The Very Basics


The piano is an input/output device. There are keys and pedals. You press them in combinations and sound comes out.

This lesson is a quick description of the parts of the piano and some basic language that I’ll use in all subsequent lessons. The way I write about these things may appear mindblowingly simple, but clarity is extremely valuable, as we’ll see.


Inside a piano are many, many strings. Metal strings stretched tightly across a metal frame. That’s why pianos are so heavy. If you had the skills, you could pluck those strings to make music. That’s basically what a harp is. However, when we play piano, we don’t do that.

We use…


Keys are levers that trigger mechanisms that hit strings with hammers.

Unless your piano is electric, in which case, keys are levers that touch sensors that make some kind of computer play a sound based on a recording of a real piano. Either way, pressing keys make…


Notes are vibrations happening in the air. Notes are the basic unit of language for music. There are very low ones, very high ones, and tens of others in between.

The difference in pitch from one note to the next is quite small, and is pre-defined to make all pianos the same. For the purpose of learning music, you should consider that increment to be identical from note to note. We call that increment a…


A semitone is the smallest unit of our musical language on the piano. Other instruments can make other pitches in between, but we can’t, and that’s fine.

The difference between one pitch and another on the piano can be measured in semitones. The colour (black or white) doesn’t matter. Starting from one note and counting up any number of semitones then playing the two notes will create an…


Intervals are the differences in pitch from one note to another. Starting at any point on the piano and playing two notes that are 3 semitones apart will create the same “interval” no matter where they are on the piano.

To talk about this, we need to be able to describe the notes, so we have…



For spelling, we use letters. You may have noticed that the piano has a repeating pattern of white keys with two black keys and three black keys mixed in with them. The note to the left of the two black keys is called “C”. The letters run in alphabetical order, so to the right of C is D, then E, F, G. After G, we start again at A, then B, and we reach C (which is the one to the left of the two black keys).

The black notes are described according to their position relative to the white ones. The one between the A and B can be called “A sharp” or “B flat”. For the purpose of learning this, think of “sharp” as meaning “one semitone up” and “flat” as meaning “one semitone down”.

So we don’t have to keep writing “sharp” and “flat”, a “sharp” is annotated with a “#”, a flat is annotated with a “b”.

When we play combinations of notes we are always creating…


Harmony is the word we use to describe the language of sounds being played together. It’s a huge and complicated subject, really, but worry not! We don’t have to worry about it too much at first. It’s really just important to know about…


A chord is basically a combination of notes played at the same time. For example, we can play C, E and G together, and that’s a chord that we call “C”.


In popular music and jazz, we deal very heavily in this currency. Chords are the first thing we need to know about in popular music and jazz. To accompany a singer (or yourself singing) or play in a group, you can get along very well exclusively playing chords.


WHAT!? We had this!

You’re right, we did. Sadly, the word gets used twice. A “key” is not only a physical object that we use to make notes happen, it’s also what we collectively call all the notes in a scale. So, the “scale” of C Major is what we call it when we treat the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C consecutively, but all together we call that the “key of C major”. Please don’t worry about this too much. You can generally see “scale” and “key” as interchangeable terms, and I will.

To make this less confusing, I basically won’t refer to the individual note-making devices as “keys”. I’ll say “play a note” rather than “press a key”.


Music happens over time, and we need a way to mark that time… a bit like we use seconds and minutes in English. Beats are an arbitrary division of time. If you clap “1, 2, 3, 4″ you’re making a beat. We don’t just measure music in beats, though, as the numbers would get very high! So we need a bigger unit of measurement…


Bars are made of a pre-determined number of beats. If there are 4 beats in a bar, we can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. If there are three, it’s 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. In theory there can be any number of beats in a bar. In practice, almost all the music you play will have 4-beat bars or 3-beat bars.

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