Just in case you are completely new to the piano and making music in general, here is a quick introduction to the instrument and music theory.
Even though a piano has 88 keys, there are only 12 unique tones:
This group of 12 tones is called an octave and repeats over and over on the keyboard. There are 7 full octaves and a handful of extra keys on a piano:
You can recognize the notes by looking at the pattern of black and white keys. There are always 2 black keys, then 3 black keys, again 2 black keys, again 3 black keys, and so on.
The white key immediately to the left of each set of 2 black keys is called C. If you learn to locate C, you can always find the other notes.
The black keys sometimes seem to scare beginners, but they aren’t any more special than white keys. They are only shorter to put all 12 tones in reach of the average hand, and colored black to give the eye an easy pattern to recognize. That’s all.
Keys on the left of the keyboard produce low tones, keys on the right produce high tones. The C key that is roughly in the center of the keyboard is referred to as middle C.
Like I said, there are only 12 unique tones that repeat over and over. This means a tone in one octave sounds the same as that same tone an octave above or below, just lower or higher. In other words: a C is always a C, no matter if you play it high or low.
As you can see in the picture above, each of the black keys has two names. The black key to the right of C can be called C# — pronounce “C sharp” — or Db — pronounce “D flat“.
We call these tones enharmonically equivalent. This means they sound the same — after all, they share the same key on the piano — but that we still consider them two different tones. Which name is right depends on the context.
Not all pianos have 88 keys. Some digital pianos have 76 keys, electronic keyboards only 61. This is still enough to play most music. In the time of Bach and Mozart, instruments didn’t have that many keys anyway.
The piano has one or more foot pedals, which form an essential part of piano playing. The most important pedal is the damper pedal (or “sustain” pedal). To play the piano, you need at least a damper pedal.
On an acoustic piano, the strings are held in place by a damper that rests on the string. When you press a key, the damper is lifted and the string can vibrate freely. Release the key and the damper falls down on the string again and muffles the sound.
However, when you step on the damper pedal, it lifts the dampers from all the strings. Now releasing a key won’t stop the string from vibrating because the damper pedal keeps the damper up.
This way you can sustain the sound of the strings even though you have released the keys, which makes for a smoother sound. Learning to pedal properly is an important part of playing the piano.
Here are some common terms that musicians throw around:
Interval. An interval is the distance between two keys on the piano. We often speak about music in terms of intervals. Read more about intervals
Half-step and whole-step. When we say: “Go up a half-step,” we mean that you should go one key to the right. So a half-step up from C is the black key C#. A “half-step down” is one key to the left: from C to B.
A whole-step is simply two half-steps. In other words, you skip a key: a whole-step up from C is D, so we skipped C#.
Chord. A chord is nothing more than several tones played at the same time. You can’t just hit any random notes and call it a chord; there are certain rules for forming chords.
You use chords to “harmonize” melodies. In other words, the chord adds additional tones to make the melody sound fuller. All music is based on chords, even classical.
Scale. Often we group notes in a specific pattern called a scale. Scales are used to create melodies and improvisations. There are several different types of scales but the most important one is the major scale.
An example is the C major scale: C D E F G A B C (from low to high). These are just the white keys on the keyboard. It’s often the scale beginning players start with because it’s the easiest to remember and visualize
Key. Sometimes you hear people say: “This tune is in the key of C.” That means the melody and chords are both based on the C major scale (see above).
The key of a musical piece determines what notes are used, that’s all. Different keys, different notes. Some people also claim that different keys express different moods, but this seems to be somewhat subjective.
Many composers like to change keys in the middle of the piece, a process that is called “modulation”. You can also play the whole piece in a different key. This is called “transposition”.
How to play the piano
Of course I can’t explain everything there is to know about playing the piano in a few paragraphs, but generally speaking, we play the melody in the right hand and harmony (the chords) in the left.
Because melody uses higher tones than the harmony, it stands out more. That’s good, because melody is the most important part of the music. The second most important are the lowest tones, also known as the “bass” tones. Everything in between those two is more flexible.
Not everyone plays melody. Some pianists just accompany other instrumentalists or vocalists, in which case they only play the harmony parts (with both hands).
Classical music is often played from sheet music by “sight-reading” or from memory. Contemporary music, such as jazz and pop, is often played “by ear” and uses a lot of improvisation, where the pianist makes up the melody and/or harmony on the spot.
There are many different styles of piano playing, each with its own rules and techniques. You don’t have to start by learning classical if you don’t want to. There are many piano teachers that focus on modern music.
And you can always self-teach with the many courses that are available on the internet these days.
Read more articles on Piano Clues: