Piano Basics

Welcome, Web-ramblers and readers of Edly Paints the Ivories Blue and Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People. Here is a hodge-podge of ideas for beginning pianists, free for you, from me. I hope you find it helpful and enjoyable.

If you find this page helpful, please drop me an email letting me know. Also, let me know if you’d like to be added to my newsletter list so I can let you know of future releases.


Choosing a teacher

Put some care into choosing a teacher. We are a varied bunch in terms of philosophy, temperament, qualifications, experience, and, of course, fee. Try out several teachers before you settle on one unless you adore the first one to the extent that you couldn’t possibly imagine finding another you like as much. Otherwise, try one to four lessons with several teachers. Let them know that that’s what you are doing. (Anyone that has a problem with that has a mighty fragile ego.) Try to give a teacher more than one chance unless you are sure you can do better*. It may take a couple of lessons for the teacher and you to click.

My bottom line is this: you deserve better than to choose a teacher from the phone book or from a sign–or because he or she charges less, and to stay with that teacher without thinking whether it’s a good fit… and so does the teacher.

* One teenage girl quite conspicuously disliked me during her first lesson. It was actually that I was such a contrast from her first teacher, whom she loved but couldn’t study with anymore for logistical reasons, that she didn’t know what to make of me. Luckily, she came back, and we forged a great working relationship and covered a lot of ground in the several years we worked together.

Efficient practicing

Make your practice time count by practicing efficiently. You actually will become a better player faster if you do. If you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, and the speed at which you improve isn’t important to you, then don’t worry about efficiency. Just enjoy. Otherwise, follow these tips! (This doesn’t apply as much if you’re playing a piece that’s way over your head—which, hopefully, you won’t be for a while.)

  • Before you begin playing, look the piece over completely. Notice (hopefully) obvious things like time and key signature and tempo. Also look for road map-py things: repeats, first & second endings, D.C.s, D.S.s, Coda, and Fine. Finally, notice dynamics and articulations. If you want, run through any particularly scary parts before playing the piece as a whole. THEN you’re ready to play.
  • First (and second and third, for beginners or bad readers) time: read through, getting an overall sense of the piece. Keep your eyes open for hard parts.
  • Next time through, actively look for hard parts.
  • Practice only hard parts; break them down into bite-sized pieces.
  • Assemble bite-sized pieces into bigger bites.
  • Integrate (formerly) hard parts back into the piece and reconceptualize the piece as a whole with your new-found technical ability. If you make the same mistake more than three times in a row, SLOW DOWN not just a little, but a LOT. Play just the offending passage–not more, not less: find the problem–enough times slowly that you can play it at least six times in a row, without pause, and without mistakes.
Yer body… and you

My good friend Peter once said, “I am the sixth finger of my hand.” So true. You know about good posture ‘n’ all. So sit up straight, with your feet on the floor and your right foot ready to use the right-most pedal (traditionally called the “damper pedal,” but also, and more descriptively, called the “sustain pedal.”

Muscles in general
Relax your muscles, especially those in your hands, wrists, and arms. Listen to your body. If you ever feel a burning in your wrists, stop playing immediately and take a break. Tell your teacher and ask what you can change to improve your playing approach. (check Keyboard article(s).)

Keep dem shoulders down boys ‘n’ girls! Any time you remember to, check out whether your shoulders are relaxed or not. If not, breathe and relax. Don’t be too hard on yourself for some tension here. Most of us need practice letting go in this area.

Your wrists should be straight–not sticking up, or far worse, down below the level of your fingers. This leads to the dark side of the force. Actually, it could increase your chances of getting carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. Nasty stuff. Really. I personally know two accomplished musicians (a guitar player and a piano player) who had to stop playing for a sadly long time because of cases of these.

Curve those fingers as if you were holding a ball. This minimizes the difference in length between all your fingers–especially your thumb, and also facilitates shifting your thumb under the other fingers (coming before you know it).

