Have you ever wanted to learn how to play piano?
Perhaps you have a piano in your home and would love to know where to start. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to play the piano but never had the chance until now. Maybe you want a creative outlet for yourself or your child.
So many people have wanted to learn how to play piano that there was even a British series on how to play piano on prime time TV. We can’t think of another instrument that had it’s own TV show! These days, most of this instructional content has moved to content sites like youtube, or even this blog!
Here at Sage Music, we take pride in helping our music students find that path towards musical success. We do this in a way that not only helps them reach their goals, but also provides them the tools necessary to maintain their skills for a lifetime.
Many students tell us that the skills they learn here help them in many other areas of their lives, too.
One of the first (and best) steps to learn to play piano is to understand some of the basics of the instrument. While private piano lessons are usually the best way to learn to play the piano, in this article we are going to give you some basics that will start you on your way toward mastering how to play the piano before you find a piano teacher.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- how to choose the right piano type for your needs,
- how the piano works and what this means for you,
- healthy piano practice habits,
- and more.
How to choose the right piano for you
Choosing the right piano is the most important first step in learning how to play the piano.
When people think of the piano, they usually think of the typical concert grand piano, which can range from anywhere between 7 ft. and 11 ft. long depending on the specific model.
However, most homes couldn’t fit such an instrument comfortably. So over the years piano makers have developed other, smaller piano sizes to allow this amazing instrument to fit in more homes.
With this in mind, it’s important to understand what your goals are for learning to play the piano. You don’t need to invest in such a large piano if it doesn’t fit your goals. And you wouldn’t want to have to upgrade your home to a bigger size just to fit your piano…although, maybe a big piano is a great excuse to get a bigger home!
Here is how your musical goals might affect what piano you choose.
Some people are already competent musicians with home studios already set up and would love to learn how to play the piano to expand upon their compositional abilities.
For example, one of our students is an Emmy award winning composer who takes piano lessons with us so that he can compose and arrange music more quickly. He doesn’t need a concert grand piano, because performing on the piano is not his primary goal. His goal is learning the piano to help his composing go faster.
In fact, he might do better without an acoustic piano. A digital piano or electronic keyboard will likely work best for him because they will also interface with his music notation software, allowing him to write music directly into his computer.
Others would love to learn how to play the piano because they would love to use it as a way to decompress after a long day. Perhaps you have a child who is interested in the piano and wants to learn how to play their favorite songs, perhaps even become a professional pianist one day.
Another one of our students is fairly ambitious and wanted to gain entry into the famous LaGuardia High School for the arts. In her case, she did need an acoustic piano because the music she wanted to perform demands an acoustic piano. Also, for her audition, she was required to play on an acoustic piano. Since the ‘feel’ of digital pianos are so different from acoustic pianos, she would not have been set up for success if she had been practicing on a digital keyboard. For her goals, an upright piano was the best choice. And the best news is that she won her audition and was admitted into the program.
Whatever your reason may be, a basic understanding of the common piano types can help better equip you on your path to learning the piano to pursue your goals.
There are so many reasons to learn to play the piano. So we always start our new students off with a goal setting session in our new student onboarding, because we want to get it right.
Your goals will affect which music you learn, and which approach your teacher will take. It will also affect which type of piano you choose to play.
Now that you’ve seen how goals can affect the piano you choose to learn, let’s go over some basics to help you decide which piano is right for you:
The Concert Grand Piano
The Concert Grand Piano is the premium of all piano options. This type of piano requires a considerable amount of real estate as it can range anywhere from 7-11 ft. long. Have a look here at some of the grand pianos from Steinway of Austin and San Antonio.
The benefits of acquiring this kind of piano are that you gain all the functionality needed to learn the instrument such as real hammers striking real strings, which provides the haptic feedback necessary for developing the fine touch for classical music. Plus it has natural acoustics that are unparalleled in any other type of piano.
When to choose the Grand Piano
If you have the room (and the budget) for this kind of piano this would be the ideal type for serious learners of the instrument, especially for those who would want to learn classical music or even seriously study jazz.
The Baby Grand Piano
Much like the concert grand piano, the baby grand piano is another premium option for those who have a considerable amount of room in their homes and would love to learn how to use the instrument with all of its natural functionality. It provides the same benefits as a concert grand piano but takes up a bit less space than the concert grand, because it is only about 5 to 6 ft. long.
