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Most piano books begin by asking the student to play simple melodies in C major and then F major. Does this mean that it is extremely difficult for a beginner to play in F# major? It takes time to get used to this key. I am not sure it is good to begin by focusing on these two keys. To me thinking in keys can be problematic as it can make you think of a melodies as certain white notes rather than a pattern that can be transposed to all keys. It can be difficult to play the black notes at first but my experience is that myself and many others find focusing on playing a key in only key to be confusing us. I myself use solfege or numbers instead of thinking too much in note names. I never really learn a tune untill I use solfege or numbers. This is why most piano lessons hasn't helped me much.

Should one learn piano by using solfege or numbers rather than using other methods?

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To me thinking in keys can be problematic as it can make you think of a melodies as certain white notes rather than a pattern that can be transposed to all keys

Well, "thinking in keys" should be exactly like that.

Starting from a key that has lots of alterations (for instance, Ab) doesn't offer real benefits, and since beginners need to grasp lots of concepts in their first lessons, there's really no reason to make things even more complex than they are.
Most methods use those two tonalities (often along with G major) for various reasons, but mostly:

  • beginners are usually children, with small fingers and relatively limited control on their "finger coordination" (a white key is much easier to press than a black one);
  • the concepts of tone/half tone are not immediate, especially by looking at a keyboard: the "spaces" are not even in different tonalities, children usually have a simpler perception of distance, and to them (but not only) moving between a white and a black key means doing a bigger distance than between two white keys;
  • both scales, especially in the first 5 degrees, offer easy visual response of intervals, with the benefit of allowing introduction of alteration for the Bb in F and simple transposition (they usually go with something like "it sounds strange" when pressing the B-flat key for the fourth degree);

Actually, many methods use the "Movable Do" system, which is very useful as it introduces the concept of scale degrees and the relations between them, more importantly if done along with singing.

Using numbers might seem a better approach, but it implies that some level of good abstraction already exists (which can be difficult for some tonalities just by looking at the keys) and, considering that numbers are normally used for fingering, it may create further confusion (that's why scale degrees use roman numbers).

So, using tonalities with few (or no) alterations is usually better for lots of aspects, but it should also be done with awareness. You should not "focus" on the tonality itself, but on its concept and the relations between its notes.
In this way you then can begin to think in any tonality from different aspects, with a higher level of abstraction that almost ignores the actual keys you're pressing.

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  • very interesting answer! – user74879 Feb 3 at 13:19
  • @andrewjohnsson - by accepting an answer (which may well be excellent) after a very short time, you may be putting other answerers off proffering theirs. It's often prudent to wait until you have several to choose from. – Tim Feb 3 at 13:27
  • I agree with @Tim, your question doesn't have a definitive answer, and others might be discouraged to offer their own (which could be a completely different point of view, or even a more detailed/expanded answer). – musicamante Feb 3 at 13:30
  • @Tim thanks for telling me about this. I just wanted to say that I liked it and that people did not have to bother answering it and focus on other questions. I do not want anyone to waste time on my questions. – user74879 Feb 3 at 13:36
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    @andrewjohnsson - as musicamante says, there will be other answers, maybe even controversial ones! It makes interesting reading for future visitors when there are more answers, points of view. Upvote any answers you really like! – Tim Feb 3 at 13:43
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Starting with the key of C on the piano is simple. To make reading and memory simple, a key with one accidental is a good second choice. Using the key of F has one advantage, the F scales are fingered (on the piano) differently from C whereas G uses the same fingering. (Also historically though not relevant, Bb has been part of the musical note collections since before Guido.)

The importance of learning simple pieces in different keys is to understand (by muscle memory, ear, and sight) that the different major keys are just translations (math term) of notes; the relative positions of notes are the same. It's identical for minors. There are minor differences in fingering for piano (and big differences for clarinet or oboe.)

One often has to transpose at sight (especially when working with bands for which other musicians cannot read and play only by ear or when the singer had a bad night and wants to sing in Eb rather than G that day.)

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Thinking in keys is encouraged when learning classical music like piano lessons by default provide (at least in Canada). Classical music is often labelled with its key (e.g. Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, "Appassionata"). Some multi-movement classical works explicitly have entries in all 24 major and minor keys (e.g. The Well-Tempered Clavier). In that respect, music is not treated as a pattern that can be transposed to all keys. Be prepared for listeners to flip their lids if you play the start of "Für Elise" in anything other than its home key of A minor.

In addition, the white notes of a piano are notated without accidentals (until accidentals are introduced to the curriculum, then they might need naturals or maybe even sharps, flats, double sharps, or double flats), so they are easier to read, and beginners will learn them first.

You can learn piano with solfege or numbers, but normal piano lessons discourage you from going in that direction or thinking that is the best way to learn music.

Music lessons involving coordinating with others, such as band class and choir, are even nastier in this aspect. Unless you want the music to sound like an unintentional polytonal mess, following the sheet music you are given is paramount. You cannot get the entire band to learn the piece in solfege without also assigning what their initial notes are for each performance together.

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  • Adding to the last point: It just absolutely never happens that you have to switch to different key because it's a better fit for a singer or some instrument that wasn't in original arrangement. – ojs Feb 4 at 11:15

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