Can a non-musical adult learn to play the piano?
March 11, 2015 10:24 AM   Subscribe

I'm 43 years old and have no music training. Is it realistic for someone with my age and musical inexperience to enjoy learning to play piano or is it just an exercise in frustration trying to force a non-plastic brain to do something entirely new?

I keep coming back to the idea of learning to play piano. My goal is to better understand how the music I like is put together, whether Baroque keyboard pieces or Jazz piano or the noodly electronica that is my daily listening. I figure there's no better way to understand than by doing. I have no desire to perform for others and only a tiny desire to try my own hand at electronic music composition. I have the time and money to take lessons, but also get quite impatient with frustrating things that require repetitive practice.
posted by Nelson to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's realistic. I know a lot of people who have done this.

EDIT: And, in some ways, while we're slower to learn at 40, we're far FAR more focused and disciplined about practicing than most kids.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:26 AM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I learned guitar at 35. It's totally doable.
posted by blob at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yep, started piano at 39 alongside my then-kindergartener. Some things were difficult for me, but simple for him; some vice-versa. He is much better than I am 6 years later, but I got out of it what I wanted to, which is the ability to credibly play Christmas carols for singalongs. You seem to also have a specific goal: to understand the music you like better. That will begin to happen pretty quickly, especially if you tell your teacher what you are hoping to get out of the lessons.

It is very good for your non-plastic brain to try something entirely new.
posted by apparently at 10:32 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's totally possible, but it will also 100% be a frustrating thing that requires repetitive practice
posted by hejrat at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Can a non-musical adult learn to play the piano?

Yes, definitely. Learning to play piano is about muscle memory a lot more than it is about musicality, and if you do want to try your hand at composing you might also want to take some online classes or do some reading on theory so that you can learn about "how the music [you] like is put together" as you mentioned.

Your brain is still plastic and always will be; it's not developing anymore like it is when you're a kid but it is still constantly forming new neural connections.


I have the time and money to take lessons, but also get quite impatient with frustrating things that require repetitive practice.

Learning to play the piano is 100% repetitive practice. As a fellow impatient person, I find it rewarding if I really, really love the pieces that I work with.
posted by capricorn at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hah, jinx, hejrat!
posted by capricorn at 10:37 AM on March 11, 2015

Yup. Go for it. I started learning drums last year and my teacher (26yo!) loves the discipline I bring to practice and musical context I bring to learning just from...being alive as long as I have. The personal rewards for me, beyond rock fame and general badassery, are challenging my mind and body in ways that are familiar (from school sports and language learning) but disused (from, uh, age); finally being able to "talk music" with all my musician friends and people who picked up instruments when they were young; playing with other people and developing a sensitivity to the dynamics of the group as we create something together; discovering that even though I DREAD public speaking, I LOVE performing (boy, that was a surprise); and having a hobby I can turn to solo or with others. Regarding repetitive practice, I've found that if I continue to have fun and seek something beyond the practice, then I like practicing. If I'm sitting down 'cuz I have to just knock out 30min to say I did it, it's not enjoyable. So try to stay connected to why you're playing.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

My totally tone-deaf, classical music-loving dad took up piano around age 50.
posted by radioamy at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Professional pianist here. You don't have to be musical to play piano. You need to have a minimal amount of fine coordination and a willingness to drill the motor skills. If you can type, you can (eventually) play piano.

To play piano WELL - to have your tempo be steady, your rhythm be infectious, your interpretations moving - is another question. But you're looking at upwards of a decade to develop those qualities even if you're gifted, anyway, and, in the meanwhile you'll be making music (just not particularly galvanizing music), which is the whole point. Unless you need to make a living from your piano skills, you're doing this to please you, and so long as your fingers hit the right notes, you're absolutely doing it. And that's absolutely possible.

But if you don't put in the repetitive practice, obviously it's not going to happen. You say you lack patience for that sort of thing... but past performance is no guarantee of future results. This may be an exception (because it's not grindingly repetitive; music's coming out). Or you may find you've developed patience (you're not the person you were; we grow and mature). Or this may be your lever for learning patience.

