If one wishes to take private lessons or perhaps some other means of formally learning the piano, what are the topics that one must cover and in what order? Which topics are usually the hardest and thus need the greatest amount of concentration and practice and by one point along this line is a person at "intermediate" level?

My intention here is to understand a typical flow that a person goes through when learning piano when we wish to learn something we start from a certain topic and build on that and learn more new topics later on and than combine all of them as we progress. I myself am from an electronic engineering background but wish to learn piano so I can play my favorite songs and also be capable of sight reading other game piano compositions e.g memory of light and waves, The Sims build mode songs among others.

I am posting this question as myself and many others that wish to learn this instrument and have no prior experience of any musical instruments would like to know this.

  • 3
    Different teachers have different approaches / styles and emphasize different things - this is how a lot of music works and is one of the reasons why it's important for musicians to study with a wide variety of teachers. If you want a set syllabus, I would recommend going to a university website and seeing the requirements for a degree in piano performance. I would also talk to pianists or music teachers if you know any. Aug 6, 2013 at 14:29
  • If any of the answers here were a sufficiently good answer to your question, please remember to choose one. Mar 30, 2014 at 1:47

4 Answers 4


filzilla's answer is organized by topic, so I'll try to organize this one by sequence.

Here's a rough idea of the sequence of events when one's learning to play piano. (Disclaimer: I began at a youngish age - certain things are harder then, but other things are easier because your brain picks up on things quicker. Also, the order of this list is not exact. Some things would be learned simultaneously.)

  1. Reading treble clef, rhythm, pitch
  2. Playing simple songs in treble clef with one hand, staying in the same position throughout
  3. Reading bass clef (for the left hand)
  4. Playing left hand and right hand, but not at the same time
  5. Simple scales and arpeggios (first one hand, then both)
  6. Playing left and right at the same time - chords in left, melody in right

To get to the point where you can play very simple songs easily, you should give yourself at least half a year. Everything after that is pretty much just practice until you keep getting gradually better.

Year .5 - 1.5: The Alfred piano books are pretty good once you've got the absolute basics down.

Year 1.5 - 2: After going through some of those, I'd pick up a book like this. The others in the series are also good.

Year 2 - 3: Some simple Mozart Sonatas, or Sonatinas by people like Clementi.

Year 3 + : Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, jazz, pop etc. (whether you can get to this point in 3 years really depends on how much time you have to devote to it, and how naturally it comes to you)

As far as learning to sight-read goes, the way I learned was just by trying to play everything I could without pausing. You make lots of errors, but in the process you train your brain to process music quickly, and with many years of practice, you can eventually be mostly error-free (on relatively simple music that is). A lot of it has to do with being able to predict patterns so that you don't have to physically look ahead.

I should add that probably the hardest hurdle to get over in all of this is playing both hands at the same time (and reading two clefs at the same time - three if you're also singing). For some people, it's really hard. Especially when they're both playing "melody".

Good luck!

  • Dear Chris, filzilla's answer contains a lot of things that I am not aware of the meaning of. Your answer has been very close to what I wanted. hmm when does one learn the major and minor notes?
    – quantum231
    Aug 6, 2013 at 14:30
  • 1
    There are no major or minor notes. Perhaps you mean major or minor keys? Or scales or chords? All of those things can be major or minor. Check out this site: musictheory.net/lessons Aug 6, 2013 at 15:19
  • Maybe you mean the white and black keys on the piano? You'll usually start on all white for the first month or so, and slowly introduce the black keys one or two at a time. It is related to the concept of major and minor keys, although in this case, we're talking about a conceptual set of notes that 'go together' (without getting too technical), rather than the physical keys on the keyboard.
    – Hannele
    Aug 7, 2013 at 13:46

I am assuming you want a break down of learning piano as from its origins in western culture, as in you are more likely going to want to play a Bach fugue on the piano vs. an Indian raga.

Understanding the keyboard: black keys vs. white keys, octaves, learn each note and where it corresponds to treble and bass clefs (grand staff),

Acoustics and mechanics: how the piano works with hammers, why there is only one string for the lowest note and three for the highest note, pedals, open lid vs. closed lid, upright vs. grand piano, electric piano vs. acoustic piano.

Music Theory: Note names, time signature, changes of time, rhythm, durations, scales, arpeggios, chords (diads, triads, etc.), key signatures, reading the grand staff including dynamic and tempo markings, tuning systems.

