Last Updated: April 2020
Interested in learning how to play the piano?
In this complete beginner’s guide you’ll learn how to become a piano player so you can play chords, progressions and full songs.
PLUS, we’ll give you free chord + scale cheat sheets and a daily practice plan at the end!
If you follow this guide you’ll have:
We are going to start with the fundamentals, show you proper piano technique and get into advanced stuff that will take your piano playing to another level.
At the end of this guide, we’ve got an entire practice plan for you FREE that you can use to become a better piano player quickly.
If you put in the work…
Special Note: If you want to speed up your learning check out these online piano lessons. They’re a HUGE help and make it easier to learn to play the piano
Bottom Line – you don’t need to be “born with it” to be a phenomenal pianist.
You can make yourself better, regardless of your current skill level or “talent.” And we can help.
Let’s get it….
Just like any other instrument out there, playing piano isn’t “easy.”
To be a great pianist you have to focus on a lot of things, like:
That’s a ton of stuff to worry about… So let’s get started.
We won’t go into things like sight reading and rhythm in detail, but you can brush up on those things here.
If you’re sitting in front of a piano, you’re going to notice a couple of main things.
Obviously the piano’s “keyboard” has a series of black and white keys – we’ll get into this in a bit.
But depending on the type of piano you have there will be different parts.
Some of the more common stuff among these different types of piano are the pedals underneath.
The main one we’re concerned with is called a “sustain” pedal. This pedal, when pressed, lets the notes you play “ring out,” instead of stopping right after you stop pressing the key.
Each individual piano may have other controls or features as well, but the main ones you need to worry about for now are the keyboard and the sustain pedal.
If you’re already got a piano, you can skip this section. If you’re still decided on what to buy, here’s some stuff to consider.
First off, how many keys do you want? You can buy pianos with 88 keys (full length) or in variations of 64 keys, 49 keys and, in some cases, 25 keys.
If you’re serious about playing piano like a pro, always go for an 88 key piano/keyboard.
The second thing to consider is the weighting of the piano keys. Semi-weighted keys are easier to press/play while fully-weighted keys feel more like a grand piano.
If you want to be able to play with the nuance of a real piano player, it’s best to choose fully-weighted keys.
There are 4 main types of pianos you can use to learn how to play: digital, electric, acoustic/grand and MIDI.
Digital pianos are probably the most common in households. These are the compact pianos that contain a speaker to play the sound and often have lots of extra controls.
You usually get a few different types of sounds you can play, a volume control, a metronome (to help you keep proper time/rhythm), and more.
Digital pianos are great for most people because they’re affordable and easily moved around. You can get them in a variety of key sizes and both semi- and fully-weighted keys.
You will usually have to buy a sutain pedal separately most times, but that’s not a big deal.
For most students, I highly recommend buying a digital piano that has 88 fully-weighted keys.
Electric pianos are like digital pianos, but they create a different sound.
It’s commonly called an “E-Piano” and you hear it a lot in jazz, soul and R&B records.
They sound gorgeous, but if you’re trying to learn traditional piano with a traditional sounding piano, it’s not the best choice for you.
They aren’t meant to sound like an acoustic grand piano. They’re meant to sound electric, often with a lot of sustain.
Now in an ideal world, everyone could own a real grand piano. They look and sound beautiful.
But damn are they expensive, and difficult to maintain/move.
That’s why I don’t recommend looking into a grand piano until you’re a proficient pianist and have a lot of money saved up.
If you’re using an acoustic or grand piano, you’ll notice that the sound comes from the actual strings and “hammers” in the main piano body. Electric and digital pianos generate the sound and play it through a speaker.
Unfortunately, you’ll only get one sound from a real piano, and no metronome or other controls.
But.. if you’ve got one, consider yourself lucky.
Finally, MIDI keyboards are like digital pianos, but they don’t make any sound on their own.
They’re used mostly by beat makers and music producers.
You hook it up to your computer, and you can use a synth software to generate the sound and use the keyboard to play out some harmonies and melodies.
If you’re not familiar with this already, don’t worry about it. It’s a very specialized piece of equipment.
