Are you an adult beginner who is ready to take lessons … yet can’t possibly wait for the first one? Perhaps you just purchased an instrument and it’s already gathering dust. I can’t tell you how many adult beginners have asked me:  How can I get started before the first lesson?

You might think the first thing to learn is how to read notes:

But actually, there are a number of things you should learn before reading notes. If you get the following seven concepts down, you’ll be well ahead of the game at your first piano lesson.

1. Finger Numbers

Most piano music includes finger numbers that tell you which fingers to use for which notes. Finger numbers aren’t just for beginners; they’re just as important when playing the most difficult piano music.

The finger numbers for LH (left hand) and RH (right hand) are the same:

Do these exercises to master finger numbers:

  • On your lap or a desk, tap these fingers in sequence with your RH:  1 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 1 – 4 – 1 – 5
  • Tap the same sequence with your LH
  • Tap the same sequence with both hands at the same time
  • Repeat the above steps with this sequence:  5 – 4 – 5 – 3 – 5 – 2 – 5 – 1

For additional practice, tap these sequences, first one hand at a time, then hands together:

  • 2 – 4 – 3 – 5 – 4 – 2 – 3 – 1
  • 1 – 4 – 2 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1
  • 5 – 2 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5
  • 1 – 5 – 1 – 4 – 1 – 3 – 1 – 2
  • 5 – 1 – 5 – 2 – 5 – 3 – 5 – 4

    2. Note Values

    Like a heartbeat, music has a regular pulse or beat. The beat is what you tap your foot or dance to when you listen to music. Listen to a click set the beat, then a drummer playing to the beat, then the beat by itself again:

    A note is a symbol that means to make a sound by playing a key. Every note has a value (duration) indicating how many beats it receives.

    The Whole Note

    Whole note (4 beats). Count “1 2 3 4.”

    Press play and listen to whole notes being counted:

    Using any key on your instrument play whole notes, saying “1 2 3 4” for each note. Hold the key down for the full duration of each note!

    The Dotted Half Note

    Dotted half note (3 beats). Count “1 2 3.”

    Notice that the dotted half note has a stem (line). It may be shown “stem up” or “stem down.”

    Listen to and then play dotted half notes, saying “1 2 3” for each dotted half note:

    The Half Note

    Half note (2 beats). Count “1 2.”

    Listen to and then play half notes, saying “1 2” for each half note:

    The Quarter Note

    Quarter note (1 beat). Count “1.”

    Listen to and then play quarter notes, saying “1” for each quarter note:

    3. Dynamics

    The musical word for volume is dynamics. By tradition, dynamic markings (and many other music terms) are abbreviations of Italian words:

    = piano (soft)

    = forte (loud) (pronounced FOR-tay)

    The velocity at which a key is depressed determines dynamics on acoustic and digital pianos and most electronic keyboards.

    4. Measures

    measure or bar is a group of beats. Measures are separated by bar lines. These four measures contain four beats each:

    5. The Music Alphabet

    The music alphabet consists of the first seven letters of the English alphabet (A through G). Each white key is named with a letter.

    On the keyboard, the music alphabet proceeds from left to right. The lowest note (on the left) of an 88-key instrument is A.

    The black keys alternate between groups of two and three. The white key to the left of every two-black key group is C. The white key to the left of every three-black key group is F.

    The C closest to the center of the keyboard (typically nearest the manufacturer’s name) is Middle C.

    To learn the names of the white keys:

    • Randomly choose a letter from the music alphabet and play every key with that name from bottom (left) to top (right), or top to bottom.
    • Randomly play keys and say their names.
    • Spell these words by playing a key for each letter:




    Need more practice? Spell them backwards!

    6. Rests

    A rest is a symbol that means to be silent. A quarter rest = 1 beat of silence.

    7. Finger Warm-Ups

    It’s important to warm up your fingers before practicing or playing. Place your hands in the middle of the keyboard as shown in the Hand Placement diagram below. Slowly play these two warm-ups by reading the finger numbers (RH notes are above the horizontal lines, LH notes below):


    Practice Piece: Largo

    Now it’s time to test your understanding of the seven concepts by learning an easy piece. Click the button to open a printable PDF in a separate tab:

    One of the most famous melodies of all time, Largo was influenced by composer Antonin Dvořák’s visit to the United States, where he absorbed Native American and African-American folk music.

    Get to know the tune by reading the written music as you play the piano track below.

    After you’ve practiced and learned to play Largo well, try it with the play-along track. You’ll hear two measures of counting (“1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4”) before the song begins. 

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