This page was last modified June 29, 2015


How to play the piano

Step 1 - Play simple diatonic songs by ear

The first step is to train your ear to pick out melodies and appropriate chords to a variety of simple tunes on the keyboard. The way to do this is to start out in the key of C major, learn melodies by listening and then repeating them on the piano, learn the seven basic chords in this key, and then establish a chord progression to fit the melody. Play melody in your right hand, play basic chords in your left. This should be done entirely by ear and with the help of an instructor if needed.

More information is here: Lessons

Step 2 - Spread chords between two hands

In step one, your right hand plays only the melody note; your left hand plays the chord. The second step is to take the tunes you worked on in step 1, and spread the chord voicing between two hands, so that both hands have a part of the chord. There are two methods to practice:

Method 1

  • LH plays root and fifth
  • RH puts melody on top and nearest 3rd and 7th beneath it.
  • If the melody note happens to be the 3rd or 7th, double it in the right hand (ie. play it as an octave)

What are the roots, thirds, fifths and sevenths? These refer to the chord tones. For an explanation of this concept, see: Understanding and Implementing Harmony on the Piano - Volume 1

Method 2

  • LH plays either root and third, or root and 7th, depending on the following:
    * in stepwise or chromatic bass lines, use root and 7th
    * in a progression of dominant chords (circle of fifths), alternate root and third/ root and 7th
    * on mixed harmonies down the circle of fifths (not only dominant chords): root and 7th for all major, minor and half-dim; root and third for doms
  • RH:
    melody note on top.
    3rd or 7th (whichever not played by LH) beneath
    additional optional tension or other chord tone beneath

Step 3 - Add tensions to basic chords

Learn how to expand the basic triad chord into larger chords by adding the appropriate tension tones. There is a good workbook that explains how to do this: Jimmy Amadie - Harmonic Foundation of Jazz and Popular Music

Step 4 - Comping

The next step is to learn how to comp. The best way to do this is to purchase the piano voicings / comping booklets from Jamey Aebersold. These are sold under the names "Transcribed Piano Voicings" "Transcribed Piano Comping" for play-along Volumes 41, 50, 54, 55, 70. Transcribed means it shows you exactly what the pianists on those recordings were playing, note-for-note.

These are transcriptions of what the pianists are doing on the Aebersold recordings from his play-along series. Admittedly these pianists are doing very complex things, but you need to start getting familiar with it.

Step 5 - Learn improvising using blues scales

The single best written source for learning how to improvise is the following small exercise booklet: Blues Scales: Essential Tools for Jazz Improvisation.

Step 6 - Improve your understanding of Harmony

Finally, learn how to reharmonize, learn different ways of voicings chords and how to incorporate rhythm. For more information see: Understanding and Implementing Harmony on the Piano. You may read why I wrote my booklets.

Do you need to know theory?

No. You really don't need to know theory as long as you have someone who can show you how to voice chords and how to harmonize melodies. But theory is useful when you want to reharmonize the music. It is also necessary if you need to learn from a book due to lack of a mentor.

Bay Area Piano Instruction

I teach piano in Silicon Valley at $50/hour. You may contact me to arrange lessons.