If you are a producer/beat maker looking to learn piano we recommend using a fully-weighted 88 key midi controller, even though they’re expensive and large.
As for generating piano sounds, we love the sample instrument “Alicia’s
Keys” by Native Instruments. The sound is Alicia Keys’ very own piano. It’s great.
Pianos can get expensive. Especially the acoustic variety. That’s because they’re mechanically based and take a lot to make.
So if you’re looking to buy an acoustic piano, be prepared to spend thousands and thousands of dollars.
But if you’re buying a digital piano, the prices can vary widely.
You can get a great digital piano for about $500-600 with 88 fully weighted keys.
You don’t have to spend more than that if you don’t want to.
If you want to get more sound options, better sounds, and more bells and whistles, you can end up spending $1500+.
Piano’s can be purchased from a lot of great places. It’s a good idea to find a music store in your area so you can get a feel for the piano you’re looking at buying.
But you don’t have to. There are a ton of options for you to buy your instrument online.
And then of course, there are online music stores like:
They’re all great options to choose from.
Once you’ve got your main instrument, there are a lot of accessories you can buy.
This is stuff you should definitely have.
Digital pianos usually have their own metronomes and acoustic pianos already have pedals with them.
These accessories are useful, but not necessary. Get them if you have the money, don’t worry if you don’t have them, though.
Learning the different notes on the piano is an essential first step in mastering the piano. These notes are the building blocks of everything else you’ll do when playing a song.
Each note has a specific pitch. The pitch of a note is how high or low the notes sounds when played relative to another note on the keyboard.
It’s important that you memorize these different notes before moving on to the next section as you’ll be using them constantly. You also want to memorize where they each appear on the keyboard/piano.
Start by taking a look at the piano keys. You’ll notice that there’s a pattern to the notes and it just repeats over and over again
There are 7 different main notes that you need to focus on to begin with. These are the white keys on the piano. These white keys each correspond to a letter of the alphabet from A through to G.
These 7 different notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) are repeated over and over again all across the entire keyboard, regardless of the total number of keys your piano has (i.e. 24, 49, 61, or 88 keys).
Here’s a graphic to help you find the right keys on your own piano:
When you play these piano keys what you will notice is that the different “C” notes on the keyboard, for example, all sound almost entirely the same except for how high or low the note is.
This is the pitch of the note. When you move from one low C to a C note higher on the piano, it’s called a higher octave. Middle C Is the C note that sites in the middle of the piano.
Now if you’re ready to move onto the black keys, just know that they share the same letter names as the white keys, but with special modifiers called “accidentals,” attached to them.
These accidentals are known as “flats” and “sharps,” and they slightly alter the pitch of the notes.
So take the “D” note (a white key) as an example. There are two black keys that surround the D. If you move UP the keyboard (towards the right) then we would say the note is a “Sharp.”
If you move DOWN the keyboard (to the left) the note is “Flat.” So the black key to the right of D is a D-Sharp (written as D#). And the black key to the left of D is a D-Flat (written as Db).
But now take C as an example – it only has a black key to the right of it. In the last example this same key was called a D-Flat (Db).
But when we’re talking about a C (instead of a D like in the last example) this is known as the C-Sharp (C#) key.
So basically each black key on the piano will have two separate names. It is sharp or flat relative to the note that you’re talking about. Here’s a little image to help you visualize what I’m talking about.
So in total, there are 12 separate keys/notes on a piano – 7 white keys and 5 black keys.
And that’s that – you’ve learned all the piano notes. It’s a good idea to memorize all these notes and their positions to help you learn piano scales in the next step.
An interval is basically a space between two different notes.
It’s a bit more advanced of a topic, but you should know about them now. Different intervals have different sounds.
So an interval would be the “sound” (or change in sound) that happens when you move from C to E. That type of interval is called a third. Whereas a move from C to G is called fifth.
There can be major intervals and minor intervals. They can also be called “perfect” intervals and even something called a tritone.
For example, a C to an E is a major third while a C to an Eb is a minor third.
You count intervals in terms of “semitones” or “half steps.” That just means moving from one note, directly to the next note beside it.
