Many adults who speak of unfulfilled wishes in their lives include, "I wish I’d learned how to play the piano,” as one of them. If learning to play piano is on your bucket list, I have good news – it’s not too late! You can teach yourself!
Even if you aren’t a young child, it is possible to learn the piano without expensive piano lessons. But how should an adult beginner start? Is piano hard to learn?
Following these steps, you should be able to learn how to play in no time:
- Find a piano or keyboard
- Learn basic piano knowledge
- Learn the major keys
- Learn the most common chords
- Learn patterns
- Learn proper fingering
- Learn how to read music
- Use instructional media
- If all else fails, hire a piano teacher
Find a Piano or Keyboard on Which to Learn
The first step in teaching yourself piano is to find a piano or keyboard on which you will learn.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually have to own a piano in order to learn how to play it. Friends, family, your school and your church are all great options if you can’t afford to purchase a piano or keyboard. You can also rent a piano from some places.
If you decide to purchase your own piano or keyboard, figure out how much you will be able to spend and shop accordingly. Depending on your budget and your needs, you will purchase an acoustic piano or a digital keyboard.
If you do buy a keyboard, try to find one that mimics a piano in that it has 88 keys and a real, authentic acoustic piano tone, such as this Alesis Recital 88-Key Beginner Digital Piano/Keyboard on Amazon. Some of the beginner keyboards can even help teach you to play piano, as they come with instructional materials and/or light up certain keys while you are learning to play.
If you purchase an acoustic piano, make sure to have it tuned before you begin teaching yourself how to play. You’ll want to ensure that the notes are in tune before starting to learn, so that a A will really sound like an A and so forth.
Learn Basic Piano Knowledge
Any good piano teacher would begin your introduction to the piano by teaching you basic piano knowledge. So, if you’re teaching yourself how to play, that’s the place to start.
- Familiarize yourself with the piano. Look at and listen to the middle keys, flat keys (left black keys), sharp keys (right black keys), bass and high tones.
- Learn where middle C is. Middle C is the home base of learning the piano. It is near the middle of the keyboard and is the white key to the left of the grouping of two black keys.
- Learn the basic keys. The naturals are the white keys and are C- D -E- F- G -A- B. Black keys are called accidentals as they make a flat or sharp note when pressed. Each octave (set of eight notes) has five accidentals, which can be sharp or flat.
- Learn the language of music. You might want to study some basic musical terms. This Glossary of Musical Terms from Khan Academy is free and covers the basic concepts in music.
Learn the Major Keys
When you are learning piano for the first time, whether by teaching yourself or learning from an instructor, you must start by learning the major keys. You can teach yourself these through a numbering system if it’s easier for you. (1= middle C, 2=D, 3=E, 4=F, 5=G, 6=A, 7=B, 8= higher C).
Some people find this an easier way to learn simple songs they can play right off the bat, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which would start as 3-2-1-2-3-3-3.
Learning scales is one way to learn the major keys, and we will discuss that more later. If you want to dive right into it, here is article I wrote on which scales to learn first. Some music teachers recommend that you play around with the major keys until you become comfortable in each.
Focus on one major key each week, and memorize which notes are in that major key. Before long you’ll feel comfortable enough to recognize in which key a given piece of music is written.
Learn the Most Common Chords
Even if you can’t read music yet, you can learn some of the most common chords used in music.
There are major and minor chords in music. Major chords use the root key, third and fifth keys. Minor chords use the root key, flat third key and fifth key. A list of basic major and minor piano chords in each key can be found here. Once you learn the 12 major and 12 minor chords, you can move on to learn more advanced chords such as diminished, augmented, seventh, sixth chords, etc... But as you are just beginning to learn, you should start by concentrating on the basic major and minor chords.
The Internet can help a lot when you are teaching yourself piano. A great resource for learning to play chords can be found at OnlinePianist.com. You can also look for downloadable chord sheets online that will allow you to play along with your favorite musical recordings.
Learn the Patterns in Music
As you are teaching yourself piano, you will start noticing that there are patterns in music. Some songs have chords that repeat themselves, for example. If you can identify patterns in songs, it becomes easier to learn how to play them. You can easily learn melodies and baselines of songs if you take note of their patterns.
Every song that you attempt to learn will have its own unique patterns. Some music teachers refer to patterns as music’s vocabulary. They are fundamental to its understanding. There are patterns in rhythm, patterns in tone, and even left- hand accompaniment patterns.
Become an active listener when you’re listening to music. Try to find a recording of whatever piece of music you’re trying to learn and see if you can notice its patterns. Then try playing those patterns along on the piano as you’re listening to the piece. Remember these patterns, as they will undoubtedly come up again in other pieces of music. These will also be important as you are learning to read sheet music.
Learn Proper Fingering
More than anything, when you are first learning to play the piano, fingering is key. You must know where your fingers are supposed to go when you are starting to play the piano. The best way to start learning proper finger placement on the piano is to learn scales. Start with the major scales, then learn the minor scales. Again, using numbers on your fingers can help you to learn the proper finger placement. Your left hand can be numbered one through five from thumb to pinky, and the same for your right hand, one through five from thumb to pinky.
A scale on the right hand will use the fingering 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 and back down 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1. Make sure to cross your thumb under your third finger to play the second 1 on the way up the scale, and coming back down the scale, cross over your thumb with your third finger at the second 3.
Teach yourself fingering on the right hand, then the left hand, before putting them both together and playing scales with both hands. This will make learning proper finger placement for songs much easier when you start to use songbooks and sheet music.
