How do teach myself piano?
March 5, 2010 11:29 AM   Subscribe

As I teach myself to play piano, what theory do I need to know?

I had a few years of piano lessons when I was a kid, I can play major and minor scales and chords, and I know that songs often progress in 1/4/5 (like C/F/G or G/C/D). I don't know anything about 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, add 2s, etc. I can figure out how to play them by looking them up on YouTube, but I don't know what they mean or how they fit into songs or chord progressions.

My goal is to learn to play musical theater accompaniment (like "For Now" from Avenue Q and "I'm Dead" by Randy Newman), as well as rock songs like "Miss Misery" by Elliott Smith and "Nobody Home" by Pink Floyd. Eventually I would like to compose.

Besides trying to figure these songs by ear and possibly getting the sheet music, how should approach learning to play? What theory do I need to know that would help me as I begin to learn?
posted by incandescentman to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Can you read music? In my opinion, that's really the only thing you need. Learn the notes, key signatures, things like sharps and flats and rests and other notations and you will be fine.

I took lessons for years as a child and still play occasionally as an adult, and I don't feel that the theory lessons forced upon me by my teachers contributed anything to my ability and instincts as a musician.
posted by something something at 11:35 AM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: Definitely learn about 7th and 9th chords. I can't imagine musical theatre piano without them.

They're not that hard. You know how a triad (e.g. C major chord) is two thirds piled on top of each other? (E.g. a major third - C and E - with a minor third - E and G - on top of it.) A 7th chord starts with a triad and just puts one more third (major or minor) on top of it. A 9th chord starts with a 7th chord and just puts one more third on top of it. Based on those descriptions, you can probably guess what an 11th chord and a 13th chord are (though they're less common). Get a book to learn the specific terminology and different kinds of chords (7th, major 7th, minor 7th, diminished 7th, etc.), but that's the basic concept.

6th chords are important too, and they're easy: C6 is just C major with an A added to it. Hint: C6 has the exact same notes as the 7th chord of the relative minor of C -- in other words, A minor 7th.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:38 AM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: You don't need to know music theory to perform music, but I think it helps a whole lot in terms of understanding the structure of a piece, seeing commonalities between different pieces, memorizing, etc. If you want to compose, again you don't really need to know theory in a formal sense if you've naturally got a great ear, but I'd really strongly recommend it. If you're going to transpose or transcribe or otherwise modify pieces, or if you're going to do any improvisation, you need a solid grounding in theory.

There are lots of good resources on the internet. Try the lessons at to start with.

Here's a short list of things that I think you should know about, in some semblance of an order.

You should be able to write (on the staff) and play/sing the following:

-All major, minor, perfect, augmented, and diminished intervals up to an octave
-All the major scales
-All the diatonic triads in every major key
-All the diatonic 7th chords in every major key
-All three types of minor scale
-All the diatonic triads in every minor key
-All the diatonic 7th chords in every minor key
-Secondary dominant chords
-All the modes of the major scale

If you know all that stuff you've got a pretty solid start. You'll be able to analyze the tunes you're interested in and see how they're put together. Then you could go on to look at augmented 6th chords and tritone substitutions and modes of the harmonic minor and other more esoteric stuff, or explore orchestration or improv.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:59 AM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: Knowing how to build basic I-IV-V chords in every key will help you tremendously, and won't take that long to memorize. Once you can play simple I-IV-V-I progressions in every key (or at least the most common keys), you'll be able to play many, many songs.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:01 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: For me, theory was the number one most beneficial thing I undertook as a pianist (and later composer). I have one of those minds that is better at the how if it knows the why, so ymmv. In my conservatory days, even the most elegant players who cared only about reading music off the page were put through years of theory, ear training, etc. It's invaluable. Music without theory is like being a surgeon making incisions without really understand biology.

While playing rock and simplish musical theatre will really only require you knowing how to play chords (including the more exotic varieties), I strongly suggest you immerse yourself in a study of tonal harmony. It will help you understand the context of what you're playing, so you're not just approaching music in a compartmentalized fashion, e.g. it will be easier for you to learn all your seventh chords if you learn how they function within a piece of music. It will also help you understand the relationships between harmonies, so you can get to know the 'hacks' so to speak - like the one Jaltoch pointed out. You will be able to stop seeing each chord as a chord in isolation but as a brick in the wall, if you will. It will also help you train your ear - which in playing musical theatre and rock especially is invaluable.

This is the tonal harmony book I recommend.

If you're serious about composing, you'll need to know theory pretty in and out, unless you're just after being a songwriter type. A good place to start is Hindemith. Of course, you only get good by doing - so practice and practice and practice.

I make all of my students, even the beginners, learn theory not as a separate thing from playing, but as something symbiotically related. It might be easier to tell a young student, "yeah, that key signature just means you play every f as f#" - but it isn't nearly as beneficial for them as taking a minute to teach them a bit about what keys are, even if they don't internalize all of it.

I know a lot about this. Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Jazz Musician's Guide to Creative Practicing by David Berkman starts out with 90% of the theory you need to know boiled down to fourteen pages. It's a cool book, and worth picking up just for that.

Then you can spend the rest of your life working on the other ten per cent.
posted by timeistight at 12:51 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: The Hindemith book is great, though way too advanced for a beginner.

