So, how should you go about it?
Get a teacher? Learn on YouTube? Teach yourself by ear? Take an online piano course?
There is no right way to learn. Over the years, many students have learned from teachers, from books and by ear. The important thing is to get started and keep at it!
In this guide, I’ll break down a few ways to learn the piano and the benefits of each.
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Learning With A Piano Teacher
Many beginners – especially adult beginners – want to start learning piano on their own.
This is understandable. Finding a good teacher is not always easy. Finding the wrong teacher can teach you bad habits and discourage you from playing.
It can also be a difficult and vulnerable process learning a new skill as an adult. Your teacher may even be younger than you, and that can be hard as well.
Beyond that, piano lessons aren’t always cheap. They usually start at $30/hr and go up from there. The best teachers in your city will usually cost $80/hr or more.
That said, for at least the first six to 12 months of learning, there is no faster way to learn than with weekly lessons from a good, qualified teacher.
Why are teachers so helpful?
The Most Fundamental Aspects Of Playing Piano Should Be Learned In Person
Every time you play piano, you are sitting. You are holding your both your hands to the keys. You are moving your hands and fingers around the keyboard.
There is a right and a wrong way to do these things.
Learning how to play properly will keep you playing for a long time, make learning easier, and keep your hands healthy.
Teaching yourself to play in these early stages can result in developing bad habits.
These fundamentals are hard to explain in a textbook or a blog post. They’re even difficult to explain in a YouTube video.
A good teacher will sit with you at the piano and correct your posture, demonstrate proper hand positioning and teach you the right way to cross your fingers underneath and over each other while playing.
If you develop bad habits early on, they are hard to break, and can result in injury at worst, and at best, will slow down your learning.
Teachers Can Help You Identify Problem Areas & How To Overcome Them
When a beginner sits down at the piano and plays, they are probably making at least a few mistakes at once.
Left and right hand coordination, dynamics and volume control, correct fingering, speed, timing, reading the music, learning the wrong things first, general musicality – you get the idea.
A book, website, or YouTube video simply cannot tell you what you’re doing wrong.
Even if you can intuitively tell that you are making mistakes, you have no way of knowing what the mistake is, how to correct it, and which mistake to correct first.
A teacher will identify your mistakes, prioritize the ones that are important to fix, and show you how to fix them.
Teachers Can Find Resources & Learning Materials That Are Right For You
Based on what you are trying to learn, a teacher will provide you with skill-level appropriate learning materials.
They have been teaching for years, they know what works, and they can help you work through things.
Teachers Create A Structured Learning Environment
One of the greatest advantages to taking lessons is the weekly lesson itself.
Checking in on your playing every week, getting personalized feedback and being motivated to improve for next week are all huge benefits.
Teachers will help you structure your practice time, they’ll update your practice goals with you, and will work with you to improve, every week.
Some also provide needed equipment outside of the piano, such as sheet music and good piano lighting.
The only thing to be wary of is a teacher who cannot teach you what you want to learn.
If you’re learning piano to play pop or jazz, taking lessons from a classical teacher will be discouraging.
Learning Piano From Books
Lesson books have been around almost as long as the instrument itself.
Generally, teachers will use lesson books as a rough curriculum, and may include some self-directed work from the lesson book in their teaching.
Lesson books can be great for exercises and for teaching you some fundamentals. Reading music, common fingerings for scales, arpeggios, accompaniments, time signatures, etc.
You can pick almost any book and work through it – skipping things you already know and working through new concepts.
Books are best accompanied by a real-life teacher, or sometimes a video lesson series.
Teachers are especially valuable, because they know the music you want to play, and can point out specific exercises or techniques you can work on.
Either videos or teachers will at least be able to play the exercises and pieces for you, so that you hear how they’re supposed to sound.
After a few months of working through a lesson book, you’ll be able to play several of the pieces contained within, and can start moving through a more advanced book.
Learning Piano By Ear
For some students, learning by ear comes naturally.
When I taught piano, I was always shocked that some students could hear what I had played them, and then play it back to me.
These students often found classroom style instruction dry and tedious. They could hear what was being played, and just wanted to play it.
In my opinion, this is a great way to learn music. I learn music almost exclusively by ear.
That said, it’s incredibly important to have a foundation of technical ability and knowledge before jumping in all the way.
It’s easy to end up with a bunch of bad habits when you’re learning by ear, because there is nothing telling you which finger to put where, or even which chord shape they are using.
Learning to read music, perform scales, and understand basic music theory and harmony will allow you to learn by ear more efficiently and allow you to play and practice better.
The other downside to ear learning is that picking up a piece sheet music can become intimidating.
When I’m occasionally called to accompany a choir or play in a pit band, I get stressed out. I usually spend a fair bit of time at home listening to the song and absorbing it, so that I can make better sense of what’s happening on stage.
When you’re learning by ear, you must be self-motivated.
You need to make goals. What do you want to learn? Do you want to be able to improvise?
Pick things to learn and then make a habit of learning them, practicing them and then memorizing them.
Learning Piano Online
There are many good reasons people are learning to play piano online.
