From Beethoven to Billy Joel, the humble piano has been a mainstay of western music since the 18th century. It has lent voice to the imaginations of composers like Mozart, Hummel, Elton John, and Philip Glass. Most of your favorite songs, from “Someone Like You” by Adele, to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, were written on the piano.
Learning piano can be intimidating for the absolute beginner. The rich history and ‘aura’ surrounding the instrument (the guitar seems positively easy in comparison) can deter all but the most dedicated of students. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning piano can be remarkably simple, provided you have the right tools and resources. Courses like these fast track piano lessons can help you learn the instrument in days, not months.
In this blog post, we will cover the absolute basics of music theory that you need to know to start playing piano.
Understand Basic Music Theory
It’s okay if music theory intimidates you. When I was starting out, my reaction to anything even remotely theoretical was to run in the opposite direction.
But as it turns out, music theory is not only easy, but also very useful. Pick up the basics and you can apply it immediately to any instrument, not just the piano. It’s the closest you can get to a ‘magical pill’ for learning music.
On that note, let’s start with the theoretical bits you absolutely must know.
Notes and Scales
There are twelve basic notes or tones in Western music. These are sometimes also called the Chromatic Scale. You can represent them with alphabets from A to G. If the difference between two tones is half a step instead of a full step, they are called ‘sharps’ or ‘flats’, represented as ‘#’ and ‘b’ respectively. You can see the 12 notes below:
A progression of eight tones is called an ‘octave’. The octave is most fundamental unit of music. Theoretically, each successive note in an octave is either half or double in frequency to the previous note. The basic ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is an octave. Press eight successive keys on a piano and you get an octave as well.
Three or more notes played together is called a ‘chord’. A chord is a harmonious collection of multiple notes. It’s one of the most basic units in music. Learning even a few simple chords will help you play a number of different songs. Here are three of the most common chords in music along with their constituent notes:
C E G
G B D
C F A
A collection of ordered musical notes is called a ‘scale’. The most fundamental scale in music is the chromatic scale which you saw above. Musically speaking, you should be familiar with at least the Major and Minor scales in prominent keys like C, G, F. You can learn more about making extraordinary music with just chords in this course.
Reading Music: Musical Notation
You don’t need to read musical notation to play the piano, but a basic understanding will go a long way in helping you become a better musician. At the very least, you must know the following:
Musical notation is written on five blank lines called ‘staff’ or ‘stave’. There are four space between these lines. Additional lines may be added to write more notes. These are called ledger lines.
A ‘clef’ is placed at the beginning of the staff. The clef indicates the pitch of the notes written on the staff. As a beginner, you only need to familiarize yourself with the Treble Clef (also called ‘G clef’ which looks like this:
Notes are represented by dots or symbols on the staff. The seven basic notes (sans ‘sharps’ or ‘flats’ can be written as follows:
As we will learn below, the symbol for each note changes depending on its duration.
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Note Duration and Time Signature
There are five basic types of notes depending on the duration. These can be represented as follows:
Whole Note: This is the longest note and equals to four complete beats in standard 4/4 time. It is represented by a hollow circle.
Half Note: This is half as long as the whole note – that is, it equals to two beats in 4/4 time. It is represented by a hollow circle with a line on top.
Quarter Note: As you might have guessed, a quarter note occupies 1/4th the time of a whole note – that is, one beat in 4/4 time. It is one of the most common notes you will encounter in musical notation. It is represented by a block circle with a line on top. Often, the line is removed and only the circular part is used.
Eighth Note: This note lasts 1/8th the duration of a whole note, i.e. ½ beat in 4/4 time. In other words, there will be two eighth notes in one beat. It is represented by a blocked circle with a flag on top.
Sixteenth Note: This note lasts 1/16th the duration of a whole note. That is, there are 4 sixteenth notes in one beat. A sixteenth note is represented by a flag with two leaves:
The staff is chopped into ‘measures’ or ‘bars’. The measure is defined by the number of beats used in that particular piece of music. Usually, each bar measures four beats – that is, the song is divided into measures of four beats each.
The number of beats in a bar are specified by ‘time signature’. The time signature denotes the number of beats in a bar, and the number of notes (note duration) in each beat. The time signature is usually written right after the clef like this:
Here, the top number refers to the number of beats in a bar. The bottom number refers to the note duration of each beat.
I know this sounds confusing, but stay with me and we’ll get the measure of this in no time.
In 4/4 time (written as in the picture above), there will be:
Four beats, since the top number is 4.
Each beat will last for a quarter note, since the bottom number is 4.
If you were to use 4/8 time, it would mean:
Four beats, since top number is 4.
Each beat will last an eighth note, since bottom number is 8.
Most music you will see online will have 4/4 or 3/4 time signature. In 3/4 signature, there will be three beats, each lasting a quarter note.
Phew! That’s it for now. You should have enough knowledge of basic music theory to get started with your piano education. If you want to pick up more music theory, check out this course on music theory for beginners.
What do you think of our music theory lesson? We’d love to know your opinion in the comments below!