Dissenting opinion: Years ago, I saw ragtime great Eubie Blake play piano on TV. Three things stick in my mind to this day:
1: He sounded great.
2: His fingers each looked about a foot long.
3: They were stickin’ straight out–no curve!

Hey, if it worked for Eubie, I mean really, I wouldn’t tell Eubie to change the way he played. But you’re not Eubie. So I’d curve my fingers and stick with the tried and truism if I were you. But if I were you, who would Eubie?

Cut yer nails. Yep. Sorry, fingerstyle guitarists and other long-nail-loving persons. Play piano with long nails and, at the least, you’ll sound like you’re tap-dancing on the ivories, and at the worst, you’ll upset an otherwise decent hand position.

"Low" and "high" on the piano

On the keyboard, “lower” is to the left, and “higher” is to the right. Try it. Hear it?

Finger numbering

In Pianoland, your thumbs are numbered 1, your index fingers are 2, and so on. If you ever get confused, use this almost-rhyming phrase: “thumbs are 1.” It worked for me. Got it?

Five-finger positions and five-finger exercises

Five-finger Positions on White Keys
Put your hands on the piano so that the fingers of each hand are over, or just barely resting on five adjacent white keys. Your hands need not be together. In fact, it’ll probably be more comfortable if they are separated, unless you’re thinner than I am. Don’t worry about which notes your fingers are on. Your hands are now in “five-finger positions.” Make sure your fingers aren’t leaning on the keys such that they’re already depressed. Heck, you’re just beginning–you don’t want to make your keys depressed!

Five-finger Exercises on White Keys
Five-finger exercises are the first thing you can do to get your fingers cooperating with each other, and with your brain. Make the notes “long”–that is, each note should last until the next one hits. (This is called “legato” in Italian because “long” is too easy to say and presents no challenge. Italians like challenges–check out the Paganini violin caprices if you don’t believe me.) Once you’ve mastered that, try for “staccato” (“short,” for all you anglophones; see above). Make the notes as short as possible without speeding up.

Let me interrupt myself at this point to mention that although these are presented as exercises, they are also music! They can be especially musical if you approach them as music rather than as mere drills. Try playing expressively, varying the dynamics (loudness) by hitting the notes harder or more gently. See also Altering Five-finger Positions to Add Variety below.

To continue, five-finger exercises come in four simple varieties:

Simultaneous Contrary Motion
This sounds hard but feels easy. Play with both hands at the same time: thumbs, index, middle, ring, pinky, ring, middle, etc. In piano lingo (“piango,” or “I’m crying” in Italian), that’s (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 )) (Don’t be frightened by the double parentheses: (( )). I’m using them here on the web as repeat signs in order to keep the font thang simple. So repeat whatever’s in between the double parentheses, okay? Do this until you can play it evenly, and the notes from each hand are hitting at the same time, or staggered evenly where that’s supposed to happen.

You should feel that you’re playing symmetrically, but what you are hearing is contrary motion. One hand is going up while the other is going down.

What if you are on “the wrong notes”? Don’t worry, this is just an exercise. Any notes that sound good will do. What if it sounds bad? Ah, now you’re talkin’! Try moving one hand one note to the left or right. See how it sounds. Still don’t like it? Keep moving, just one hand at a time so that you don’t recreate the same sound on different notes. This goes for all the exercises.

This could also be notated (read two lines at once):

RH: (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))
LH: (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))

Notice that notes that line up vertically are played at the same time.

Simultaneous Parallel Motion
This, conversely, sounds easy, but feels harder:
RH: (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))
LH: (( 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4 ))

Again, the sound should be smooth, and notes should be starting and stopping at the same time. Try not to wave your non-playing fingers in the air. It looks funny and people may well laugh. Besides, it’s bad technique. Keep your fingers calm and still. This may be more easily said than done for some of you and will improve with time. Relax, play on, and remember: these ain’t push-ups; you are already making music. Enjoy and hear the beauty in it.

In the case of parallel motion, the sound will change significantly depending on which note(s) you start on, and whether it’s the same note in both hands. Experiment. Try starting on all different notes. You won’t get bored as fast, and you may well start discovering some things about harmony.