The shorter length does reduce the sound quality and presence just a bit. This type of piano is commonly seen in many places such as school music rooms and parlors.
In fact, at Sage Music our performance stage holds a Steinway M, Baby Grand piano. We chose this piano to get all the great benefits of a concert grand, but to leave space for other performers on stage or community events.
When to choose the Baby Grand Piano:
If you want to perform classical or jazz music, or if you are a professional or serious hobbyist but don’t have the budget or space for a grand piano, consider the baby grand.
The Acoustic Upright Piano
The acoustic upright piano was developed in London in 1826 by the piano maker Robert Wornum.This type of piano quickly became a big seller upon its release due to the fact that it was much more compact in size to its grand piano counterparts. Upright pianos are only about 3-5 feet wide and are also about 3-5 ft. high. Some uprights can be as small as 20 inches deep or less.
Uprights tend to be the preferred option for most homes due to the fact that they offer comparable functionality to their grand piano counterparts, but require significantly less space and also come at a significantly lower cost than a typical grand piano.
When to choose the Upright Piano
Choose the upright piano if you don’t have the space or budget for a Grand or Baby Grand piano.
Or choose it if you or your child wants to perform on the piano, but aren’t sure about the goal. In this case you can play an upright piano with less financial investment, because your goals might change.
The Digital Piano
Digital pianos were developed beginning in the 1980s as technology became more sophisticated in capturing the acoustic and mechanical functions of the piano.
Digital pianos are designed to be even more space saving than upright pianos due to the fact that they don’t house any strings and so can be made more compact.
Digital pianos are also relatively less expensive than upright pianos and, unlike all the acoustic pianos, require little to no maintenance. You will need to regularly tune your acoustic piano, regulate it, and replace parts, etc, but this is not the case with digital pianos.
They offer much of the same functionality as the grand and upright pianos and can even have headphones plugged in for more “neighbor friendly” practice. This will allow you to practice without your neighbors or roommates hearing.
That can be great if they don’t like the music, or if you are a little shy about your practicing when learning something new.
Digital pianos can also be used for home studios as they typically have audio and midi ports that allow them to work with most music software.
When to choose a digital piano:
If you are on a budget, or if you have a concern about noise, you might choose the digital piano. Or if you use the piano as a tool to compose or arrange, the digital piano may be a better choice.
And if you take online piano lessons, the audio output directly into your computer may make your learning experience better.
Electric Piano Keyboards
Electric pianos are by far the most cost and space effective options out of all the piano types.
These are the lightest, which makes them ideal for gigging musicians or for taking with you on flights or long trips. They also come in various configurations.
Electric keyboards do sacrifice some of the natural functionality of the other types of pianos in some cases such as having fewer piano keys than digital or acoustic pianos. They also come with a need to purchase a stand for the keyboard, and a difference in key action (the way a piano key feels when you depress it) between an electric keyboard and an acoustic piano is significant.
These types of pianos can be ideal for young learners who would like to explore the instrument but don’t have the space or budget for one of the more premium options. They would also be good for music producers who want a piano instrument that is compact and can plug into their home studios for use in their musical software. Gigging musicians who need a lightweight, portable option for traveling to and from various venues would also do well with an electric keyboard.
When to choose the Electric Keyboard:
If you are gigging, need to save a lot of space, are just ‘trying it out’, or if the music you want to play – like pop – requires an electric keyboard sound, choose the electric keyboard.
As you can see there are numerous options available to you depending on your size and price requirements.
In the end, choosing a piano type mostly depends on how technically proficient you would like to be at playing the piano and, to some extent, what kind of music you would like to perform for example, classical, jazz, pop, etc. See here for more on how to choose a piano keyboard.
Here at Sage Music we cater to each student’s individual goals so no matter which type you end up acquiring you will still be able to learn all the skills and techniques needed to become a proficient pianist. We’ll also help you set your goals so that you can make a better choice about which is the right piano for you to learn to play.
How a Piano Functions
The piano is a unique instrument in the family of instruments because it is a hybrid; it utilizes a combination of basic instrument functions to produce sound. That is because it functions like a string instrument and it functions like a percussion instrument.