You can even do finger exercises to limber up your fingers and make sure they’re in the proper condition for playing piano. Hanon-Online.com posts 240 finger exercises that you can download for free. Each exercise concentrates on a different technique needed to successfully play piano.
Learn How to Read Music
Reading music is key to teaching yourself how to play the piano. It’s really not that hard once you have the basics of piano, listed above, down pat. First, you’ll want to learn the names of the left-hand staff (bass clef) and right-hand staff (treble clef). You might also use mnemonics such as Every Good Boy Deserves Food to remember the note placement on the treble clef (E-G-B-D-F).
Of course, there are more things to learn when you are learning how to read music besides the notes on the page. You must also learn how to read the rhythm. The best idea when you are first learning hot to play the piano, however, is to concentrate on the notes. Rhythm is more advanced and will come more naturally later.
The above fundamental steps that you’ve been working on in teaching yourself to play the piano- recognizing patterns in music, learning the major keys and chords, and fingering – all come into play as you are learning to read music. You should be able to build upon the cumulative knowledge that you are learning, and the sheet music should make more sense to you now than it would have if you would have tried to learn to read music before familiarizing yourself with the piano.
Once you feel confident enough to read music and play the piano at the same time, MusicNotes.com offers sheet music at various levels of difficulty that you can download. There are also some easy piano songs that are simple for beginners to learn but sound difficult to listeners. Learning some of these can make you sound like an instant piano virtuoso to friends and family!
Use Instructional Media
Next, you will want to purchase some instructional media, such as books, CDs, DVDs or a combination of these. They will help you to learn how to read music and to play piano more efficiently. Try to find a self-contained adult piano course for beginners. One good set that many adult beginners have used is the Alfred Self-Teaching Adult Piano Beginner’s Kit. This kit includes a book, CD and DVD to help teach you how to play the piano.
There are also piano courses and resources through video and online that can help you to learn how to play the piano. Some are free, while some carry a cost. One of the best free resources I’ve found is DataDragon. It goes over all sorts of things necessary for reading music, including clefs, time signatures, notes, rests, counting and more.
Just like when you’re learning anything, learning to play the piano takes practice, practice, practice. Plan to practice every day, for about a half hour each day. If your schedule can’t accommodate for it everyday, practice for at least three times a week. You should start by practicing your scales. These will help you to recognize keys, learn fingering, and feel more fluid as you play the piano.
You should also begin by learning some simple, easy songs that you like. “I’m not ready to play songs yet!” you might argue. Yes, you are. There are some very easy piano songs that anyone can learn to play.
You can even practice piano when you aren’t in front of the piano. Study sheet music and notes that you’ve taken as you’ve been learning in your spare time.
Don’t expect too much from yourself when you are starting out learning to play the piano. If you have unrealistic expectations, you might be more apt to give up too quickly. Don’t let yourself get frustrated with your slow progress. As long as you are progressing, you are learning.
Don’t fall victim to lack of motivation, either. If you play songs that you like, this will help to motivate you. You might also want to ask a friend or family member to listen to you play once a week. In this way, you will be practicing with a goal in mind – playing in front of this person each week. You can show off what you have learned within that week be performing for them.
Recording yourself performing once a week can help keep you motivated as well. Audio recording is fine, but if you want to record video of yourself playing, that’s great too. (Here's a great guide I wrote on how to do just that) In this way, you can see the progress you are making as you teach yourself to play piano.
Hire a Piano Teacher
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we need a teacher to learn something. If you’re having trouble learning to play the piano on your own, consider hiring a piano teacher, either in-person or online. Sure, you can teach yourself piano, but it’s much easier if you have a teacher who is correcting your mistakes and praising your triumphs. A piano teacher can also help you to learn things right the first time and not have to unlearn bad habits you might have picked up while teaching yourself to play piano.
Find a good instructor. If you’re looking for an in-person piano teacher, ask for recommendations from friends and relatives, or check online for reviews. You can also Google “piano teacher” in your zip code to find reviews and recommendations. Try takelessons.com to find a piano teacher in your area if all else fails.
You can also find online piano instructors. PianoNanny.com offers free, online piano lessons and can act as a great complement to teaching yourself to play the piano. Their lessons are categorized by starter studies, intermediate studies and advanced studies, so that you can pick and choose what you need to learn at various stages in your experience of learning how to play the piano.
Decide how often you want to see your instructor. Most piano students take lessons once a week. Since you are teaching yourself to play piano, however, you might opt to see a piano teacher once or twice a month to review what you’ve learned and ask questions you might have.
One of the great reasons to hire a professional piano teacher while teaching yourself piano is that he or she can offer you accountability. If you’re strictly teaching yourself to play piano, unless you’re very self-disciplined you might be tempted to skip practice occasionally. If you have a piano teacher to report to, however, you are more likely to practice what you’re supposed to and be ready at lesson time.
Using a piano teacher to help you learn to play the piano will also help to keep you motivated to learn. It’s more fun to show another person what you have learned than to show yourself, right? Teachers can give you encouragement and constructive criticism to improve your piano learning experience.
A piano teacher can help you keep the right pace and tempo in a particularly tricky musical piece. They can also make sure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew by taking on a piece that is too tough for you at your current stage in learning piano.
Finally, a piano teacher can help to broaden your musical horizons. While you might only want to learn how to play current popular music, a piano teacher might introduce you to other genres such as classical or jazz. This will increase your piano repertoire and help you to learn about musicians and composers you might otherwise never have known.