Staggered Contrary Motion
This is the same as the first exercise, but the hands alternate. You’re only hitting one note at a time, rather than two. L1, R1, L2, R2, L3, R3, and so on, or:

RH: (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))
LH: ((1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))

Sounds pretty nifty if you do it right.

Staggered Parallel Motion
RH: (( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2 ))
LH: ((5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4 ))

You can practice these on your thighs while waiting for the bus. You could even do it on the shoulders of the person in front of you while you’re waiting in line to pay your phone bill. Their shoulders are probably a bit tense at that point. You might want to ask first, though.

Altering five-finger positions to add variety

Congrats. Five-finger exercises may not be a great thrill, but they are valuable and you did ’em. If you didn’t, you’re impatient or a cheater. Go straight to jail and don’t collect $200. Wait three turns, and then do ’em!

So now you’re ready for the next thing. This will add variety to your five-finger exercises. In each hand, change one white note to an adjacent black note (either to the left or the right). See how it affects the sound. It need not be the same note in both hands. Get comfortable with this, then try changing to a different note. Then, try doing, say, two or four five-finger patterns on one set of notes, then change to another. Actually, you can either change a note or two within the pattern or move one or both hands to the left or right one or more keys and start on entirely different notes. This can really sound cool! Don’t worry that you “don’t know what you’re doing.” You don’t need to. You’re fine.

Altering your hand position for comfort

When a song (or passage) uses a five-finger position that includes some black keys, experiment with shoving your fingers farther in towards the back of the keys. That should make it more comfortable. If not, jiggle ’em around ’til they settle. If you’ve got sausage-fingers, you’ll also have to experiment with the angle of the fingers so they don’t press adjacent keys accidentally. Blue Echoes (from Edly Paints the Ivories Blue) is an example of a song where this trick would come in handy.

Introduction to the musical alphabet, on and off the piano

Unlike the English alphabet’s A to Z, the musical alphabet is from A to G, and keeps going: A B C D E F G A B C D, etc. That was ascending (“going up”, in English). Descending would be, starting from a random note: F E D C B A G F E D C, etc. So, the musical alphabet, going forward (A-G), goes from left to right (higher) on the white keys of the piano keyboard. It goes right to left (lower ) going backward (G-A).

Locating C notes, and Middle C

Notice that the black keys come in clusters of two and three. Here’s how to find C: C is the white key immediately to the left of any group of two black keys. “Middle C” is the C just under the brand name of your piano. D would be the white key just to the right of C, and so on. Practice finding various notes on your keyboard.

Sharps and flats

Most simply, white keys are “naturals.” Black keys are sharps and flats. There are exceptions, but we’ll save that for another time. Each black key has both a sharp name and a flat name. Sharps are higher (immediately to the right), and flats are lower (immediately to the left) than their white key brethren. For example, Db (flat) is the black key immediately to the left of D, whereas D# (sharp) is the black key immediately to the right of D. 

Here are some memory aids, in case you find this confusing: White keys are “naturals.” Sharps (#) are up as in “Look sharp, soldier!” while flats (b) are down, as in “You’re looking a little flat today,” or, “Awww, my beer’s gone flat!”

Playing octaves

Put your thumb (1) is on a note, let’s say, F. Then stretch your hand so that your pinky (5) is on the next (lower or higher, depending on which hand you’re using) occurrence of the same note—the next F, in this case. Feel what that hand stretch feels like, and then try moving both notes one (or more) notes up or down. If it starts sounding bad, your fingers have slipped out of the octave stretch. You are now “playing in octaves.” Try this first with one, then the other hand. Nifty, huh? You’ll use this as you progress.

Finding chords from five-finger positions

You’re gonna like this: Set yourself up in your favorite five-finger position, and play:

RH: (( 1, 3, 5, 3 )) and then LH: (( 5, 3, 1, 3 )) Rhythmically, you’re playing groups of four.

Then try RH: (( 1, 3, 5 )) and then LH: (( 5, 3, 1 )) This is ascending only. Rhythmically, you’re now playing groups of three.