String instruments are instruments that produce sound by vibrating strings. Percussion instruments produce sound by striking the instrument.
If you were to watch someone play the piano it would seem as though they are pressing the keys much like how someone types on a computer keyboard, but in actuality they are striking the keys with their fingers. The keys are connected to hammers, which are attached to the backs of the keys, which then hit the strings which produce sound.
The keys on a piano are weighted as well. This allows for greater control of expression by allowing the player to change the loudness of the instrument.
The predecessors of the piano, like the harpsichord, did not have the ability to change loudness. The invention of this weighted piano action, which allowed for the player to change the loudness or volume, was such a revolution, it was so exciting that they named the new instrument “forte-piano” after this new ability. Here’s a nice video about the early fortepiano.
Piano is the Italian word for soft, and forte is the word for loud. So the modern name of the instrument is actually a shortened version of the original Italian name forte-piano, which means roughly “loud-soft”, describing the instrument’s ability to sound notes either loudly or softly.
The loudness or softness is completely determined by the pianist’s force when striking the keys.
Another function of the piano is the use of the foot pedals. Unlike a church organ which has numerous pedals, the piano typically has only three pedals, each with their own functionality. These pedals add the ability for pianists to enhance or alter the sound of the instrument further.
See this article from our friends at Alamo Music Center in San Antonio, TX learn more about what do the pedals on a piano do.
Basic Piano Techniques
How to sit at the piano
When learning how to play the piano, the first step is learning how one should be seated. Piano benches are designed to provide the best height but ideally you should choose a chair that is comfortable enough to sit on for a prolonged period of time and allows you navel (belly button) to align just below the keys. You should sit with a straight (but not arched) back and with your shoulders relaxed.
How to play the piano keys
When playing on the keys, first check that your forearms are straight and your wrists are not bent up or down. The keys are on a flat surface so we don’t want to contort our arms or wrists as this will negatively affect how we can strike the keys with optimal control and force. Once you’ve checked that your forearms and wrists are straight, the next step is to ensure your fingers are placed and being used correctly. The fingers should be slightly curved and all fingers (to include the thumb) should be placed above the keys. When striking the keys, be sure to use the soft palate of your finger tips and strike the keys closer towards the edge of the key. As your finger strikes the key, the tip of the finger should not bend in but remain slightly curved. A great first warmup is to place each finger over a key and practice striking one key at a time starting with the thumbs, then working outwards one finger at a time towards the pinky.
How to play loud and soft
Playing loudly on the piano is all about arm weight and controlled force into the keys via the fingertips. When attempting to play loudly on the piano a common misconception is that we bring our hands down with force, which is understandable given that the literal translation of the word forte is actually “strongly; with force”. However, as a pianist, what we strive for is actually putting force into the hammers, not the keys. A pianist could actually generate a substantial amount of force by hovering their fingertips just barely over the keys and pushing into the key instead of lifting the entire hand and bringing the entire weight of the hand down in through the keys. Use each digit of the hand to create a forceful push into the key and practice generating different kinds of louder tones; Volume is a spectrum, not an absolute, so have fun and experiment with how many loud tones you can create with each digit from both hands.
Conversely, when playing quieter tones, think of the opposite of forte (with force). To perform quieter tones, first hover the fingertips slightly above the keys and proceed to softly (piano) push the key downwards so the hammers touch the strings gently, while still having enough force to generate a sound (make the strings vibrate). As we did with louder tones, explore this concept with all your digits and discover the different levels of piano that can be produced from your instrument.
How to play high or low on the piano
The piano is a linear instrument, meaning all of your tones (notes) are on a flat plain directly in front of you. As such the instrument is designed to be played in left/right directions to explore the higher and lower tones in an intuitive way. Starting from the left side of the piano, the notes are lower in tone and as we progress to the right side the tones begin to get higher in tone. If one was to envision all the keys as a singer, the leftmost notes would be the lower tones naturally heard from men who sing bass (think Johnny Cash or Barry White), then begin to get higher as we progress towards the middle, or tenor, range (think Stevie Wonder or Justin Timberlake). As we continue from the middle of the piano towards the right side, we begin to hear the higher notes in music, typically sung by women. Depending on how far right we continue to go we can explore the alto range (think Anita Baker or Alicia Keys) and then to the highest, or soprano, range (think Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston). This concept is important for pianists because understanding how to seamlessly transition from high to low notes will allow us to focus later on concepts such as playing by ear. A master pianist is one who can seamlessly transition from loud to quiet and high to low, utilizing the spectrum of tone volumes with great artistic effect; the composer/pianist Frederik Chopin fashioned much of his melodic concepts after the sweetness-brightness qualities of the human voice.