So going from C to C# is a semitone or half step.
Here’s a list of musical intervals:
You won’t really have much use for intervals until you get more into harmonic and melodic theory.
The one thing you’ll notice about the keyboard is that it’s the same set of 12 notes (7 white, 5 black) that just repeats over and over again for however long the piano is.
That’s where octaves come into play.
An octave is a type of “interval” (more on those later) that is 12 steps (or semitones) away from the starting point.
So if you were to start on the key of C (the white key directly to the left of a set of 2 black keys), and move RIGHT 12 keys, you have moved an octave UP.
Guess what note that is? It’s a C! Because it’s the same note, just higher in pitch.
The lower C and the higher C are an octave apart.
That goes for all 12 keys, across the entirety of the keyboard.
So, you only really have to learn 12 notes, not 88.
Middle C is the C note that is roughly in the center of the keyboard. It’s just a way to denote what’s playing the “bass” and what’s playing the “melody” or “chords.”
Middle C is also called C3 (in the music production world). If you move an octave up to the next C, it’s called C4 and so on.
If you move down an octave you get to C2, and so forth.
Normally Middle C is the invisible dividing line between what your left and right hands will play (with exceptions, of course).
Before we move further, we need to go over playing correctly.
If you start your journey with good playing habits, it’ll just be that much easier to get better and better over time.
We’re talking about posture and finger positions.
When you’re sitting at the piano with your hands on the keys, make sure you’re paying attention to the following:
The piano itself shouldn’t be too high or too low. When your hands are on the keys, your wrists should be even/straight – your hands shouldn’t be bending down or up.
The next thing we need to worry about is which fingers play which keys.
A lot of this depends on what key/scale you’re playing in (more on this later).
But we start by numbering our fingers:
Right + Left Hand Numbering
Now keep that in mind when we talk about what scales are. We’ll tell you the ideal piano fingering for each scale.
The reason we do this is because it’s the most efficient way for your fingers to reach notes. It’s natural or ergonomic.
Now, on to scales.
Piano scales are basically a series of notes that sound good when played one after the other.
When you listen to a song and hear a piano player moving from note to note without anything sounding out of place, it is because the player is playing along a certain scale (or “key”) on the piano.
Each key on the piano, has it’s own set of scales, which start and end on that particular note.
The notes in between determine what scale you’re playing.
There are two main types of musical scales to learn first.
These are the Major scales and the Minor scales, and they’re found in most western music you’ll hear.
Since there are 12 keys on the keyboard, there are 12 Major scales and 12 Minor scales to learn in total.
You can learn HOW to find scales in our basic music theory course here. It’s based on intervals (i.e. how many notes are between two specific notes) and “half steps” and “whole steps.”
A half step is when you move from one key directly to the next key beside it.
For example, moving from C to C# is a half step.
A whole step is when you skip one key in between. So moving from C to D is a whole step.
Using half-steps and whole-steps we can build all of our Major and Minor scales using the following patterns:
W = Whole Step | H = Half Step
So a C Major Scale would be: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – (C)
A C Minor Scale would be: C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – (C)
If you’re paying attention you’ll notice that both scales are the same, except the THIRD, SIXTH and SEVENTH notes in the minor scale are flattened (i.e. lowered a half step).
That means if you take ANY major scale, and flatten the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes, you end up with a minor scale!
Try to figure out all the major and minor scales for every key using the patterns above on your piano.
Be Sure to Download Our FREE Piano SCALE and CHORD Cheat Sheets
It’s actually a really good idea to memorize them all. That way, you’re one step closer to being able to play piano by ear.
When you’re learning to play piano by ear (i.e. without having to read sheet music) there’s something called the number system.
The number system is just a way of putting a number value to each tone (note) in a piano scale.
For example, in the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), you would simple start with the first note (C) and number it as a 1 (in other words C is the 1st tone in the C major scale).
D would be a 2 (or the 2nd tone of a C major scale), E would be a 3, and so on.
This will be important when playing chords and chord progressions, and being able to play YOUR OWN songs, coming up in later piano tutorials.
So keep it in mind.
Thought we were done with scales?