Lest I be accused of being “descendist” (prejudiced against the descending direction), also practice:

RH: (( 5, 3, 1 )) and then LH: (( 1, 3, 5 ))

Then try doing these with both hands at the same time. Again, I’d encourage you to move your hands around to experiment with and change the sound, but I will mention that you’ll get the most consistent results if each hand is playing the same five-finger position (on different octaves, of course). For instance, the lowest note in each hand being C or D or whatever you choose.

Dissenting opinion: Conversely, you’ll get more interesting results if you play different five-finger positions with both hands. Either way, if you don’t like it, move it!

Broken and block chords

In the exercise above, you are playing broken chords (arpeggio, in Italian)—specifically, “triads” (three-note chords). They are “broken” because you are playing the notes one at a time. Try playing 1, 3, and 5 all at the same time. BONG: you’ve got a chord. No more breakage. Again, keep the non-playing fingers calm. This may take practice, but is that such a surprise?

Moving Block Chords
Now set up your five-finger positions so that the lowest note is the same note (again, on different octaves, or else your hands’ll be riding piggy-back.) So, your left hand is, for example, playing C, E, and G, and your right hand is playing C, E, and G on an octave higher. Play that, then move both hands one white key to the right: D, F, A. Play that, then move both hands one white key to the right again: E, G, B. Continue, and enjoy the sounds. Would you believe you are playing the “diatonic chords in the key of C”? Yep, it’s true. Even though you probably don’t know what that means yet, your friends oughta be impressed. You should too. You’re doing great. 

But the fact that you are playing the diatonic chords in the key of C is less important right now than the valuable coordination practice you’re getting, and hopefully the enjoyment, too. Practice moving chords up and down, perhaps one, two, or four strikes of each chord. Take your time. Try for relaxation, accuracy, smoothness, and steadiness rather than speed. You’re going to use chords such as these a lot.

Summary of Chord patterns, Both Block and Broken
Let’s put this together with the patterns you were recently doing. Again, you’re reading two lines at once (LH & RH simultaneously).

Simultaneous Bidirectional Parallel Motion:
RH: (( 1, 3, 5, 3 )) (up, down)
LH: (( 5, 3, 1, 3 )) (up, down)

Simultaneous Ascending Parallel Motion:
RH: (( 1, 3, 5 )) (up)
LH: (( 5, 3, 1 )) (up)

Simultaneous Descending Parallel Motion:
RH: (( 5, 3, 1 )) (down)
LH: (( 1, 3, 5 )) (down)

Here’s a new one:
Simultaneous Mixed-Up Parallel Motion: (Alberti bass, for all you Mozart fans)

RH: (( 1, 5, 3, 5 ))
LH: (( 5, 1, 3, 1 ))

Start working up speed as you go. Consider buying a lie-detector (also known as a metronome) so you can keep track of your progress, and so that you’ll have to stay steady.

One more:
Simultaneous Mixed-Up Parallel Motion in Sextuplets:
RH: (( 1, 5, 3, 5, 3, 5 ))
LH: (( 5, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1 ))

That’s plenty for now. Try playing two reps of each, then changing your starting note. It should sound pretty darn good! (and all this without reading music!)

Where This Could Lead
Okay, let’s take this a step or two further to give you some ideas where you could take this.

RH: (( 1, 5, 3, 5, 2, 4 ))
 LH: (( 5, 1, 3, 1, 4, 2 ))

If you like coming up with your own patterns, go nuts!

Intro to, and demystification of, the pedals

It’s time to introduce you to a friend you didn’t know you had, often unjustly feared and mistrusted (drum roll, please): the sustain pedal (fanfare, please). It’s the right-most of the (two or) three pedals on your piano. It makes notes sustain after you remove your fingers. Try this: hit a note and remove your finger. It stops. Bummer. Now press the sustain pedal, and hit a note and remove your finger. It keeps on ringin’!! Eureka, what a great invention! Yes, the sustain pedal can smooth out your playing beautifully, and add richness to your piano sound. And, like many other great inventions, it can be overused or misused.