Or maybe you'll bail after a few weeks/months. But that's no reason not to try. As I wrote here last week, "Bailing out of projects is fine! Times change, you change, prefs change, and stuff gets dropped. That's not bad, that's life! Eventually, you'll find a thing or three you absolutely love. You won't have to force your attention there; it will be impossible to hold it back. And in those realms, you'll plumb to deep richness."
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:43 AM on March 11, 2015 [15 favorites]

Brain Plasticity in Adults - there's more flexibility than you might think! And yes, totally go for it! I'm back in choir after about 15 years away and having music as a part of my day-to-day life is so fulfilling, even though I'm just an amateur.
posted by augustimagination at 10:45 AM on March 11, 2015

My dad had never played an instrument in his life and started taking piano lessons in his 60s after he retired. He has enjoyed it a lot.
posted by dfan at 10:46 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

My grandfather taught himself how to play the electric organ with no prior keyboard experience in his 70s (he did learn the guitar when he was young, so not a total music neophyte).
posted by briank at 10:54 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

While there are a ton of great learning resources on Youtube, and in software, I think it's best to get a teacher, especially if you don't have a previous background playing music. Really piano is the kind of instrument where anyone who wants to learn should proably get a teacher.

But yes, totally doable. You just have to be patient, motivated, and persistent. Small amounts of regular practice will be better for you than inconsistent binges of practicing; regular lessons also will help with that.
posted by thelonius at 11:12 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have the time and money to take lessons, but also get quite impatient with frustrating things that require repetitive practice.

I'm going to say that as well as not knowing piano (yet!), perhaps you also just don't know how to acquire physical skills (yet!).

If you can approach this with the attitude that you just need to learn how to practice - learn how to learn - then you can absolutely do it. I used to teach skiing and I was CONSTANTLY teaching older lifelong-desk-jockey people who thought they'd never learn it and who got frustrated when nothing worked first time. But once they got the hang of the learning process they were fine.

Sometimes the first step is forgiving yourself for being a complete beginner.
posted by emilyw at 11:13 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The value of learning the basics of reading music can't be overstated. Even if you give it up eventually, you will have enriched your understanding of the world immensely, and I think you will thank yourself for doing it. I just started taking music lessons again after a 20+ year hiatus and I know that it can be frustrating, for me in part because I'm trying to become proficient again at something that used to be (relatively) easy for me. But the joy of playing (for me, the harp) motivates me and having a teacher to guide me and focus my efforts has resulted in a surprisingly fast ramp up.
posted by janey47 at 11:52 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My goal is to better understand how the music I like is put together

This sounds to me like you want a heavy music theory component. As you interview potential piano teachers, ask them how they usually teach music theory (for example, which series of books do they use?) and ask if you can have a more intense focus on theory and opt out of recitals or other performances. On your own, you might check out music theory books like these, and if you get stuck on a certain point, bring the book in to your piano lesson and get your teacher to show you how it works.

The typical student is the opposite of you; usually piano students want to be able to play music they recognize as soon as possible and don't care if they don't really understand how it works. So be aware that asking most piano teachers for a lot of music theory is like going to a steak restaurant and ordering bowls of plain lettuce. They can provide it, no problem, but they are going to have a hard time believing that it's really all you want. Keep looking until you find a teacher who really enjoys the theory side of it, who sees the keyboard as a means to that end, as you do.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:06 PM on March 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I learned in my 20s and my mom learned in her 50s. Neither of us are ever going to be piano geniuses but we both found the experience really satisfying. I did find that it involved a lot of repetitive practice, though I think it was rewarding.
posted by ferret branca at 12:07 PM on March 11, 2015

Years ago my flatmate came in raving about some old blues (?) guy she'd seen play. He was 85 and first picked up whatever instrument it was at 50. Look up late bloomers and get inspired :)
posted by tanktop at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Following up on Bentobox Humperdinck's comment, I found myself returning to playing music after a quarter-century of having quit piano, and the theory stuff was a lot easier for me to understand once I had the practical basics down again. Once you've got to the point where you're beginning to have a feel for the why of the relationships between notes, I recommend these videos for a sort of Khan Academy-style coverage of the details of music theory.