Not even close… An advanced topic in playing piano is something called “piano modes.”
These are scale variations that are also based on specific patterns of half steps and whole steps.
They totally change the emotional impact of the scale you’re playing in.
These modes are called:
We won’t get into how you find these modes, because it’s an advanced topic. But you should know about them.
One thing we mentioned was that the major and minor scales are what you find in most of western music.
But there are hundreds of musical scales out in the world.
And some of them are SO FIRE!
Here’s some scales that you should also look into once you’ve mastered the Major/Minor scales.
There are so many more, but… we gotta crawl before we walk!
It’s important you use the correct fingers for each note when you’re playing a scale.
The recommending “fingering” for each scale below is the most efficient/easiest way to move your fingers across a scale quickly.
A piano chord is a set of two or more notes played together at the same time.
These aren’t just random notes played together, though.
Which notes you use together, has a lot to do with the scales and intervals we learned above, so make sure you are familiar with them, or you’ve got our piano cheat sheets handy.
There are lots of different chords you can play, and below we’ll show you the basics of how to find them.
Here you’ll learn all about triads, seventh chords, chord extensions and more.
Let’s get it…
Triads are chords that contain 3 notes in them.
All major triad chords in western music use the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of the major scale you’re playing in.
So, for example, in the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) let’s apply numbering.
Here’s what you get:
C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8
Since the major triad chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th tone of the scale, the C-major triad chord would use the notes C, E and G.
Go over to your piano and play C-E-G together at the same time. You can hear it sounds bright and happy, just like the C major scale.
Congratulations, you just played your first chord.
Here’s how it looks on the keyboard:
You can use that same formula (1st tone, 3rd tone, 5th tone) to build ANY major chord, using any note on the piano.
All you have to do is know the piano scales you want to play in, choose a root note (the first tone), find the 3rd tone and 5th tone of that particular scale and play those notes together.
Let’s try a D Major Triad: The first, third and fifth notes of the D Major scale are D, F# and A.
Play those 3 notes and voila you’ve got a D Maj chord.
There are 12 major chords that can be played.
Try and learn them all.
Minor triad scales are played with the same types of notes as in the major scales – the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of whatever minor scale you’re playing in.
The difference comes from the notes that actually make up the major and minor scales.
If you remember, the notes of the C minor scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.
C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8
So the C-minor chord would be made up of the notes C, Eb and G.
And again, you can use the same method to find out the minor chord for any of the 12 notes on the piano.
What about a D Minor Chord? The 1st, 3rd and 5th tone make up D-F-A. Play it and you’ll see it’s got a sombre/sad vibe to it.
That’s what the minor mode is all about.
Here’s what the C-minor chords looks like on the keyboard.
Another way you can find a minor chord is simply by “flattening” the 3rd. What does this mean?
Well, if you’ve already got a major chord worked out – like the C-major chord (C, E, G), all you have to do next is make the 3rd note a flat. So C-E-G would turn into C-Eb-G.
Again, you can do this for ANY major chord to make its minor equivalent.
So, to recap:
A triad chord is made up of the 1st tone of a scale, the 3rd tone of the same scale and the 5th tone of the same scale – whether you’re in minor or major.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are a ton of different chords that can be played.
Augmented and diminished chords have a different, almost jarring or in-harmonic, sound.
They’re the “horror movie” type of chords.
Here’s how you build them
Diminished chords are built by taking any minor triad (ex/ C Min – C-Eb-G) and flattening the 5th tone (the G becomes Gb)
So a C Dim chord is C-Eb-Gb. Play it on your piano, and you’ll see why I say it’s a jarring sound.
And you can do this with any minor chord to get your diminished chord
Augmented chords work the same way, but in the opposite direction.
Take any major chord (ex/ C Maj – C-E-G) and sharpen the 5th tone of the chord (the G).
Sharpening a note means moving it UP a half step, or making it a sharp note.
So a C Aug chord is C-E-G#. Play that on your keyboard and you’ll see why I say it’s that “horror movie” style sound.
Again, you can do this with any major chord to get an augmented triad.
Let’s take a quick detour, before moving on to more, and talk about inversions and voicing.
