To a great extent, the answer is yes! A Can I teach myself the piano inquiry comes with a boatload of additional questions.
Read on to discover what may trip you up, and stay on the page for my best recommendations and tips throughout the article.
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Elements in learning to play the piano
An experienced pianist not only sounds great, but has a bank of knowledge to draw on beyond finding the correct notes to make it sound good. It all comes out in the playing.
What I tell my students and my parents who want to know why the heck they can’t master the instrument in a few months is that a pianist is accessing half a dozen regions of their brains at the same time when they play. It takes a fair bit of training to learn how to juggle all that, but let me tell you FOR CERTAINTY: it is learnable!
1. Ear training
Many players (even professional club/band/singers) play the piano solely by ear. This means that they don’t use music to read by, but have trained their ears to discern notes that they hear or notes that they imagine they hear and translate that onto the keys. There are a lot of Youtube videos to help you learn piano this way. A lot of it is just auditioning notes on the keyboard and you gradually learn which ones will nail it and which ones aren’t even close. Here’s an example:
The advantages of playing by ear are:
- You can have fun making pretty impressive sounds
- No mental challenges with theory, reading and interpretation
- Very quick learning curve
- It’s very good training for music arranging and performing on the fly
- No dependence on written music
The disadvantages are:
- You will be not able to read music on the staff. Forget about learning something you’ve never heard before.
- It’s ultimately a dead end. I know many play-by-ear pianists who don’t consider themselves ‘real’ piano players because they can’t read music and have not been taught good form and technic for advancing development. The ease of playing by ear has trapped them into a certain laziness-wherein they don’t want to ‘go back to the beginning and then sound like a beginner for a long time’ or they have convinced themselves that it is too hard to read music, so why try.
- You can’t write down your own creations for publishing or sharing by sheet music reading
- You can’t collaborate with other musicians who are reading music as they play and want you to do so too
- You may be unknowingly training yourself with terrible technic and habits
My best advice is to learn to read FIRST (maybe four or five months of reading skill starting from scratch), then learn to play by ear as well. Here is my article on reading books to start with: my book recommendations here. That way you are not handicapping yourself and you’ll make fast progress.
Playing the piano involves fine motor skills. A good piano teacher is going to give you exercises to build your tiny finger muscles, teach you many ways to get different sounds out of the keyboard by your touch and attack, and help you build a library of technics that will help you not only create great music but help you steer away from carpal tunnel injuries. (repetitive motion injury in your wrists that require surgery, if possible to fix the pain). I can’t imagine being able to learn those from a book. Or even videos! You need a teacher for this.
Here’s an example of catastrophic hand technic:
A good teacher will train your hands from the very first lesson how to be safe and how to get maximum skills with proper positioning.
Technic also involves HOW you strike or stroke the keys. There are many ways that generate different tones on the piano. Here’s just one:
HOW you pull up off the keys creates different sounds. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Learning on your own will be limited in what and how you play. My best advice if you want to teach yourself to play the piano is to spring for a couple of months of lessons from a great teacher, just to get your feet on the ground in the right place, then try learning on your own. That way you hopefully won’t learn bad form and have to retrain yourself later.
3. Music theory
You’ll need to know the building blocks of music or you’ll forever be wondering what you are doing and why. Music theory is the organization of music both on the keyboard, audio and on paper. It is very logical and neat and tidy.
The advantages of learning theory are important because:
- It helps you learn to predict what is coming in the music before you actually play it
- You learn to categorize complex visual and audio information into simple groups for easier memorization and understanding
- It is essential to music composition and arranging
- It is the bedrock of improvisation and instant creation of music as you go
- It is a language like a secret code-once you’re fluent, you’ve got skills for life- and it is universal over all human languages
- Teaches you to recognize and play rhythms and symbols that may not be exposed to
- It is much easier to learn music theory on the piano in my opinion. In my theory classes, I was a super fast learner compared to my trumpet, violin, guitar classmates who were only exposed to reading one note at a time on one staff. Pianists get the bird’s eye view from 10,000 feet, so to speak, and we can grasp concepts on the keyboard/staff because we are used to seeing and interpreting chords and multiple notes stacked on top of each other and seeing the big picture. We just need to be taught WHAT we are used to seeing and what it means beyond the notes.
