5Reading Piano Sheet Music (the Basics)
Chapter 6Piano PracticeChapter 7Piano Goals and MotivationChapter 8Reading Piano Notes, Timing and DynamicsChapter 9Piano PedalsChapter 10Piano Learning Questions and Answers

Chapter 4

Starting to Play Piano

The Beginner's Guide to Learning Piano

In the last chapter we set you up to start playing. You’re sitting correctly, with strong posture, and you know how to hit a key properly. But you can’t play a piece with just one note. Now we get to know the keyboard so you can put that technique into practice. Starting to play piano, it’s important to use the correct technique, so as you familiarise yourself with the piano it is a good idea to keep returning to Chapter 3 - Proper Piano Technique.

Starting position and orientation

Look down at the keys. Each of them represents a different note, moving from low to high as you move from far left to far right of the keyboard. To help you find your starting point, look at the black keys. You will notice an alternating pattern: groups of two and three black keys.

Groups of two and three black keys
Groups of two and three black keys

The keys are named after letters of the alphabet. Every white key immediately to the left of a group of two black keys is a C. Find the middle of the keyboard, and the C to the left of the group of two black keys. This is middle C, and will be your center point for orientation.

Middle c
Finding middle C

Once you have found middle C, place your right thumb on it. Remember the hand position above. The left side of the thumb, near the tip, should be touching middle C, while the rest of your fingers curl around the imaginary ball (or knee).

Now spread the rest of your fingers on the keys following middle C, assigning one finger to each of the next four white keys, which are D, E, F, and G. This is called the C position. It’ll be your starting position for playing your first melodies. Ignore the black keys for now, we will come to them later.

C position with keys and letters
C position with keys and letters

The other notes

You will have noticed that the notes follow the structure of the alphabet. The same goes for the two notes below C (A and B). Since there are only seven different white keys, we only use the first seven letters in the alphabet: A to G. In other words, the white key that comes after G is an A, then the next is a B, the one after is again a C, and so on. Learning piano, we initially start on C and not on A because many easy songs for beginners can be played in the C position with only white keys.


Correct fingering

In the C position, it is clear which fingers to use for which note. As you start playing the other notes, you might wonder about the correct fingering. In fact, there is no single correct fingering and it depends on many factors. But there are some best practices. If you’re worried you might do it wrong, see Chapter 10 - Piano Myths and Common Concerns for a little more on this topic.

The eight notes from A to the next A make up one octave (from the Latin “octo”). If you experiment with playing the same note in different octaves, you will notice that they sound the same, only higher or lower.

Note names of the white keys

If you look up and down the keyboard you can see that each of the C notes is located to the left of the next group of two black keys. Similarly, each of the F notes is located to the left of a group of three black keys. Once you identify the pattern, or simply count up from the C notes, you can name every white key on the piano. The lowest note on most pianos is an A or C, but always use the middle C position to orient yourself as you will use that area the most.


Note on notation in other languages

The system described above is called English notation. It is by far the most widespread in modern day piano learning. However, if you are returning to piano after learning as a child in a non English-speaking country, it may be possible that you learned an entirely different notation. If this is you, see below for an explanation of how they differ. If it is not you, then go ahead and skip this section.

Fixed Do notation

Students come across this method around the world, but it is especially common in ex-commonwealth countries and some performing arts schools in English-speaking countries. Instead of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, this notation uses Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si. If you know the song “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music”, this may sound somewhat familiar although it is not exactly the same.

German notation

This will make more sense when sharps and flats (black notes) are introduced later, and is mentioned here in case you learned with this method. In German notation the note B is referred to by the letter H. Also, the note that would be B♭ in English (the black note to the left of the B) is referred to as B.

Starting to play

Practice playing all five keys of the C position in order, one at a time, from low to high. Play each key firmly so the note rings out, then release before you play the next. Remember the technique we covered in Chapter 3. Try playing the notes backwards, or skipping notes, see how it feels and sounds.

Experiment again with dynamic, playing these five notes harder or softer, holding them for longer or shorter periods. In the C position, your arm shouldn’t move more than the slight drop of the wrist described in Chapter 3, so remember to keep it relaxed.

Playing your first melodies

We will cover the basics of written music later, but for now we will get you playing your first melodies using a basic form of notation. Start in C position, assign a finger to the notes from C to G, and play the notes written below, raising your finger from the key as you play the next. Hold each note for the same length of time, but when the gap is longer hold the note for longer. Don’t worry if it sounds rough, this is more than enough to get you started. We will introduce a far better way to keep time and represent timing on the page in Chapter 8.

The following song is a traditional piece called Aura Lee, which you may recognize as the melody for Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley.

C F E F G D G - F E D E F - - - C F E F G D G - F E D E F - - -

Congratulations. You just played your first song!

Want more? Try this simplified version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.

E E F G G F E D C C D E E - D D -

E E F G G F E D C C D E D - C C -

Congratulations again. You just played your second song and your first classical melody.

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