Music analysis: preparing a piece, committing a piece to memory, adding interpretation for performance, positive feedback, reworking to get it right.

Music practice: scales with single hand, scales with both hands, simple chords complex chords (9ths, 11ths, can you stretch?), muscle learning (practice, practice, practice), sight reading, ear training, dynamics, improvisation, recitals, ensemble work, solos, concertos.

Composing on the piano and composing for the piano: in a word, Rachmaninoff.

This is not everything but I think you get the idea. [I have added a few more things since I started this answer.]

ADD the following to Music Practice: optimize fingering, master phrasing, master whole body control from toes to finger tips to maximize expression.


Here is a syllabus for class piano as taught in the School of Music at the University of Michigan. Please note that class piano is a requirement for most music majors in every university in the U.S.A., with the exception of those who passed the proficiency test (likely actual piano majors). This is the class that every one but piano majors has to take. Piano majors generally have mastered all of these things long before starting college.


Secondary piano courses with syllabus for Non-Music Majors at Indiana University:


  • Dear filzilla, thank you for the answer. I come from engineer background and there is a method by which we study different topics and the order e.g we do Kirchof's law first and learn RLC circuits before we are exposed to the BJT transistors. We learn single ended amplifiers first and than move to differential amplifiers and current mirrors. I guess what I am saying doesn't make sense to most people here. What I wanted from this question can be summed up in 1 word "syllabus".
    – quantum231
    Aug 6, 2013 at 14:17
  • @filzilla - I would like to add here that many, many composers throughout history wrote (and still write) at the piano, not just Rachmaninoff. Like Liszt or Chopin, he was a composer-performer, which makes him different than Stravinksy or Debussy, who also wrote at the piano but didn't perform professionally. Aug 6, 2013 at 14:30
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    @jjmusicnotes, thanks for your comment. I picked Rachmaninoff cause I think he stands highest as both master composer and pianist. While Liszt and Chopin etc are all remarkable. It's all subjective.
    – filzilla
    Aug 6, 2013 at 19:17

The answer to this question depends of so many things but we have to begin somewhere don't we ?

First, a few answers

If one wishes to take private lessons or perhaps some other means of formally learning the piano, what are the topics that one must cover and in what order?

If we're talking piano lessons with any type of teacher, the teacher himself will have it's own technique or approach on how to play the piano. There are a lot of different things he can teach in a lot of different order.

Which topics are usually the hardest and thus need the greatest amount of concentration and practice and by one point along this line is a person at "intermediate" level?

Once again a question opened to a lot of interpretations. When do a piano player reach the "intermediate" level.. Who can really define what is an "intermediate" level ?

  • Is it the middle point between a person who've never played and a person who made a career out of it ?
  • Is it the middle point between what you know before you start and what you know when you reach the point your aiming for.
  • Is it someone who can play a lot of easy pieces but not hard ones ?

Also, all of us piano players will struggle on different things when playing. I'll come back on it in a moment.

1 - The Pianist

  • What is your goal as a piano player (playing for yourself or are you planning on making a career out of it )
  • How much time are you willing to put in piano practice sessions ?
  • What do you know about music in general ?
  • What do you know about piano ?
  • Have you ever played any other instruments ?
  • How is your musical ear ?
  • Do you understand that learning piano is a long journey and you probably won't play Chopin in a week ?

It might seem a little much to ask yourself all these questions but trust me, I decided to stop there because there are a hundred more that could define how long it would take you and where you would have to start.

Now that we've ruled out all the theory about how much your question is opened to interpretation, I guess you want some real explanations so let's start by implying you haven't touch a piano ever and you want to learn all by yourself.

2- Your piano

You haven't touched a piano yet. So what is the a piano. How does it work ? Why are there white and black keys ?

It might sound silly, but taking the time to sit in front of the piano and studying it for a few minutes without touching any notes is a good thing to do when you start. When you understand how the piano works (when you have a very general idea of how it works) you can start playing with it. How does it sound ? How does it react ? What is the distance between the keys. How long can I hold a note before I can't hear it anymore ?

Your going to spend a lot of time in front of it in the next months so the more you know about it the better. You can start playing with the pedals at your feet.

3- The techniques

At this point, and only now you should think about learning to play it.

  • Scales (major, minor)
  • Chords (major, minor)
  • Exercises (I learned with a dozen a day which I highly recommand)
  • Basic pieces

Now you should have a few weeks if not months of practice learning basic pieces and learning piano techniques that will always come in handy once you get better. Now you should be ready to enter the fabulous world of the piano. Don't forget, you can ALWAYS get better, and you can ALWAYS improve bits and parts there and there.

