There are countless methods for learning how to play the piano. And so many questions to ask: piano or keyboard? Private piano course or music school? Online piano lessons or conservatory? Piano teacher or self teaching? Music theory or improvisation? Major scale or minor scale?
On the Internet alone you’ll find hundreds or methods, each professing to be the long-awaited, miracle solution for learning to play piano in 10 days, or something like that!
This article attempts to help you sort through the mass of piano instruction methods, and narrows them down to three categories, each one responding to a particular aim. Afterwards, you’ll be one step closer to playing that keyboard like Mozart!
The traditional method
Whether you are planning to be a self-taught pianist, attend a music school, or learn piano with a private instructor, there are essentially three ways to learn to play.
The first is the traditional method. This one can be divided into three subsections: solfege instruction, rhythm training, and playing music with sheet music and exercises.
Learning solfege to play the piano
As you probably know, solfege is the study of the language of music. That’s right, music can be compared to a language, with its own rules (i.e. the rule of harmony) and its own characters (music notes).
Solfege training starts with learning to read notes by eye, without playing. Most beginning piano methods do include note-reading exercises. For this training to be as efficient and effective as possible, it’s necessary to apply solfege to your playing (in a piano lesson for instance), to give sonic meaning to the sheet music you are reading!
There’s no point of knowing what note is found on what staff line in the key of C if you don’t know what sound this note makes! The theoretical side of solfege sometimes makes us forget that music is, before all else, a matter of sound, ear and listening. You might be able to play by ear at some point soon!
That’s why we consider learning solfege to be an indispensable skill for beginner and more advanced piano players! Don’t you want to learn to read sheet music?
Learn rhythm to play piano
While you learn solfège, you should also study rhythm. This is an essential component of your ear training.
It’s preferable to begin to study rhythm outside of a music context (with fingering and piano keys), simply by using your body (beating the rhythm with your hands, for example) to feel the rhythm. You can then learn the way in which rhythm relates to the written music, on a sheet music score, and the way in which it comes to life in music notes and playing piano.
You’ll learn different tempos and beats: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, thirty second notes, etc. The most important thing is to understand the relationships between these measures: a quarter note is worth two eighth notes, for instance. Once you’ve understood the concept, a good exercise consists in playing different rhythms together in the same tempo, and then working on the rhythm in tandem with solfege.
This is one of the best ways to learn the piano. (You’ll be ready for those chord progressions, octaves and arpeggios on the keys soon enough!)
Of course, the aim of these exercises is to learn to play the piano. And solfege alone won’t get you there.
The third part in this “traditional” method for learning to play piano consists in actually playing piano: training yourself to play pieces of piano music, as well as undertaking exercises in technique. So get ready to learn proper posture!
Even if piano scales are not central in music training today, they are still a very good exercise for improving one’s piano playing. All methods for absolute beginners on the keyboard include technique exercises and easy piano songs to play, before the sheet music increases in difficulty gradually.
Note that following these recommended three parts shouldn’t be viewed as successive steps in your piano instruction! Even if some advise solfege training outside of music playing, we recommend working on it alongside rhythm and piano playing, as suggested earlier.
By “decoding” the sheet music you’ll make big progress in rhythm and solfege. By the same token, working on solfege regularly will improve your ability to do this decoding.
Personally, I've found piano lessons with a Superprof teacher most beneficial in learning solfege and chords.
The simplified method
The traditional method outlined above necessitates a lot of work; in the beginning of learning to play the piano it will be rather laborious and frustrating. It’s a slow method that normally takes years. But it’s really your only option if your aim is to play the music of the great composers, like Beethoven and Chopin. But if you want to learn piano simply to play your favorite tunes, there are more simplified methods for learning to play piano in less time.
These are mainly methods that can be mined from the internet, full of online piano courses and piano tutorials. You yourself have most probably even seen those videos on YouTube or Dailymotion featuring a piano player promoting his or her method to learn to play the piano in 24 hours.
These videos resemble those rather dubious ones that promise you thousands of dollars each month simply by working from home. You are right to be skeptical of these “miraculous” methods (be especially wary of those labeled “free piano courses”) that are coated in exaggerated marketing promises.
However, there might be some truth in these miracle piano instruction methods: it can be possible to learn to play piano tunes through intuitive means rather quickly without learning solfege. The underlying principle consists in imitating another person who is playing. While it’s impossible to learn complex piano pieces this way, you’ll be able to play piano music with struck chords, or simplified versions of a score, for instance (i.e. Mary Had a Little Lamb and Ode to Joy). This method is efficient but does require a high level of concentration and a strong memory.
Learn improvisation on the piano
There are other “miracle” methods for learning how to play the pianos in several days. Although obviously exaggerated, is it possible? Music is composed of chords and chord progressions: they follow one another according to a certain logic that most people could learn. This even applies to improvisation!
In a given piano scale (the scale of D major for example), each note and each chord constructed on this note has a precise function. For instance, in C major, the C chord has a tonic function (the first scale degree of a diatonic scale). The note G is the dominant degree of C major (a dominant seventh chord).
Then there is the subdominant chord, the fourth tonal degree of the diatonic scale: in C major, it’s the F chord. These three chords: tonic, dominant and subdominant will allow you to improvise music pieces with little difficulty!
The idea is to play a sequence of three chords with the left hand and improvise melodies with the right hand, in using all the notes of the scale. Gradually, you’ll learn new scales to diversify your piano chords and achieve modulations.
There are no right or wrong methods, it all depends on your end goal!
If you want to learn to play piano seriously, to deeply understand music, play complex pieces (classical and otherwise), and perhaps become a professional musician, you’ll quickly find this simplified method too limiting.
This method is advantageous only if your objectives are modest. However, methods are not always contradicting. You can just as well work using simplified and intuitive methods while learning solfege on the side (with a piano instructor from Superprof for instance).
As we all know, there are many music genres! On the piano, you can learn to play all of them, from classical music to jazz, blues, variety and more.
Whether you study classical music, variety or jazz improvisation, you will be using the same notes, the same chords, and most of the same rules, etc. So it’s relatively possible to go from one style to the next, and to learn piano tunes in several different music genres.
Despite this, we recommend choosing one training method for the piano that corresponds to your musical aspirations. In jazz for example, the system of decoding chords uses an American system. But more to the point, jazz is an art of improvisation. And one won’t necessarily learn to improvise while studying classical music. Jazz piano training calls for a specific pedagogical instruction, a training method based on improvisation, and a harmony-driven understanding of music. Some classical musicians have very little knowledge of tonality, while it’s pretty much inconceivable to learn jazz without working on harmony. Classical music has its own specific learning techniques, of course.
Your chosen method of learning how to play piano will depend on your aims and the type of music you’d like to learn to play. Your chosen music style will also dictate the difficulty level of instruction.
Learning to play variety music tunes is simpler than learning a classical music score by Shubert or Brahms, because of the focus on plucked chord progressions played by the left hand, for instance. This is a bit of a stereotype, of course: some pieces of classical music are easy to play, and certain variety songs quite complex.
There are methods for every style: traditional methods for classical music jazz methods and variety music methods, etc. You can learn all the musical style you desire by working at home and teaching yourself. But they share one major similarity: each method requires motivation in order to learn to play piano.
You can play whatever your wish with motivation! But to retain your motivation and overcome challenges that you’ll meet along the way, working with a private music instructor in a piano lesson is your best option.
And you won’t regret it! The advantages of piano playing are numerous (in terms of concentration, memory, relaxation, to name but a few). So what are you doing here, your baby grand is waiting!