How to Play Piano: The Ultimate Guide
Learning how to play piano is often perceived as a monumental task, however, the level of difficulty will largely depend on your goals.
For example, if you want to learn and master classical music by composers such as Tchaikovsky or Mozart, that process will take years and many hours of dedication. Not to mention the private music lessons needed to get you there.
However, if you want to learn how to play pop and rock music, this process will be MUCH shorter, and, in many cases, you will be able to play a full song (depending on the song) on day one.
Styles of Playing
In this guide, I am going to show you two different approaches. The first approach will be for those who have the goal of playing classical music and prefer a more traditional method.
The second approach is for people who may not have the desire or the patience to sit through volumes of classically based books and hours upon hours of dedication and practice.
I’m not saying you won’t have to practice if your preference is approach two. However, the process of learning is a little simpler and quicker.
If your preference is approach number two, I am going to show you how to play four popular songs by the end of this page. If your preference is approach one, I am going to show you a TON of great stuff, tips, and tricks that you can implement into your classical journey. So, stick with me!
Who This Guide is For
This guide, ‘How to Play Piano’ is for anyone who is wanting to start learning or who already has some experience with piano. This post is a guide for both children and adults who are either getting back into it or starting for the first time. This post is also for anyone who has or is currently taking piano lessons.
If you want to learn the classical method, go straight to approach 1. If you want to learn the modern method where I show you how to play hit songs quickly, and reading proper music isn’t your priority, skip ahead to approach 2.
So, let’s get started. Break out the keyboard or piano, sit back and follow these 5 easy steps of how to play piano below. If you don’t have a piano or electric keyboard, check out our piano keyboard recommendations here. We’ve listed and rated our top picks for budgets small to large.
Okay, let’s get started!
Approach 1: Classically Based
Step 1: Learning Finger Numbers & Middle C
Make sure you are sitting at your piano or electric keyboard to get started. Our first step will be to identify our finger numbers and find middle C. To identify your finger numbers, the thumb is 1; the next finger (index finger) is 2; the next finger (middle finger) is 3; the next finger (ring finger) is 4; and the next from there (the pinky) is 5. If you are still unsure, check out the diagram below.
Now, to find middle C. Middle C is important because it will serve as your starting point and help you get your bearings as you start to learn where the notes are.
If you have an electric keyboard that is not full size or the size of a full piano (doesn’t have 88-keys), then middle C is the 15th white key from the left. Or, simply put, it is the 3rd C from the left.
If, however, you have a piano or full-size electric keyboard (88-keys), then middle C is the 24th white key from the left. Or, an easier way of looking at it is that middle C is the 4th C from the left. The diagram to the left further illustrates this.
Step 2: Scales
Our next step is to play our first major scale. For starters, I will show you how to play the C major scale. Don’t worry, even if you have never played the piano before, this is SUPER easy. We will be using 5 notes of the C major scale that will directly correspond to our 5 finger numbers.
The purpose of learning scales is to help you recognize notes, start to understand how notes connect and increase finger dexterity.
As you play through this scale, try to notice how it sounds going from the low notes first, ascending to a higher register and then back down again. Getting used to the sound of the notes and the feel of the keys beneath your fingertips is the first step to getting familiar with the instrument and how it plays.
(Yellow Dots: Finger Numbers | Blue Dots: Notes on the Keyboard)
So, let’s dive in. Go ahead and place your right thumb on middle C. Arch your wrist and make sure only your fingertips are touching the keys as you progress.
From middle C, working your way up in order from left to right, you have D, E, F, and G (all white keys). Press middle C with your thumb. Next, use finger 2 to press D which will be the white key to the right of middle C. Now, keep going and work your way up the keyboard going in the order of your finger numbers until you reach G. So, you should be using finger 1 for middle C; finger 2 for D; finger 3 for E; finger 4 for F; and finger 5 for G. Once you reach G, come back down the way you came.
Step 3: Song Time
Let’s put what you’ve already learned to use. Below you will see two simple songs that you can practice only using white keys. One is geared more towards children while the other is for everyone in general.
Mary had a little lamb
E D C D E E E
Little lamb, little lamb
D D D E G G
Mary had a little lamb
E D C D E E E
Its fleece was white as snow
E D D E D C
Heart & Soul
C C E E
A A C C
F F A A
G G B B
Step 4: The Black Keys
Now that you’re familiar with the white keys, let’s take a look at the black ones. I remember when I was in piano lessons as a kid and my teacher first introduced the black keys to me. I almost fell out my seat from the sheer fear. But not to worry! I’m going to show you a cool trick that will make learning the black keys much easier so that you don’t have to go through the same pain I did!