Pedal Truisms

Here are some quick and dirty guidelines for using the pedal. Like many truisms, they are not necessarily always true.

1: The pedal generally needs to be “cleared” when changing chords. Otherwise, it’ll sound muddy. Clearing the pedal is simple: lift it up, and immediately press it back down. That’s it. That clears out the sustaining chord and sustains the new chord without the two blending together too much.

2: Your left brain (the analytical side) might like reading it from the page as it reads notes. Your right brain-the intuitive side-(with help from your ear) will (hopefully) tell you when you need to pedal. How’s this for a right-brained rule: if things are sounding muddy, clear the pedal! Simple. This will vary from musical style to musical style: most ragtime and other sharp music need very little pedal. Slow music generally benefits from more pedaling. You’ll get a feel for it as you go along, but only if you’re not scared to try using it!

Pedal Exercises

Try playing two chords, slowly back and forth. Press the pedal down as you begin. A split second after you hit the second chord, clear the pedal. Up, down, lickety-split, goes your foot. If you want more specific than that, clearing the pedal need only take a split second. Waiting ’til just after the new chord to clear the pedal allows the sound to carry as you move to the new chord, but also allows the first chord not to carry long enough into the second chord as to become muddy.

Try NOT using yer head to figure out when and how to use the pedal. Your head may serve you well in life, but you’ve got the great good gift of some senses that I’m guessing you seriously underutilize. Try giving your ear and your intuition a chance to work on your behalf. Have no fear, your ear is here! And with a little support, some encouragement and patience, you’ll find a new and helpful friend emerging that will help you with pedaling and all other aspects of your developing musicality.

Hand-over-hand arpeggios (broken chords) with pedal

Depending on your orientation and preference, this can be an exercise or an exquisitely beautiful little template for a piece. The fact is that it’s both. Fix yo’self up with an agreeable five-finger position fairly low on the piano, for example with LH5 on the third lowest C on the piano, and your RH an octave higher. Then play:

LH: 5, 3, 1 RH: 1, 3, 5

As your right hand is playing its three notes, move your left hand over your right to the next C higher, and play:

LH: 5, 3, 1

As your left hand is doing its thing, uncross your right hand (move it under the left hand) up to the next C higher, and play:

RH: 1, 3, 5.

Then repeat the whole thing.

Here’s a new musical term: “8va” (italian ottava) Put it all together, and you get something like:

(( LH: 5, 3, 1 RH: 1, 3, 5 LH (8va): 5, 3, 1 RH (8va): 1, 3, 5 ))

Golly, but this is a cheaty way to make beautiful music! Okay, so, repeat that twice, and then move your five-finger positions to a different note-say, one or two white keys to the right or left-whatever you like! Ain’t it purty?! Now continue with this, vary the number of repetitions, and sometimes perhaps play four octaves instead of two and make up your own piece. You’ll be sounding like George Winston in no time! The ear loves patterns such as this-any pattern repeating two or four (or any multiple of four) times, and then changing to another pattern repeated the same number of times. The second pattern could also be paraphrased. Don’t forget, by the way, this is a great pedal clearing practice! By the way, the pedal won’t need to be cleared when you go to the same chord on a different octave, but only when you go to a different chord. Enjoy. 

Introduction to half-steps, whole-steps, and ear-training

For this, use the simultaneous parallel motion five-finger exercise. Try it beginning on C in both hands. Now, try beginning on D in both hands. Hopefully, you noticed that the sound got higher. If so, good. If not, that is even more exciting, because your ear (musicians’ way of saying ‘your ability to hear music discerningly’) is going to improve by quantum leaps. But something else changed: the quality. Most people in our culture able to discern any quality difference would hear the C five-finger exercise as ‘happy’ or “nursery-rhyme-y,” whereas the one on D, sad and/or serious. 

