Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Piano as a Second Language

Over the last year at the Royal Conservatory, I've begun teaching piano to many people who already play other instruments or sing but also wish to learn the piano. Many of them feel as if the process of learning the piano answers a lot of questions posed by playing other instruments.

Why is this?

Matt Rushton at Live Musician Central writes about the importance of learning piano as a logical starting point for understanding the elements of music:

I started to figure out how to play the individual guitar chords on the piano and that’s when the musical revelations started to happen. I saw how when I played the C, F and G chords how I only used white keys on the piano. I finally figured out this was the I-IV-V chord progression for the key of C. From there, the chordal world opened up to me as I could see how the chords fit in with each each key having learned all the major scales during my piano studies. Once I began to use the piano and guitar together the world of both instruments opened up to me. The revelations always seemed to come from the piano.

What Matt discovered is that theoretical concepts of chordal playing on guitar were actually visible from the layout of the piano keys. There is something about the layout of the notes that most of us completely miss unless coming to the piano from a different instrument:

For one thing it is laid out in a very logical manner. Think of the keys all in a row from left to right, low note to high note in a 12-note western scale repeating pattern. It’s easy to learn and memorize. Contrast that with a guitar whose strings are tuned in 5ths, except for the 2nd string which is tuned to a 4th. The guitar has the lowest string at the top and the highest at the bottom. You have to learn the guitar vertically as well as horizontally. I always struggle teaching beginning students their way around the guitar. Not so with the piano.
Which is something so absolutely basic that experienced pianists often fail to realize how important the piano's visual patterns are in learning concepts such as pitch, contour, intervals, and chords. In addition, the piano allows us to play and create music with not just one melodic or chordal line, but to combine voices, textures, registers, rhythmic patterns, create both melody and harmony, foreground and background.

Nevertheless, the piano is essentially a percussion instrument (Hint: look inside one) and not without its drawbacks. Singers, wind and brass players utilize the breath to create phrases (singers also have language at their disposal to create musical meaning), string players can control nearly every aspect of a sound with the bow, guitarists can easily be mobile when playing, and percussionists have a huge family of different instruments at their disposal.

But only the piano provides the graph paper to allow you to see the musical landscape.

What revelations about learning music have you experienced from the piano? What revelations about learning music have you experienced from non-keyboard instruments?


  1. Anonymous3:32 AM

    Thanks Chris, your insights are extremely helpful. The piano really is the graph paper that allows you to see the musical landscape.

    I really do the visualize the keyboard as much as notation when I'm writing and improvising.

  2. Anonymous12:48 PM

    When I'm singing scales or warmups, I'm just as likely to visualize piano keys as I am to visualize sheet music.
    And it was only when I got interested in how the piano is tuned that I learned about equal temperament.

  3. Anonymous1:01 PM

    My main instrument it the horn, so I very rarely think in keys and even then it's usually Eb. Playing the piano opens up a whole new world of harmony.

    When I play through the accompaniment to my pieces or even just piano rep, all of the sudden I'm aware of the structure of the piece and what's happening harmonically.

    During undergrad, I had a terrible time in theory because I didn't understand how music worked outside of the math of progression. I wasn't playing much piano then and the horn isn't too much help.

    In grad school I played a lot more piano and suddenly everything clicked into place and I got it!

  4. Anonymous9:42 AM

    I can understand miss mussel. As a pianist, I grew up taking this "keyboard graph paper" for granted. While teaching Junior High band, I was explaining the ground rules for the upcoming scale test. A horn player raised her hand and asked, "Do the scales have to be memorized?" It threw me. Memorized? What do you mean? You don't memorize scales. They're just there. You play them. No notation required, but no conscious memorization process either. After a few conversations with one of my band mentors, I finally understood things from a non-pianist view. From that view, things are pretty fuzzy, so memorization is absolutely necessary. The clarity of having all the notes before you on the keyboard is a wonderful thing.

  5. Anonymous9:35 AM

    I was just transposing some guitar chords on sheet music and it occurred to me that when I think, "what's a minor third down from A-flat?", I think about the piano keys. Partly I'm just remembering the interval on the piano by rote, but partly I think I'm subliminally using the keys as a count of semitones. The counting is visual and mechanical, I'm not saying "1-2-3" in my head. If I go for a minor sixth, part of me is saying that's one piano key more than the more familiar fifth.