Yellow Dots: Finger Numbers & Blue Dots: Notes on the Keyboard
We’ll start with the C# major scale. Instead of trying to memorize the black keys, memorize the only white key in the scale (F). From there, it’s super simple because all you have to do is play every black key starting from C# and up except for F (the white key). The C# major scale is as follows: C#-finger 1; D#-finger 2; F-finger 3, F#-finger 4; G#-finger 5. As a quick side note, the scales I’m showing you span further than just five notes. For the sake of this tutorial, I’m only having you play the first five so as to just get you started and keep you in one centralized area of the keyboard.
Let’s try another scale. The D# minor scale is also another great example of a scale that uses primarily black keys where we can apply this same trick. Remember, just memorize the white key (F) and play only the black keys starting from D# forward. The D# minor scale goes like this: D#-finger 1; F-finger 2; F#-finger 3; G#-finger 4; A#-finger 5.
Step 5: How to Read Music [the easy way]
The 5th and final step will be to learn how to read notes on a staff. This is where it gets a little complex. There are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and thirty-second notes. If you’ve had a piano teacher or taken piano lessons near me, chances are you have seen some, if not all of these note values in music.
Learning all the note values goes beyond the scope of this guide, however, you may want to familiarize yourself with them as you get further along.
In music, we have four different clefs. The two most common are the treble and bass clefs. For this guide, those are the two we will focus on.
Starting with the treble clef, from bottom to top, the notes in the spaces spell the word FACE. The notes on the lines can easily be memorized by learning the acronym Every Good Boy Does Fine.
For the bass clef, the spaces can be remembered by using the acronym:
All Cows Eat Grass or All Cars Eat Gas.
For the lines, remember:
Good Boys Do Fine Always from bottom to top.
As a side note, all notes from middle C and above are found in the treble clef. And all notes below (or to the left of) middle C on your keyboard are found in the bass clef.
Let’s practice. Below, you will find two diagrams. One has the C major scale you’ve already played in the treble clef and the other has the C major scale in the bass clef. Start off slowly and play one note at a time.
For both clefs, I recommend only playing the first five notes (C, D, E, F, G) in the beginning as you become more accustomed to the keyboard.
For the bass clef, I recommend starting with your thumb/first finger and going from right to left and then back.
Don’t worry about note values such as a quarter note, half note, whole note, etc. for now.
Also, feel free to refer back to the diagrams above to find the notes in each clef as needed. For the C major scale in the bass clef, you will start with your left pinky and work your way to the right ending with your thumb on G.
Alas, we have reached the end of Approach 1, the classically based method. If you’ve stuck it out this far, give yourself a HUGE pat on the back. You’re one of the few who have made it this far and was serious enough to take the time to build a proper foundation.
As with anything, learning piano involves work and dedication. Just remember to have fun along the way and celebrate the victories no matter how small.
If you want to take your piano playing even further and learn some popular songs, read on for approach 2, the modern based method.
Approach 2: The Modern Based Method
Step 1: Finger Numbers & Finding Middle C
To start, you will need to know your finger numbers and where middle C is. If you don’t know these already and have not gone through approach 1 above, refer back to step one of approach 1 to first learn your finger numbers and middle C. I know, this is the boring part, but it is an important step before we move onto step two. Don’t worry, it will only take a couple of seconds!
Once you have your finger numbers and middle C down, join me below at step two.
Step 2: Chords-The Foundation of Popular Music
This will be a slightly less conventional piano lesson but will put you on the fast track to playing your favorite songs if reading traditional music and learning lots of theory aren’t your cup of tea.
Fun fact: Did you know that Paul McCartney from the Beatles can’t read or write music? You can watch him talk about it during his interview with 60 Minutes here https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=167778090799503.
When playing popular songs such as rock and pop music, a great place to start is with triads/ three finger chords. Chords are made up of several notes played at the same time to get a certain sound. There are two primary types of chords which we will be using today. The first will be major and the second will be minor. The difference between the two is simple. Major chords sound happy while minor chords sound sad.
Perhaps you have heard a happy song on the radio or a sad song in a movie. The happy sounding song was using mainly major chords while the sad sounding song was using mainly minor ones.
Almost all rock and pop songs are made up of specific combinations of these chords which are known as chord progressions. Perhaps if you play or know someone who plays guitar you are familiar with guitar chords. Just like how guitarists use guitar chords to play and arrange songs, the concept is the same for the piano.
There are two ways piano is typically played in popular songs you hear on the radio. One is by pressing the notes in each chord down at the same time while following a certain rhythm. The other is by breaking up the chords and playing the notes within each chord individually in a specific pattern. The first way is definitely the easiest and the one we will be focusing on the most.
We’ll start with the C major chord which begins on middle C. C major will be all white keys and is comprised of C, E, and G.