Learning how to read piano music can help you get a sense of how high and low work on the piano. This article on how to play piano has a good section on getting familiar with piano notes.
Benefits of learning how to play the piano
Learning how to play the piano improves health
Playing the piano has been shown to provide numerous benefits to our health regardless of age or health. A study conducted in 2013 on 3 patients who were recovering from a stroke showed that structured piano lessons helped them regain fine and gross motor functions previously affected by their conditions. The study went on to state: “This case study is, to our knowledge, the first to report the immediate and retention effects of a structured piano training program combined to home practice in chronic stroke survivors. Improvements in fine and gross manual dexterity, as well as in the functional use of the hand, were observed in all three participants immediately after, but also at the 3-week follow-up. These changes were accompanied by improvements in the speed of execution, as well as in the timing accuracy and note accuracy for each musical piece. Such positive training effects are especially remarkable, considering that participants involved in this study were suffering from a chronic stroke and were exposed to an intervention of short duration.”
(Villeneuve, M., & Lamontagne, A. (2013). Playing piano can improve upper extremity function after stroke: case studies. Stroke research and treatment, 2013, 159105. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/159105)
Learning how to play the piano increases skills in children
Learning to play the piano has benefits for young children as well. A study from 2019 was conducted to “determine the effects of piano education on the attention skills of 7-12 year old children”. The result? “…it was seen that children having piano education have improved their attention skills statistically more than the children who are not having piano education.” The study further went on to conclude that “Another research stating the effect of piano education on attention (Ciftci and Ozelma, 2017) has corresponding results with our current results. In the research, 4th-grade students have been given half an hour piano education two times a week for 6 months; consequently, a significant improvement on their attention and concentration, general learning skills, school success, psychomotor skills and mental development was found. According to Demirova (2008), results showing that piano lessons have a positive effect on children who are examined in the research are also corresponding with current research results.”
(Huseynova, E., Egilmez, H.O. & Engur, D., 2019. Academic journals – educational research and Reviews. Academic Journals – Home. Available at: http://www.academicjournals.org/ERR)
Learning how to play the piano reduces stress
Another study conducted by the Nara University of Education in Japan and featured on the International Journal of Music Education was conducted on college students aged (19-26 years old), both male and female. These students each participated in various creative art activities, with one group focusing on playing the piano. The purpose of this study was to determine the “physiological effects of creative art activities”. The study went on to find that “the psychological and physiological stress-reducing effects of creative activity, particularly the marked effects of music performance (piano playing), where demonstrated in this study.”
(Toyoshima, Kumiko & Fukui, Hajime & Kuda, Kiyoto. (2011). Piano playing reduces stress more than other creative art activities. International Journal of Music Education. vol. 29. 257-263. 10.1177/0255761411408505. https://doi.org/10.1177/0255761411408505)
It is logical to conclude, therefore, that learning to play the piano is not only a wonderful endeavor for us from an artistic point of view, but the many health related benefits that come from learning this instrument show every amount of effort we put into it will reap rewards that simply do not come about in any other way. Here at Sage Music, we will ensure you not only receive a top-tier piano education, but one that is based on scientific research and studies.
In conclusion, learning to play the piano is a beautiful life goal to pursue. Every part of this endeavor comes with its own unique challenges and rewards. From choosing a piano, learning the basics of how the instrument functions, exploring the first steps in playing the instrument, to reaping the health benefits that come from a structured piano education, it can be said that this would be one of the best decisions of your life! Whether you aspire to be a professional pianist or would simply love to learn how to play the piano for your own enjoyment we at Sage Music would love to help you pursue your goals and help you become the best pianist you can be.
We offer piano lesson in San Antonio, New York, and online.