Introduction to parallel intervals and ear-training

Try the same five-finger exercise with your left hand starting on C and your right hand starting on D, (9 notes higher, counting inclusively). It won’t sound ‘very good.’ (introducing “consonant” and “dissonant”) This is the sound of the interval of “a second.”
Try the same five-finger exercise with your left hand starting on C and your right hand starting on E, (10 notes higher). It will sound consonant: pretty and dainty. This is the sound of the interval of “a third.”

Now try it with your left hand starting on C and your right hand starting on F, (11 notes higher). Whether this sounds consonant or dissonant depends on your perspective, but it will probably sound Asian to you or perhaps remind you of Gregorian chant. This is the sound of parallel fourths. A lone fourth sounds hollow and austere, in contrast to the pretty sound of a third.

You guessed it: starting on C and G gives you parallel a fifth: reminiscent of the hollow sound of fourths. Sixths will probably remind you of the sweet sound of thirds; sevenths sound similar to seconds.

SO, intervals have specific sounds. So what? Painters know how to recognize and combine colors, and what will happen when they do so. As a musician, it’s helpful to know how certain combinations of notes will sound, and, conversely, to be able to recognize intervals and chords just from their sound.


Intro to the staff

The “Grand Staff”: the Big Picture
The “grand staff” is made up of two staves of five lines and four spaces each. (Learn these ascending, and remember this when you are (soon) reading chords: read chords from the bottom up (ascending, you know). This ties in a lot of things, but for now, just take my word for it, okay?) Notes are either “line notes” or “space notes” depending on what you see when you look through the middle of the note.

Middle C as the Center of the Grand Staff Musical Universe
Imagine moving the two staves closer together; close enough that there’s only room for one (invisible) line in between them. The note that lives on that line is middle C. It’s called middle C for this reason. It also is near enough to the middle of your piano to earn the name twice over for pianists.


Lines and spaces memorization aids

Treble clef spaces:
(Space-) Face

Treble clef lines:
Every Good Boy Does Fine
Even Great Blues Drummers Flop
Ed’s G Blues, Dig Friend?
very Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips
Elephants Got Big Dirty Feet
Even George Bush Does Fine
Evergreens Grow Big During Fall
Every Golden Bird Does Fly
Ed Got Bopped Dancing Flamenco
Eggs Get Broke During Frying
Exotic Gurus Bless Devoted Followers
Even God Buys Dog Food

Bass clef lines:
Great Big Dogs Fight Animals
Good Boats Don’t Float Away
George Bush Doesn’t Fry Artichokes
Great Bass Drum, Fat Albert!
George Bush Doesn’t Fly Airlines
Gary Bought Doris Five Apples
George Bush Doesn’t Fly Alone
Get Better Deals Flying Airlines
Give Beer Drinkers Free Ale
Good Bells Ding For All
Good Boundaries Define Friendly Arguments
Gents Bow Deeply After Applause
Gold Buys Drinks For All

Bass clef spaces:
Any Credit Earns Gold
Alice Cooper Eats Goobers
Ants Can’t Eat Gum
A Cello Emits Groans
All Cellists Eat Garlic
All Cats Exude Grace

Cheaty way to find the staves' general ranges

If you’re sitting with your belly button pointing at middle C and you reach your (bent) arms straight forward (not inward or outward, mind you) and plop your hands right down on the keys, your left hand should land somewhere inside the bass clef, and your right inside the treble clef.

Tips for cheaters

Three-note line stacks or space stacks (think of pancakes) are the chords you’ve been playing previously. These, by the way, are root position triads-and 1, 3, 5 in the RH and 5, 3, 1 in the LH from basic five-finger positions.

Therefore, a three-note stack with the middle note missing is 1 & 5 of a basic five-finger position.

(For later use…) You can use the above as a way to figure out what low or high notes on the staff are. Let’s say there’s a note two ledger lines below the bass clef staff. Wow—low! Bow-wow. Well, you know what note the lowest line of the bass clef staff is (I hope). Well, since the note in question is the bottom note of a three-note stack with G as the top note, either put or imagine your hand in a five-finger position on the piano with G as the highest note, and voilà, the low note is the C below.