The challenges of learning theory are
- It can be incredibly boring and dry to learn by yourself
- It can get too complicated too fast in most theory books
- You can’t learn it all in just a few months -it is a language just like Chinese or French and builds knowledge over a couple of years. Hey, college music majors do it with several classes, and you can too!
For example, a pianist who has learned to read music and knows basic theory can look at something as complex as this and make instant sense of the hieroglyphics.
It’s like learning to see hand shape patterns, little patterns of movements with fingers, not needing to read every stink’n note because you can predict what the notes will be in a measure with just a brief glance. In other words, theory makes sense and simplifies complex marks on the music into an easily understood language.
I teach theory during the lesson and while the student is learning the piece. Beware that music theory books jump right into the deep end and start to sound like gobbledygook by page 40. It’s better to get a music book course and get the theory books that accompany each level and learn it slowly than try to do the college-level deep dive right away.
Here’s a good starter book for beginners:
First lessons: the alphabet of music on the staff
Second stage lessons: intervals, rhythms, timing etc.
4. Reading on the staff
I teach my students to read on the staff in the very first lesson. We build reading skills over many lessons ( and years ) until fluency is acquired. A one hour lesson from a great teacher will most likely involve ear training, reading on the staff, technic, dexterity exercises and refinement of musicality. Personally, I adore being able to read any piece of music that is put in front of me. There are tricks to the trade though, and teaching yourself will be limited by the books you have bought or the online program you have subscribed to. Please read my in-depth article on reading on the staff with book recommendations here.
Advantages to on the staff
- Play anything written – literally millions of songs spanning over 300 years!
- Explore any genre: jazz, pop, rock, classic, rags, swing, gospel, country, etc. etc. etc.
- If you can read, you can learn to compose your own creations and notate them into music sheets
- You’ll never be bored, there is always something to read
- Have a skill you’ll be so proud of – it’s not rocket science, but it takes time!
- Lots and lots of free sheet music available online. Here are a few:
- gmajormusictheory beginner music for free
- museopen.org royalty free classical music
- noelnoelnoel free Christmas music and Midi files
Disadvantages of reading on the staff
None! Well, that’s not true. You’ll want to own more music than you already have.
With the invention of tablets and digital sheet music and books, storage space is no longer an issue!
5. Learning to play on the beat
The problem with playing the piano is that as a solo instrument, you have no conductor beating out the time with his baton and glaring at you (or worse pointing it out) when you start to lag behind the beat or lurch. If you are teaching yourself the piano, you’ll need to train yourself from the get-go to stay on beat with a metronome (lots of free ones on the internet, like here or if you are using an electric keyboard there most likely is one in it you can use).
As a teacher, at least some of each lesson is helping my students feel the beat in their music so that it flows correctly. It’s a huge issue.
This clip from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus shows how very challenging it is for some students to learn to keep the beat. It just cracks me up! Mostly because I do this every day with some of my students. I love the ending! He GETS IT and everyone cheers. I need a football helmet!
When we’re learning to read music, our eyes often hold us up and we create pauses of uncertainty while our brains try to make sense of the written notes on the staff. With no teacher, this is something you’ll have to train yourself to overcome by yourself.
If you are going to teach yourself piano, then having an audio track with your book is crucial to letting you hear what the music you are learning should sound like.
Here’s a great beginner book with online audio tracks and learning support so you can hear what you are learning:
This great tutorial explains the beat and training yourself to hear it (but I’d stick with the first few minutes, it gets pretty complex the longer it runs and you sure don’t want to get complex at the start!).
and here is the famous jazz pianist Chick Corea giving GREAT advice on learning complex rhythms.
Super good stuff
Man, this is great! Listen to this while you commute to work, do your chores or just want to learn. It’s free from Yale University. Yup, that university. 23 great lesson chapters. Trust me, this will come into play (pun intended) as you learn piano.
My last advice is the most important. Do NOT compare yourself to other people. I’ve looked at youtube videos that prodigies have made of ‘my first year of learning piano’ and let me tell you, they do stuff after one year that I can’t do after 15 years of private lessons and doing masterworks in classical music. Say whaaaat?? Do I care? NO.
Play piano because it is fun. It’s a BLAST!
Play piano because it gives you joy.
Play piano because it will make your brain smarter.
Play piano to bless the lives of those who will listen to you play and who love you.
It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself ever.
Good luck, and if you find it too whatever, find a teacher. It will help. I promise. I wish I could teach every single one of you.