The answer to "What theory do I need to know" could take up a whole book - which is why people keep recommending outside resources.

I recommend Edly's Music Theory for Practical People as a simple, straightforward starting point. If I remember correctly, it's geared towards piano, so that's even better. Everyone I know (on the forums - none of my friends are that inexperienced or into music theory) that has it recommends it, so I picked it up as a teaching tool & it's a great book. Really covers everything from a beginner's point of view.
posted by MesoFilter at 1:18 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may already know/have figured it out for yourself (some people don't/haven't and it took me awhile to realize it):
Don't just read about theory. Play it as you read about it. For example, when you read "A major scale sounds happy and follows [this pattern]" don't just nod and keep reading, but sit down and play the scale. When you read "A dim7 sounds like [X] and [plays this role in a song], for example in [song] with [chord progression]", then play the song. Or, rather, go to YouTube and listen to the song to familiarize yourself with it, then play the chords on your piano and sing it to yourself. Then try playing it through and substitute a regular major/minor/power chord in its place to hear the difference it makes. Same if you read, as an example, about two different arrangements of a song (for example, the Pet Shop Boy's 'Always on my Mind'). For bonus points, then play through a song you already know and see how playing this new, exotic type of chord changes it. Or, when you read about two different arrangements, find a song you know with the same progression and try playing it in the manner the second person arranged the example song you just read about.
posted by K.P. at 1:23 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't just read about theory. Play it as you read about it.

Absolutely, and not just once, either. For the most part this stuff isn't the kind of thing you learn once and then you know it. It's about familiarity and recall -- you have to drill it. I can rattle off the notes or chords that belong to any key instantly because I drilled it over and over for a long time. You don't just learn theory, you practice it.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:44 PM on March 5, 2010

Don't just read about theory. Play it as you read about it.

Excellent advice.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:47 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: Mark Levine's The Jazz Piano Book is by far the finest jazz-theory / piano-learning book I know of, and I highly recommend it. It goes through a lot of self-teaching stuff which will help you learn, and also gives you the fundamentals of jazz piano, which you will (I think) be interested in if you're going the route of musical theater and rock. It's a fantastic book in part because the lessons work well as a reference too; you don't have to go all the way through and learn about Bud Powell chords and So What chords if all you want is to get the basics of harmony, and this book will let you do that. (Don't be put off by the fact that it says "Jazz" on the cover; jazz is sort of everywhere, so this book is really about popular music in general, too.) It also includes a lot of helpful stuff about how and when to practice, what methods and techniques to use. I think you'd probably get a lot of mileage out of it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:21 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

– and I meant to mention that The Jazz Piano Book is nice because it's so readable - it's written clearly and concisely, and it's not complex and technical. It explains things directly and simply the first time. That's what I like most about it; you spend less time wading through explanations and more time actually playing the music. That's kind of the point, isn't it?
posted by koeselitz at 2:23 PM on March 5, 2010

I'd favourite lukoslawski's first answer again if I could.

But I'd also say that, for some very few people, trying to understand music theory takes the magic out of it. It's inconceivable to me, but I've seen it happen. Some people have a number or math blindness: they just *know* they can't do numbers, no matter whether they can or not. I think the same thing exists in music, and so the only thing I would say is that if you find that the theory starts turning you off the playing of music, stop, wait and try a different way when you feel like it - if it's a drag on your playing you're doing it wrong.

Have fun!
posted by cromagnon at 5:15 PM on March 5, 2010

I had the opposite experience, it seems, of many here. I did learn the theory, sixty chord system and all that and got pretty decent at picking out bass lines and filling in the chords over them. Turns out I still can't play pop music worth a crap because I can't fill in the gaps. I've kind of lost interest in the piano for a while, but the thing I would do if I picked it up again is get lots of recordings (YT is perfect for this) and try to steal all the "licks" note for note (and then learn them well enough to alter them as necessary) until I had a decent repertoire of fill-in-the-dead-space technique. Then, I would try to find a decent book teaching the history of piano styles and accompaniment patterns (example: stride piano) with playable examples. I think then my harmonic theory would be a lot more useful to me.

I definitely recommend learning the 7th chord system (major, dominant, half-diminished, diminished) and the circle of fifths. Get familiar with I-IV-V, but also II-V-I in several keys. But like I said, do a lot of copying what you hear note-for-note, too..

While I'm here, if someone knows any web resources that teach cuban-style piano montunos, I've been interested.
posted by ctmf at 5:58 PM on March 5, 2010

Learning to read and play music without learning music theory is like learning to recite poetry from syllables without learning what the words mean. go meta as soon as you can, it will make the rest easier...
posted by yoHighness at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for these excellent answers! I'm off and running, with a solid idea of which direction to go. I'll have you all to thank when I write my first song.

Does anyone know of any good resources on YouTube for learning piano and music theory? It seems like it could be natural medium for theory, since, unlike a book, you could see and hear the relevant chords as you're learning about them.
posted by incandescentman at 1:25 PM on March 12, 2010

Response by poster: I want to add that YouTube has proven a helpful resource. Searching for "piano tutorial" and "piano how to play" yields a lot of useful videos. In fact, if there's a popular song you want to learn, it's worth searching on YouTube to see if someone has posted a tutorial.

Example: How to play "Comfortably Numb"
posted by incandescentman at 11:48 AM on September 3, 2010

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