If you know anything about me, you know that I’m a huge proponent of everyone learning to play an instrument. Or multiple instruments. But where do you start when starting from scratch?
Glad you asked!
Here. Start right here. I’m going to give you the basics you need to learn in order to realistically play the piano. Learn these things and you can legitimately call yourself a pianist! If I do this right, there will certainly be detail left out that you will need to pick up later.
This article is designed to be ONLY the necessary information to get you started playing the piano.
What’s in the Article?
Before you invest any more time reading this, here is what you can expect to learn from this post. These are your 5 steps.
- Learn the Notes
- Learn the Keys
- Learn Basic Scales
- Understand Basic Chords
- Learn songs for beginners on piano
Here we go!
Learn the Notes on The Piano
Good news, newbie! There are only 12 notes to learn. And the even better news is that there’s really only 7, 5 which has a second version. The notes go A through G, with 5 of those 7 having what we call a “sharp” version (denoted by the # symbol) that’s somewhere in between.
So when looking at all the notes, you’ll see this:
C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B
Notice that B and E do NOT have the sharp (#) version. You may also be wondering why it started with C and not A. Well, that’s one of those pieces of info you don’t need right now. If you’re interested, it’s in the Full Piano Startup Guide.
Note: The “sharp” notes are also the “flat” notes of the “regular” note above. So D# is also E♭ (“E flat”). It’s context dependent and not something you need to know now.
These are all the notes you ever have to learn. Virtually all the music you will play is built from various combinations of these 12 notes.
Learn the Keys on the Piano
Ok – we’ve learned what the notes are, but what about applying them to the piano.
Good news! The piano makes it easy because the white keys are the “regular” notes and the black keys are the “other” notes. Here you can see the notes as they are laid out on the piano.
You’ll notice that C is on there twice. That is because this pattern of C though B (called an “Octave”) repeats 7 times on the piano. So – more good news – you just have these 12 keys on the piano to understand!
These 7 repeating patters of 12 keys can be used for incredibly complicated music, but stick around and you’ll learn how you can use just a few notes at a time to learn piano chords and learn songs for beginners on piano.
One thing you need to know before moving to the next sections is the idea of “steps” in musical notes. Going from C to D is considered a “whole step”, while going from C to C# is considered a “half step”. Now, this isn’t because of the sharp, it is because of the musical distance between the notes.
So, going from E to F is a half step because you are playing the next adjacent key on the piano. But going from A# to C is a whole step because you’re skipping B to get to C.
Learn Basic Piano Scales
There are mountains of information to learn about scales, but we’re going to stick with your plan of only learning what is absolutely necessary to get started.
The first scale we will discuss is the C Major scale. It looks like this:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
Notice anything about how those notes fit on the piano? Yeah! It’s just the white keys going from one C to the next C. If you look closely, you’ll see a patter of whole steps and half steps that we used to build that major scale.
A “half step” is moving from a note to the next adjacent key on the piano. It doesn’t matter if they’re black or white – just move to the next closest note. That’s a half step. With that in mind, what do you think a whole step is?
That’s right: 2 half steps.
So, to build a C Major scale, start at C we take the following steps:
- A Whole Step from C to D
- A Whole step from D to E
- A Half Step from E to F
- A Whole Step from F to G
- A Whole Step from G to A
- A Whole Step from A to B
- A Half Step from B to C
So the patter is Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. Sometimes you’ll see it at WWHWWWH. Or W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Say it with me: “Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half”
Is it just me or is the word “Whole” beginning to look and sound weird. That’s called Semantic Satiation.
Semantic satiation is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds. Extended inspection or analysis (staring at the word or phrase for a lengthy period of time) in place of repetition also produces the same effect.
Now we can take that same pattern (WWHWWWH) and apply it any note to build that note’s major scale. Try it with A and see what happens.
Starting from A, we take the following steps:
- A Whole Step from A to B
- A Whole Step from B to C#
- A Half Step from C# to D
- A Whole Step from D to E
- A Whole Step from E to F#
- A Whole Step from F# to G#
- A Half Step from G# to A
So our A major scale is A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A. Now try it with some other starting notes and see what you come up with. At this point, you should be able to work your way through and play all of the major scales on the piano!
Learn Chords on the Piano
Ok, so we know our notes and the basics of the major scales. Next, let’s build some chords! Again, you can spend thousands of hours on chordal theory, building and dissecting chords and chord progressions, but today we’re just focussed on the BASICS.
We are going to learn to build Major chords. At the end of this section you will be able to build 12 major chords.
There are two ways to think about building chords and we’re going to touch on both:
- Build chords using the the major scale
- Build chords using half and whole steps
These are really two perspectives on the same thing – starting with a root note and figuring out how to get the associated chord on the piano. The first, easier, and less theory intensive way is to just look at the major scale and use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of that scale.
1. Build chords using the major scale
So if we want to build a C Major chord (also just called a C chord) – we look at the C Major scale:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
What are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in that scale?
C – E – G. Play those on your piano and tell me it’s not a beautiful sound! That’s your first major chord. Now, we can do the same thing starting at any other note on the piano. Let’s do A.
The A Major scale looks like this: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A so the 1st, 3rd, and 5th are A – C# – E.
Bam! A major chord (also just called an A chord). Use the same method to build all 12 major chords!
2. Build chords using half and whole steps
This way, you don’t have to build the scale first. Start with any note and go 4 half steps then 3 half steps. This makes a major chord, no matter where you start.
Let’s start with C again. Go 4 half steps (each half step is the next adjacent key, regardless of color) to E, then 3 half steps to G. Done!
Again, the same thing can be done anywhere. Try it.
Very quickly, you’ll need to know how to play minor chords for the vast majority of even the easiest songs. But…more good news! If you know how to build a major chord, it’s super duper easy to build a minor chord.
Just take your 3rd from your major chord and drop that note 1 half step down. So to go from A major to A minor, just go from:
A – C# – E to A – C – E
All you have to do is drop the middle note by one half step. That works exactly the same for every major chord, again, regardless of key color.
Learn These Songs for Beginners on Piano
We made it! It’s time to JAM! I’m going to give you a list of 5 songs and their chords that you can play based on ONLY what you’ve learned from this article. If you want to go find others to play, just look for songs with only major and minor chords.
|“Don’t Stop Believin'”||Journey||E, B, C#m, A, G#m|
|“Soul Sister”||Train||C, G, Am, F|
|“Stand By Me”||Ben E. King||G, Em, C, D|
|“No Woman No Cry”||Bob Marley||C, G, Am, F|
|“Shake it Off”||Taylor Swift||G, Am, C, Em|