Chord inversions are when you play a chord, but with the notes in a different order than original.
So, you can play the chord in it’s original form (called it’s “root” position) or in it’s first or second “inversion.”
A C Maj chord in root position is C-E-G.
To invert that chord, you take the first note (the C) and make it the last note (after the G).
So the chord gets played as E-G-C.
It’s still a C Maj chord, it’s just played in it’s first inversion.
You can do that again. Take the new “first” note (the E) and make it the new “last” note (after the C).
So the chord gets played as G-C-E. Still a C Maj, but it’s now in it’s second inversion.
Why would you do that. Cuz it’s cool and sounds different… (there are other reasons, but that’s all that really matters).
Chord voicing refers to how you play the notes in a chord. It’s different than inversion because you don’t have to use the same hand to play out the chord.
A very basic example of this would be playing the C Major chord (C-E-G) by using your left hand to play an E while playing a C and G with your left hand higher on the piano.
Why would you do that? Cuz it’s cool and sounds different.
Chord voicing is really useful when you’re working with more complex chords like 7ths and 9ths. But I thought it’d be good for you to be aware of now.
Those major and minor triads aren’t the only chords we can make.
They’re the basics.
These next chords are when things start to get really interesting. Let’s talk about chord extensions.
The most basic chord extension is known as the 7th.
It’s when you take a triad (ex/ C Maj – C-E-G), which is the 1st, 3rd and 5th tone of a scale, and adding the 7th tone on top.
Let’s go back to the C Major scale – C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7
So the C Maj triad becomes the CMaj7 chord by adding a B
This 7th chord would be C-E-G-B.
Try it out on your piano and hear the complex beauty of a seventh chord.
You can turn any Major or Minor triad into a seventh chord. Take the chord’s ROOT note (ex/ the C note is the root note of a C Major chord), and add on the 7th tone of that note’s scale to the end of your chord.
There are a few other chord extensions you can add to chords to increase the complexity of their sound.
Let’s go back to the number system.
Once you get to the 7th tone, the scale starts to repeat it self. But instead of the upper C becoming a 1 again, we are going to make it an 8. And we’re going to keep moving up in numbers
C Major Scale: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7 | C=8, D=9, E=10, F=11, G=12, A=13, B=14 |
Ninth Chords, Eleventh Chords and Thirteenth Chords:
So the first type of chord extension beyond the 7th chord is the 9th chord.
And it’s as simple as taking your 7th chord, and popping the 9th tone of the scale on the end of it.
CMaj9 = C-E-G-B-D
And it’s the same thing for 11th and 13th chords.
CMaj11 = C-E-G-B-D-F
CMaj13 = C-E-G-B-D-F-A
You don’t really hear 13th and 11th chords often, but they do pop up in some styles of music.
7th and 9th chords are more commonly seen, especially in jazz, R&B and soul music.
So what happens if you keep going with the numbers?
Well… you don’t.
The 13th is the last extension. So even if you add the A note an octave even higher than the initial 13th note, it’s still considered a 13th chord. You’d just be voicing it differently.
You know how a scale is a series of notes that sound good together?
Well, a chord progression is a series of chords that sound good when played one after another.
So how do you figure out which chords go together?
We have to go back to scales and the number system.
We match numbers to the notes in a scale, and those numbers can also tell us which chord corresponds to each note in the scale.
When you’re first starting out with playing chord progressions, it’s important to know about diatonic harmony.
That’s just a fancy phrase that means “in a particular scale, these are the chords you should use for each note in the scale.”
It uses Roman numerals to denote the scale degrees. So 1 = I, 2 = II, 5 = V, etc.
And if the number is capitalized (ex/ III) it means the chord will be MAJOR.
If the number is NOT capitalized (ex/ vi) the chord should be MINOR.
Chords in a Major Scale:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii(dim)
What’s that mean? If you’re in a major scale, the 1st note is a major chord, the 2nd and 3d chords are minor, notse 4 and 5 are major, while note 6 is a minor. Note 7 is a diminished chord.