Place your right thumb on middle C, your 3rd finger on E, and your 5th finger on G then press down. That is technically correct from a proper technique perspective, however, I typically play this chord with my thumb, index finger, and ring finger (1st, 2nd, and 4th). Either way is fine, and I recommend doing whatever feels most comfortable to you.
Now that you have C major down, let’s take a look at some additional chords. Run through the chord charts below of both major and minor chords and pay attention to the differences in sound from one to the next. Use the same fingers you used for C major.
After you go through these, I’ve put together a few progressions from some popular songs that you can try out in step 3.
Step 3: Let’s Play Some Songs!
Now let’s put some of the chords you learned above to use. See the songs below and play each chord in order from left to right. As you start to get the hang of each progression, look up the song on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, or whichever streaming service you desire and try to find the rhythm of the song. You may not be able to hear it at first, but the more you practice and the more you listen, it should start to fall into place.
Pro tip: To get a better handle on the rhythm, try to match your chords to the ones you hear in the song as they change while the song is playing. An easy way to do this is to slow the actual song down to either half or ¾ speed. You may be wondering how you’re supposed to slow the song down when it was already recorded at a certain speed in the first place.
It’s actually really easy!
YouTube has this feature that allows you to slow a song down as slow as 25% of its original speed.
To do this, look up the song on YouTube.
Click on the settings icon which looks like a little gear on the bottom right side of the video window and select “Playback Speed”.
You will see the options .25, .5, .75, normal and beyond.
Select either .5 or .75. Any slower and the audio will start to become garbled and unrecognizable.
I would recommend selecting .5 for faster-paced songs and .75 for slower paced ones.
To master a song, start at a slower speed.
As you gain more confidence, try speeding it up a bit until you can play it at full speed!
Now the fun part! Take your time going through each song progression and try to hum along with the melody if you can.
Song 1: “Let It Be” by The Beatles
C G Am F
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
C G F C
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”
Song 2: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons
“I'm waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my systems blow…”
Song 3: “Shallow” from the movie A Star is Born starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
“I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in
G D Em
I'll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can't hurt us
G D Em
We're far from the shallow now...”
Song 4: “Piano Man” by Billy Joel
C G F C
“Sing us a song, you're the piano man
F C D G
Sing us a song tonight
C G F C
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
F G C
And you've got us feelin' alright”
It will take some practice getting the hang of these progressions and their respective rhythms. Don’t give up and keep practicing over and over again. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It may sound unrecognizable at first and that is perfectly normal. Just stick with it and I promise it gets better!
Step 4: Time to Break Up (the chords that is)
Now that you’ve had practice playing chord progressions from actual hit songs, it is time we start breaking up the chords a bit. This is where it gets really fun.
When we break up a chord, we have the ability to make what we’re playing sound a little more unique. Instead of playing all the notes in the chord at once, we play each note separately in a pattern.
You can do this with any chord, but we are going to start with C major. I’ve outlined a few patterns for you to try below. Just place your fingers on the keys for C major and play the individual notes in the order they’re written two times in a row. If you’ve forgotten C major already, refer back to the C major chord chart in Step 2.
- C G E G X2
- C E G E X2
- C E C G X2
Now let’s do the same thing with a D minor chord. If you don’t know D minor, check out its chord chart in step 2.
- D F A F X2
- D A F A X2
- D F D A X2
I encourage you to try this with different chords and make your own chord progressions while experimenting with different patterns. As you progress, you’ll find yourself creating your own unique patterns and getting better and better.
Step 5: Practice Every Day
You’ve heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ and I tend to agree. However, I usually recommend starting out with about 15-20 minutes a day and increasing as desired. It’s more important that you practice on a frequent basis vs. 60 minutes in a day but only one day a week.
The more often you come back to it, the more it will stick.
Now I’m Turning it Over to You
Now that you have a basic understanding of song structure and how to play chords, go forth and see if you can teach yourself other songs that interest you.
Pro-Tip: A great way to do this is by visiting https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/. In the search bar at the top, type the name of the song you are interested in learning and click search. You’ll see a ton of free results with the chord progression of the song you’re looking for.
While this site is technically for guitar, just apply the chords written above the lyrics to the piano and you’re set. Ignore any tablature you may see with lines and numbers. You’ll want to use this resource strictly for the chord progressions. And if you forget a chord, refer back to this blog post for reference. If it’s a chord that’s not included in this post, a quick Google search will do the trick.
Remember to take your time, relax, and have fun!
As a bonus, if you would like to learn more songs from popular artists such as Adele, Imagine Dragons, or The Beatles, check out our infographic blog post 10 easy piano songs anyone can play.