Playing the piano is an incredibly rewarding experience and a great skill that you can use to keep yourself entertained and to keep yourself almost ‘company’ while you are alone, or to entertain guests and people who are around to listen.
Learning any instrument is a great skill and a great achievement, but there are many things about the piano that make it the instrument of choice for a large variety of people; from its soft mellow tones, to its versatility (allowing you to play pop, jazz, blues, classical and more) to its accessibility. The great thing about playing the piano is that it’s something anyone can do – you simply have to press keys to make notes and you will intuitively know that you need to move up the keys to play higher notes and down the keyboard to play lower ones and this will mean that a lot of people can have a tinkle or can play some easy tunes by ear with no training. However at the same time the piano is an instrument that as you progress requires you to play anywhere up to eight notes at once which you will have to site read in different timings while also using your feet to operate the pedals. This makes the piano an instrument that gets harder the more you learn and while most people can pick it up, it is an instrument that takes years to master.
Making sure that you get the basics right to begin with is an important way to lie some of the ground work for later and to avoid getting into difficulty later on. Here we will look at what you will learn when you start playing the piano and what you should expect.
1. Learning the layout
The first thing you will have to do is to learn the layout of the keys so that you know which key corresponds to which note. The central key is ‘C’ and this you can identify by the fact that it has two black notes to the right of it but only a white note immediately left. On a piano keyboard the white notes all represent tones, while the black notes represent semi tones. This means that the black notes are the sharps and flats – sharps being on the right of those notes and flats being on the left. The notes then go up alphabetically as you go right up the piano keys and they will get gradually higher as you do. This means that the white note on the right of the ‘middle C’ is a ‘D’ and next to this is an ‘E’. On the left of the middle C is a B. The black note on the right of the C however is a ‘C Sharp’ which means it is half way between C and D. It can also be referred to a ‘D flat’. Which one it is referred to will depend on the ‘key’ you are playing in, which we will come to later. There are eight notes in an ‘octave’ meaning that there are only eight notes in music (not counting semi tones). Thus, when the notes reach ‘G’ the next on the right starts again at ‘A’.
Knowing just these very basics it is possible to play some basic tunes if you look up music that has the notes transcribed ‘C, D, E, D, E, E, E, D, D, D’ etc, rather than written as a score. You can make yourself faster at playing this basic music by sticking labels onto the keys with each of the keys’ names on them, which will also help you to learn your way around the piano.
2. Positioning and maneuvering your fingers
When you first start playing in this way the temptation will be to play with one finger just as some people type with one finger. This however is a bad habit to get into and you won’t be able to play more complex music quickly enough this way, or play ‘chords’ which are groups of notes together. As such you should start with both thumbs hovering around the middle C and then play outwards with each hand. Depending on the music you will hold your left hand normally around one octave lower when playing.
Normally for the sake of speed your hands will travel across the keys they are meant to be playing like stepping stones rather than coming completely away from the keys. To do this you need to learn to tuck your thumb under your hand, and to fold your middle finer over. You will also tend to play white notes between black ones with your thumb.
In order to learn how to position your fingers (and to learn about keys) it is possible to find music with numbers on them. These numbers refer to fingers that should be playing the notes they are over where ‘1’ is the thumb and ‘5’ is the little finger.
3. The pedals
When you come to play the pedals there will normally only be two, and as a rule this will be largely subjective when you choose to use them. When you use the pedals on a piano normally the left pedal will be used to ‘hold’ notes so that they carry for longer, while the right one will be used to soften them and make them shorter.
4. Reading music
Reading music is of course the next step to being able to play the piano and this is a whole article in itself. However the very basis are that the music, like the notes, move upwards alphabetically. This is written on lines and the spaces in between them, so that if one line is ‘D’ then the space above it will be ‘E’ and the line above that will be ‘F’ (the higher you go the higher the note). Timing is then indicated by the colour and the style of the note, with a black note with a tale being one beat, while those strung together are half-beats and quarter-beats depending on how many are tied together. White notes then are ‘2’ and white notes with no tale are ‘4’. Sharp notes will have a ‘#’ sign in front of them, while flat notes will have a ‘b’ sign.
When playing the piano things are made more complicated by the fact that there are two hands. This means that you have to read two lines of music simultaneously and these will be organised differently in a ‘treble clef’ and ‘base clef’ which are the top and bottom lines respectively. The top line of the base clef (left hand) is an ‘A’, while the bottom line of the treble clef is an ‘E’. Notes that appear below or above the lines will have a line through them or above/under them to represent where the lines would be had the grid extended further. Thus a middle ‘C’ can be written in the left hand as floating above the top with a line through it, while it will be written in the right hand as just below, also with a line through it.
This may seem complicated at first, but suffice to say that if the notes head upwards you move your hand upwards on the keys and vice versa.
5. Understanding key signatures
The final aspect of learning music that you will need to understand is ‘key signatures’ which dictate which notes are swapped for flats and sharps. This will be indicated to the left of the base of treble clef at the start of the music and from then on you will have to remember to play the indicated notes as sharps or flats (they will be only one or the other). This is what allows two melodies to work together and as long as you stick to the same key you can this way ‘jam’ along with a piece of music you’ve never heard before.
Of course there is far more to playing the piano than just that and the only real way to learn properly is to start playing. However this basic introduction should help lay the foundations so that you can better understand what you learn subsequently and so that you can start having a go on your own.