So if you’re finding a chord progression in C Major, you can use the following chords together and they’ll sound good together:
Chords in a Minor Scale:
i – ii(dim) – III – iv – v – VI – VII
If you’re in a minor scale, the 1st chord will be minor, the 2nd is diminished and the 3rd is major. From there, the 4th and 5th notes will be minor chords and the 6th and 7th notes will be major chords.
So in C Minor the chords you can use are:
Try playing those chords one after the other. You’ll notice that they sound like they fit together.
That’s the magic of diatonic harmony. Once you become advanced, you’ll be able to dip in and out of various scales to form complex chord progressions.
There are a bunch of different combinations of chords you could use to build a progression – it’s limitless.
But there are a few common ones that you should be familiar with.
Here are the most common chord progressions you’ll hear in western music.
We’ll give you the structure of the progressions below, but you’ll have to pick a scale to play in and figure out the proper chords yourself!
Pick a scale (like C Major) and practice the above progressions – you’ll quickly notice that you’re basically playing music!
Hell you could even sing over top of a simple chord progression like the ones above, and be done with your very own song!
One important (but advanced) idea we should mention on the topic of chord progressions is voice leading when you’re transitioning between chords.
Basically, you want to minimize the movement between chords so everything sounds nice and smooth, instead of jarring. You do that by using common tones across your chords
What’s that mean?
Say you want to play a I-IV-V-I in C Major. Here are the chords you’d play in root position:
C Major -> F Major -> G Major -> C Major
If you play that on your piano, you’ll notice that your hand has to move a pretty long distance between chords.
C-E-G -> F-A-C -> G-B-D ->C-E-G
We want to minimize that movement. So what do you do?
We use chord inversions and different voicings to play chords in a way where our hand doesn’t have to move around much.
So let’s use C Major in root position and play F Major in 2nd inversion and G Major in 1st inversion.
C-E-G -> C-F-A -> B-D-G -> C-E-G
Note: the B in B-D-G is played below (to the left) of the C note you’re playing.
So essentially, you’re only having to move a couple of fingers to get from chord to chord.
That’s voice leading. And it’s glorious.
You made it!
Now that you understand the fundamentals of piano, let’s get into the real reason you’re here.
Below are some easy piano songs you can start to learn and play today as a beginner!
We’ll also go over reading sheet music, so you can use both video and written tools to help you learn!
Here’s a list of some really great piano songs you can learn to play easily as a beginner.
You can find great tutorials on YouTube for these songs for now, but soon we’ll be posting our own tutorials to play these songs right here!
So what happens when you want to learn a song and all you have is the sheet music?
You learn how to read it! Here are the basics.
What you’ll see in sheet music something called a staff. It’s got two parts – a top and bottom. The top has a treble clef (representing the higher notes on the keyboard) and the bottom has a bass clef (representing the lower notes on the keyboard.
The lines and spaces on the staff represent notes on the piano.
Let’s start with the treble clef (top staff).
Starting from the bottom line up to the top line, the notes are E – G – B – D – F (remember it using the words “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”)
The spaces in between the lines (from bottom to top) represent the notes F – A – C – E (remember it by saying “FACE“)
If you were to draw an invisible line directly in the middle of the treble staff and the bass staff, you’d have a C note (middle C to be exact).
Let’s move on to the bass clef (bottom staff)
Starting from the bottom line up to the top line, the notes are G – B – D – F – A (remember it using the words “Good Boys Don’t Fool Around”)
The spaces in better represent the notes A – C – E – G (remember it using the words “All Cows Eat Grass“)
You need to know about note lengths and values and how to count measures/bars so make sure you check out our music theory course, if you’re not sure of it.
But now that you know the basics of reading sheet music, you can buy some songs you love and slowly learn how to play.
At first you’re going to be doing a lot of “umm. ok what’s this note? Oh a C. And the next note is… D” and slowly piece together a musical phrase in the song you’re studying.
But soon enough, you’ll be able to read sheet music fluently.
The most important part of your piano study isn’t what you learn – it’s how often you practice.
It’s literally the difference between being ok and being great at your instrument.
Below we’re giving you a FREE piano practice plan with cheat sheets and exercises that will help you master this beautiful instrument.