Piano is a great instrument because of its flexibility, and I played it as a child. But for this go 'round I took up the ukulele for a few reasons:
  1. It's a widely-documented "simple" instrument, with oodles of "Here's how to get started with three chords to play hundreds of folk and pop songs" videos out there.
  2. It's a great group instrument, and I got over the first hump by just going to a pub where a couple dozen people played their hearts out. Three hours of being able to play under the din of everybody else was liberating, and helped me build up the confidence to stretch myself and pick up those next few things I needed to know.
  3. Pianos have their white and black keys arranged to make a certain type of music system easier, but a stringed instrument just has the frets arranged as a collection of semitones, so when you play around on the neck you begin to understand more about why certain things are comfortable or awkward on a piano. It can help take you back to first principles!
  4. It's an accompaniment instrument: you can make a piano sound like an entire orchestra when you get good enough, but a uke is something you can sing along to as your own little duet.
So if you have the chance, I'd recommend giving something portable a try. Pick up a cheap uke and put good strings on it, or drop a few quid on a yamaha plastic recorder (200 series or 300 series are nice). Even a tin whistle can teach you a thing or two if you don't mind the tone and are willing to practise--and it fits in your pocket!

What I don't recommend for a beginner is the harmonica. That's a very strange instrument that was meant to play two chords for German folk dance, and blues virtuosos worked out how to contort their mouths to make it sing. It's an amazing skill, but rather like trying to whittle with a corkscrew.

However you end up doing it, good luck and enjoy the journey!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:35 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, and one last thing. If working out noodly electronica is your thing, another great trick is to pick up a relatively cheap USB-MIDI keyboard and have a play with LMMS, which is Free Software for lots of platforms that lets you plug in all kinds of software synth and sample-based instrumentation and either play live or punch out notes in piano rolls or rhythm grids.

There was an FPP a month or so ago with a sort of masterclass presentation on atmospheric music made with these techniques that was my inspiration to try this. You can interact with the mouse, but it's nice to be able to fiddle with the sound before putting it into the "piano roll". I got a Korg NanoKey 2 which is extremely sensitive as far as key velocity goes but it works on my Ubuntu system, but haven't found the time to do much beyond watching youtube tutorials yet!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:41 PM on March 11, 2015

Repetitive practice, especially at beginner level, is really really useful and will increase your skill pick up immeasurably. In my opinion it actually really helps with theory, too, as running up the scales, arpeggios etc can help develop a good sense of how tones and intervals etc work.
posted by smoke at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2015

rum-soaked space hobo mentioned punching piano rolls, so I would love to mention to anyone vaguely interested in this sort of thing that you are in for a pleasant surprise if you just click this link: online sequencer.

Also, if you have access to an iPad, the pad version of Apple GarageBand is way more easy to get "let's start jamming" than the keyboard version..
posted by ovvl at 4:41 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

N-thing that age isn't a factor and that brains have some plasticity at all ages. It's the level of commitment. The amount of time spent with the instrument and generally immersed in music is directly proportional to how much the brain will physically change to learn these skills. Yes it's repetitive but the amount of frustration really depends on how you and your teacher roll. You seem to have a couple underlying negative assumptions, where the right teacher would have positive ones which are stronger than yours. (It's fun, it isn't actually repetitive if you are paying attention, you can always find a new angle when the current one gets boring, practice is supposed to be intelligent and not repetitive, ...)
posted by yoHighness at 6:25 PM on March 11, 2015

I mean there's even a book titled "It's never too late to play piano".
posted by yoHighness at 6:33 PM on March 11, 2015

Some pertinent links: "Time, Patience and Intelligent Work". Link includes discussion of neurological plasticity with regard to adults learning new tasks.

On adult beginners learning music: Never too Late by John Holt.

On brain plasticity at any age: The Brain that changes Itself by Norman Doidge.
posted by Coaticass at 8:17 PM on March 11, 2015

And if you don't want to practice or learn to read music, you can play music that you make up yourself that is only for your own pleasure. I can't play other people's music but I can play my own wandering tunes for hours! It's meditative and relaxing.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:48 PM on March 11, 2015

Yes, yes, yes!
I utterly failed at piano when I took 6 months of lessons as a tween.
I decided to try again in my late 30s and I loved it. I am not particularly musical (I cannot carry a tune to save my life) but I really loved taking lessons and even ended up performing at a couple of recitals!
If you want to do it, go for it.
posted by LittleMy at 6:47 AM on March 12, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you for all the encouragement! Particularly appreciate the personal testimonials and the suggestions on how to get the most out of the learning. Now to find a teacher...
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on March 12, 2015

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