Firstly, it can be a lot cheaper. Most piano courses offering free lessons, typically just offer a couple of basic lessons, and then want to sell you a full course.
Still, full courses only tend to cover what could be covered in two or three lessons.
There’s also just so many resources online now that it’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Want to learn every Elton John song? There’s a YouTube video for almost all of them.
Want to learn how to solo over “Giant Steps”? There’s about a dozen YouTube videos explaining the concepts.
The problem with learning online is twofold: 1) it’s all self-directed, and 2) there’s no feedback.
Being self-motivated is harder than it looks.
It’s easy to have a busy day, and do anything but sit at the piano and work on something new. Or practice something old for that matter.
It’s also difficult, because you don’t get to share your music with anyone. It feels good to share your improvements, progress and struggles. It’s inspiring and motivating.
So, it's invaluable to receive feedback.
That said, I am not knocking online lessons.
I have bought several online piano courses over the years, because they provide specific teachings that I cannot get anywhere else.
I bought a course explaining some Neo soul concepts (something few teachers in my area could have done) and another course by a pianist I admire, just because I wanted to see what he had to say.
Both were well worth it.
So, that said, here are a few great options for beginner piano lessons.
All of these options are genuinely free.
Editor's note: You may also want to check out Pianote for some video based options.
Piano For All is also a great video piano course if you want to learn piano sooner than later.
Zebra Keys has professionally written, and cleanly laid out piano lessons. They are easy to follow.
The website looks a little dated, but that is honestly preferable to some of the more modern sites – some piano courses are too involved and all of their modern conveniences make the interface clunky and slow.
Zebra Keys has an interactive piano keyboard built right into the lesson articles so that you can practice/visualize what you’re learning directly on the lesson page.
Each key is laid out and the letter of each note shows up underneath the key. Once you’ve moved through a few lessons, Zebra Keys has a fancier virtual keyboard with all the notes and chords displayed on it.
They also have interactive lessons like the “note trainer”, which shows you a note, and prompts you to respond with the correct note. It has similar games for ear training, interval training, and chord training.
PianoNanny offers detailed, expert lessons for free.
Most of the lessons are text based, but they are well-written.
Each session has text, keyboard images and mini-apps like a student notepad to take notes.
Sometimes, the little apps will be tests of a sort, for you to work on whatever the lesson was just teaching.
For example, if you were learning how to find middle C, the app would be a game where you find middle C in a bunch of scenarios.
PianoNanny is a little bit more serious feeling than ZebraKeys. It forces you to memorize your notes faster and rely less on the online piano chart.
There are 13 starter lessons, 11 intermediate lessons and 10 advanced lessons, all for free.
Plern Online Piano Teacher And Composer
The Plern Piano is a fun online tool that you can use to learn to play piano.
The tool has two uses: you can use it to compose music from scatch, or you can import music from a MIDI file and learn to play the song.
The Plern Piano plays through the song, and as it scrolls across the sheet music, it provides you with a visual representation of which key you need to press, and the duration of the note.
You need to sign up to load up songs, but signing up is totally free.
This is more of an online resource than a lesson archive, but it’s incredibly useful. I had students that would come to me having learned an entire pop song, just by using this tool!
That said, you need a base level of knowledge to use the tool. It helps you learn the names of notes, proper fingering and how to read sheet music.
Otherwise, it can be a fun and addictive way to teach yourself music, which is exactly what most learners need!
Just Start Learning, One Way Or Another
At the end of the day, all you want to do is make music. It’s time to start. Don’t stress too much about the best possible way to learn. Just start.
Here’s a few ways to get started:
- Get a friend who plays to show you some basics in exchange for money or beer.
- Ask for recommendations from friends for a qualified teacher and commit to three lessons.
- Use a YouTube lesson to learn a simple pop song and play along to the recording.
- Sit down at the piano and just plunk away. Make something. It’ll feel great, I promise.
Consistency Is Key
The best gift you can give your musical life is commitment.
You must commit to playing every day. If not every day, every week.
Practicing for 10 minutes every day is better than practicing for two hours one day.
Make it a part of your life, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you pick it up, and how quickly it becomes the best part of your day.
The Best Way To Learn Piano Conclusion
Learning piano is a life changing and wonderful endeavor. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing is easy.
People have been playing keyboard instruments for centuries (modern pianos only became popular in the late 18th century) and there are many ways to learn.
It all depends on your current skill level and musical knowledge as well as what kind of music you want to play.
Learning to play classical concert piano is different than learning jazz, and learning to play either of those is different than learning to play pop piano covers and accompany your singing.
The basics are the same – a base level of technique, a basic understanding of theory and a commitment to regular practice and improvement.
Once you’ve got the basics down, that’s when things split off.
If you’re learning classical music, you’ll start working on short studies and inventions that teach you common classic techniques that will give your hands and brain a workout.
If you’re learning jazz, you’ll learn some simple jazz standards, how to use extensions on your chords and improvisation.
And, if you’re looking to play pop covers and accompany yourself, you’ll learn more challenging songs and how to “comp” (short for accompany) more effectively.
Update: We now compare the best digital pianos and see how they staff up to other piano types, so check it out.