4- The beginner

Now let's try it my definition of beginner, intermediate, expert and professional (because everyone has there own definition of it) and how they should approach further learning.

I consider you are a beginner if you know all the things in point 3. If you've learned a few basic piece that don't require a lot of techniques like songs where both hands play the melody or songs with basic chords that goes along with the melody. If you feel a little adventurer, you can always pick up a piece like Solfeggietto and work on it for many days, you can have yourself a quite impressive piece to play with not a lot of difficulties in it. It is from the Baroc era so there is not any pedals (you can add some to help yourself or to make it sound cooler it's always up to you) so the song itself is not a big challenge. Also, it's very fun to play trust me it's one of the first piece I've ever played and I still love it today after 16 years.

5- The intermediate

Now you have a little experience in piano pieces. A few years or so. (This is still my own opinion on what is an intermediate player) You can play a lot of basic pieces and nothing you feel like your ready to move up in terms of difficulty. Basic chords, scales and stuff are no match for you you like to play them backwards to make it a little more challenging.

In my opinion, this is the fun part when you discover cool pieces you really want to play. You can handle a few more difficulties and you should head to a piece you like very much because chances are it's going to be hard to learn and master.

A piece I learned when I got to this part of my piano career is The Maple Leaf Rag. It's a very nice piece you're going to want to play faster and faster which is going to teach you to keep to what the score is telling you. You can either play it nice and slow with basically no expression or you can add every little details like on the original score and master it. You have a lot of time to spend on pieces in this category so once again I suggest you pick one you like.

6 - The expert

Usually the term expert would be on the top of the list but in this case, the expert is the one who played piano for a long long time. They know a lot and can play basically anything that comes in front of them. They've played countless pieces and are just below the professional career milestone. They can take challenges as hard as The Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 (I linked it because this version is worth taking a look at. From there all you can do is keep practicing and learning pieces you want. This is where I am in my opinion and I love it because I worked towards this point for a lot of years in my life and it finally pays off because I can play pretty much anything I want.


There is not a simple explanation that can be given on how or where to start learning piano and how to do it exactly because it depends of too many factors. Just never stop practicing it's the most important thing that will make you progress faster than any lessons or tutorials.

Good luck and I hope to hear one of you interpretations on the internet someday.


piano is an art, not a science. It's not just one short little topic like, say, algebra.

there's no "list of topics", there are just lots of different -big- areas you can learn.

the difficulty varies from one person to the next and there's no "standard order".

the reason a teacher is a good idea is they can put you on the path that's right for you. Not that other guy - your path. And they'll get you going a lot faster since they know the paths. Not knowing them, you'll wander around a lot and not get anything done. They will also force you to do things right, even if you don't particularly want to.

Soooooo, coming from an engineering background (me too - I'm a computer programmer), you'll need to really get used to the world of art. Many of the explanations you get are "you just feel it"...

  • There is a science side to piano, consider the mechanical aspects of a hammer striking a string, or the acoustic properties of the highest register sounding more like a bar vs. the lowest register that sounds more like strings. However, performance is art and understanding how it works belongs to science and philosophy.
    – filzilla
    Aug 5, 2013 at 23:50
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    I have been cooking food for some time and there people usually do things without numbers, it just gives me a wierd feeling. Wait for the onions to turn this color, look for this smell, check for this taste. Its a whole different world with no equations or models or a rigid set of rules involved. hmmm you have really put me into deap thought here my friend.
    – quantum231
    Aug 6, 2013 at 14:21
  • Likely the most important thing about cooking is making sure that the temperature is in the ballpark, as you want to be sure that Chicken actually gets to 165 F. The rest of being a chef can be exact or fuzzy logic may apply.
    – filzilla
    Aug 6, 2013 at 19:21
  • There's more science to it than you'd think - most musicians just aren't aware of it, and aren't used to teaching it. For example, consider just intonation vs equal temperament, if you're curious about how things are tuned - it's all about optimizing frequency ratios.
    – Hannele
    Aug 7, 2013 at 13:52
  • Oh there is definitely science to it. Just write yourself a software synth and you'll learn a LOT about dsp, acoustics and so forth. Myself, I'm mostly into pop. So equal temperament is all I care about. It just works. But playing piano - composing notes and such - I'd still say that's pretty artsy Aug 7, 2013 at 16:03

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