Learning Piano - Getting Started

Getting Started

Before you start, have a quick check to make sure your piano is tuned. The more out of tune a piano is, the worse it will sound, which can be rather discouraging! Just run your fingers along the keys and see if any stick or have a tinny, reverberating sound. If they do, this probably means your piano is out of tune.

Getting your piano tuned can cost a bit, but it is well worth while, and unless your piano is really old, or located in a hot or humid area, it should stay in tune for 5 years or so. To keep your piano in tune longer, it’s a good idea to play it as often as you can (pianos work better the more they are played) and position it against an internal wall, rather than one of the exterior walls of the house. This helps to protect it against heat and damp.

Once you’ve established whether or not your piano is in tune, it’s time to get started.

The first thing you need to do is to position your hands on the keyboard. Sit down at the piano and make sure that your chair/stool is at a comfortable height when your hands are resting on the keyboard. Your elbows should be positioned approximately at your waist with your forearms stretching out at a 90 degree angle from your upper arm, not on an angle.

Your hands are going to be positioned around ‘middle C’. You can easily remember where middle C is, because it is right in the middle of your piano, just above the brand name written on the front panel.

To position your hands, place both your thumbs on middle C and each finger on both hands on one key each spanning outwards. This is known as the ‘C position’.

In some ways, middle C is one of the most important notes on the piano, because it is at the centre of the piano keyboard and marks a ‘central’ pitch as well.

When you look at the piano you will notice that the same patterns of notes keep repeating themselves. These patterns are called ‘Octaves’. Each octave contains 8 notes. For example, the octave up from middle C contains the notes CDEFGABC. These same notes are repeated all the way up and down the piano and the notes within each octave are called scales. RememberDo Re Me Fa So La Te Do from the musical The Sound of Music? These are the 8 notes that make up a scale.

In actuality, there are only 7 ‘different’ white notes on the piano (ABCDEFG) and 5 ‘different’ black notes. What distinguishes the notes in each octave is the pitch (the high or low sound). So, for example, you can play a C at a very high pitch or a very low pitch. All these different Cs produce a different pitch, but they are still the same note. Play four Cs at one time to see what I mean.

See how they blend together completely? This is another useful way of testing whether your piano is in tune. If it isn’t, this exercise will sound horribly discordant!

Because middle C marks the centre of high and low pitches on the keyboard, it is also the centre not between the bass scales. The notes above middle C are notated on the treble clef, while the notes below middle C are shown on the bass clef.

The clef symbol is the first symbol that appears at the beginning of every stave. The treble and bass clefs are the most widely used in music. There are a couple of other clefs as well, but we won't be looking at those in these lessons.

Most woodwind instruments use the treble clef, as well as high brass, violins, and tuned percussion. On the piano, the right hand usually is written in treble clef, while the left hand is written in bass clef. In vocal music, both soprano and contralto parts now use the treble clef, while tenor and bass parts use the bass clef.

In this first lesson, we are going to play a few short pieces, just using the right hand, which uses the notes of the middle C octave.

The notes that are used in this exercise are known as crotchet beats.

Crotchets look like this:

As you can see, crotchets have a filled base with a straight stem. The stem can either point up or down, depending on whether the note is below or above the middle stave line. The idea being to keep the music notation more compact and tidy this way!

Some of these terms, like ‘crotchet’ are in the glossary below this lesson, so refer to the definitions if you are unclear about any terms that appear. However, don’t worry too much though, as I will be revisiting all of these terms and concepts in later lessons.

When I was learning the piano, I found co-ordinating my fingers one of the most difficult things to do. It may sound laughable (and you may not struggle with it the way I did!), but as the pieces in these lesson gradually contain more and more notes, it does become an issue.

So, to help you out I have written a number underneath each note in all the pieces in these lessons. In the graphic below, you can see how each finger on both of your hands has been given a number. When you see this number underneath a note, you know that this is the finger that I recommend you use to play the note with.

You are most welcome to change the fingering written if you find it suits you better. But bear in mind that the object is to move around the keyboard while keeping all the notes ‘joined’ to one another – meaning no gap between each note.

Try this:

With your right thumb on Middle C, index finger on D and forefinger on E, play:


Try to play each note evenly, so that one note isn’t longer than the other. In other words, keep an evenrhythm ortempo. Also, to help you learn the note names, the letter names for each note have been included in the music.

When I’m practicing a piece, I often clap or tap out the rhythm first so I don’t have to think about what notes to play and the rhythm at once. Because I’m already familiar with the rhythm by the time I start to play the piece, this lets me just focus on playing the notes correctly.

Try clapping this rhythm: 1 2 3 4/ 1 2 34/ 1 2 3 4/ 1 2 3 4/ 12 – (rest for the last two beats).

This technique that really does enable you to learn pieces much faster: it’s one I still use all the time!


Now for the second exercise. Just as clapping a rhythm before you play a piece helps you learn to play faster, so you will find already knowing a song really well means that you can launch into it with much greater gusto!

If you know the traditional melody My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean, then you will find your knowledge a great advantage when you first play this tune! Being familiar with a tune already allows you to concentrate on where your fingers are going and the sound you are making, rather than worrying about counting out the timing. Once you have played it over a couple of times, add a bit of a lilt so that it sounds cantabile, the Italian word (used all the time in classical music) for ‘in a singing style’.

And to finish off your first lesson, here is a short piece to try. The clear, unfilled notes are called minims, and these are held for two beats as they are worth twice the value of crotchets. Listen to the audio first.

Well done! I hope you enjoyed your first lesson. There is a lot of information to grasp when you begin learning the piano, but don’t worry if you don’t take it all in at first. As you continue to play, you will be constantly going over everything again and again, and you will find that it gradually all comes together. I did anyway!


Glossary of Terms

Bass Clef: This is the lowest clef, also known as the F clef because the inner curl and dots are around the line representing F. [GRAPHIC] This clef is used for the left hand of piano music and other instruments with a low pitch range, e.g. the double bass.

Crotchets: A crotchet is a note that is played for one quarter of the duration of a whole note. Quarter notes are represented by a filled-in oval note head and a straight, flagless stem. [GRAPHIC] The stem is usually pointing upwards if it is below the middle line, or downwards if it is on or above the middle line.

Discordant: A sound that is not in agreement or harmony

Notation: Written music, showing musical notes on staves.

Pitch: In music, pitch is the perception of the frequency of a note.

Reverberating: A sound that lingers in an area even after the source is suddenly stopped.

Stave: In musical notation, the staff or stave is a set of five horizontal lines on which note symbols are placed to indicate pitch and rhythm. [GRAPHIC]

Tempo: The speed at which a piece of music is played.

Treble Clef: This is the highest clef, also known as the G clef because the inner curl of the clef sign is wrapped around the line representing G. [GRAPHIC] This clef is used for the right hand on the piano and high pitched instrument parts.