All piano players know that looking at the keys is essential in the early learning stages. As you’re becoming accustomed to the instrument and growing your ability to translate notation into music, looking at the keys is the easiest way to locate the right notes to play.
But, as your piano skills become more and more advanced, you should aim to play without looking at the keys. This skill, while tricky at first to attain, will allow you to transition to more advanced music, as well as improvise and use your instincts.
Here, we’ll explore a wide range of strategies for learning to play the piano without looking at the keyboard. There’s a large variety of techniques listed here, so try them all out to determine what works best for you. We think you’ll find that this piano playing skill can be developed remarkably quickly.
Why Is It Important To Play Without Looking?
Learning how to play the piano without looking at your hands can significantly improve your technique and skill as a piano player. Plus, it will help bring you greater satisfaction from your piano playing sessions. Here’s why:
You’ll have more confidence in your playing abilities. Confidence is key in tackling difficult pieces and trying to play music that’s out of your comfort zone.
You’ll be able to play complex pieces more accurately because you’ll be able to keep looking at the score. When you’re looking down at the keys, you can’t look at the score, which puts you at risk for missing a note. Plus, the need to look at the keys will seriously inhibit your ability to sight-read.
You’ll be able to make more artistic choices as you play, rather than focusing entirely on finding the right keys. Phrasing and other techniques that inject artistry into piano performances can be difficult when your focus is on the keys.
You’ll be able to transition between playing different pianos seamlessly, rather than having to relearn an entirely new keyboard each time you switch pianos.
With the ability to play the piano without looking, you’ll have the tools you need to improvise. Improvising on the piano is not only a valuable skill to have as a student and as a professional, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. Once you’re ready, check out our guide: How To Improvise On Piano.
Methods For Learning To Play Piano Without Looking
To start making progress on your ability to play the piano without looking at the keys, let’s cover some of the most effective strategies for keyboard memorization.
1. Explore the feel of the keyboard.
As you play the piano more and more, you’ll naturally start learning how the keyboard feels. Understanding how the feeling of different keys relates to the connection between notes will expand your ability to play without looking.
A quick trick that you can use to memorize the feel of the keyboard is to group the keys by pattern. The black keys are set in groups of either two or three on the keyboard, so you can memorize the white key before each group. If it’s a group of two black keys, the white key before it is a C. If it’s a group of three black keys, the white key before it is an F. After learning these basic notes, you can memorize more and more keys (the white keys process with a D after the C, an E after the D, an F after the E, and so on).
Additionally, you can identify the notes of the black keys by feel. When you feel the space between a group of two black keys and a group of three black keys, you can identify the white keys as E and F.
Once you put together the information gained from feeling the keys on a keyboard, you’ll have a good understanding of the location of specific notes.
2. Locate middle C and work outwards.
When you’re first learning to play the piano without looking at the keys, a useful strategy is to find one key to use as a reference. From that single key, you can fill in the notes of the entire keyboard.
Using the middle C as your reference is the easiest and most logical choice. This is because the middle C is the first note in most of the pieces you’ll play as a beginner. Middle C is easy to spot in music notation, and it’s located opposite from your body on the piano bench. This puts it in a natural position for your right hand.
Middle C isn’t located in the exact center of the piano keyboard, but it’s the closest C to the middle. On a standard piano with 88 keys, middle C is the fourth C counted from the left.
To practice finding middle C, simply close your eyes and try to land your finger on the middle C key. You can try this exercise every time you sit down to play the piano. While you may not succeed consistently at first, your sense of this key’s location will improve over time. You should also study the location of the other keys on the keyboard in relation to middle C, as this will give you a feel of the entire keyboard without vision.
For help with memorizing all of the notes on a piano keyboard, read our guide: Easy Ways to Memorize Piano Notes.
3. Focus on effective key fingering.
Practicing proper finger placement and fingering can help you develop muscle memory. Once you‘re used to the finger movements needed to play the piano, you’ll be able to play from memory, not from looking at the keys. Playing without looking at the keyboard will feel natural with proper fingering.
Fingering will become muscle memory with practice, and you won’t have to consciously think about it. To get to this point, we suggest practicing scales and arpeggios, which we’ll discuss in detail below.
Practicing Scales and Arpeggios
The process of learning and practicing scales and arpeggios starts with conscious thought. You’ll need to actively study both the scale or arpeggio and the keyboard to hit the right notes. But, once you’ve memorized the sequence, you’ll start to develop the reflexes needed to hit the notes without thinking. This process is possibly the best, most sustainable method for playing the piano without looking.
Once you’ve learned a scale or arpeggio, repeat it over and over (and over!) again. This repetition is key to developing your reflexes for proper fingering. Thankfully, once you’ve developed these reflexes, you’ll be able to tap into them with minimal thought. Just like riding a bike, the muscle memory for playing a scale or arpeggio will usually stick with you for awhile.
In addition to muscle memory, scale and arpeggio repetition will enhance your finger strength, dexterity, coordination, and flexibility. All of these skills work together for advanced piano playing without looking at the keys.
A scale in music consists of every note in an octave. When is comes to piano scales for practicing without looking at the keys, it’s best to start with the major and minor scales. The major and minor scales are named after the first note of the twelve notes in an octave. Examples include:
C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
C minor scale: C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C
G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp
G minor scale: G, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F
D major scale: D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B, C-sharp, D
D minor scale: D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C
Looking for more scales to tackle as a beginner? Take a look through our guide: What Piano Scales Should I Learn First?
Arpeggios are different from scales because notes are skipped. Arpeggios are considered a type of broken chord, and the notes included in an arpeggio are played in ascending or descending order. Arpeggios are harmonious, so they’re particularly satisfying to play. Arpeggios are commonly found in compositions, so you have much more than just fingering strength to gain from practicing them - you’ll be able to recognize them in compositions to speed up the learning process.
As with scales, the major and minor arpeggios are an excellent starting point. Examples of the major and minor arpeggios include:
C major arpeggio: C, E, G, C
C minor arpeggio: C, E-flat, G
G major arpeggio: G, B, D, G
G minor arpeggio: G, B-flat, D, G
D major arpeggio: D, F-sharp, A, D
D minor arpeggio: D, F, G, D
To reap all of the benefits of practicing scales and arpeggios, you should have a basic understanding of fingering techniques. But, as we dive into fingering techniques to practice, know that these are just guidelines to consider. Everyone has differently sized hands and fingers, so what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. But, you can start with these basic rules as a framework.
1. Fingering according to finger length
A widely accepted rule for piano fingering is that the longer keys should be played by the shorter fingers, while the shorter keys should be played by the longer fingers. This is the most natural way to play the keys, as it minimizes reaching or straining as much as possible.
2. Thumb crossing
The thumb crossing technique is important in learning proper fingering because it keeps you from having to lift your hands to change your position. The sound won’t be disrupted, and you’ll be able to play more quickly.
3. Open hand positioning
Maintaining an open hand position while you play will enable your fingers to move freely, especially with the thumb. The fingertips should just be gentle grazing the surface of the keys until you need to play a note. A collapsed hand position will make it difficult to achieve the thumb crossing technique, and it could inhibit you from covering a wide distance between notes (in an arpeggio, for example).
Learning to play the piano is a process that varies from person to person. But, we can all relate to the fact that advanced skills take time to develop. Playing without looking at the keys is no different - hours of practice is required to achieve strong fingering, an advanced understanding of the keyboard, and intuition as a pianist. You’ll find that the techniques explained above will not only help you play without looking at the keys, but also help you become a more advanced pianist overall.