Why is the piano the accepted instrument that all music students are expected to know, as opposed to any other instrument?

Most music programs have some requirement that if you're not studying piano, your alternate instrument should be piano (or at least while you're taking the theory classes). I'm just curious how the piano became the lingua franca of music schools.

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    If you can read evil piano music with multiple notes played at the same time, reading for single-note instruments is cake. I learned trumpet first, and getting into piano was really hard. – Almo Jan 3 '16 at 17:28
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    I come from a percussive background, so I'm used to reading and playing multiple notes at once. The key layout and multiple simultaneous notes are familiar, but 10 fingers are much harder to control than 4 mallets. – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 2:34
  • @cjm: speak for yourself. LOL I couldn't begin to play a vibraphone or xylophone (not too bad with chopsticks, though, after years of eating sushi), and I'm a pretty darn good piano player. – BobRodes Jan 7 '16 at 5:52

The piano is very useful when teaching theory and music notation for a few different reasons. Let's look a picture of how notes and the pianos keys relate:


From a notation perspective we can see that:

  • The white keys and the naturally named notes line up perfectly so teaching them as distinct ideas won't be a problem.
  • You get exposed to both the treble and bass clef which not many other instruments do.
  • The concept of enharmonic equivalence is very easy to explain on the piano as you can see how the black keys can be describe multiple ways.

From a theory perspective and taking theory classes, knowing piano gauntness you can play voice leading and counterpoint example on your own. Not every instrument can play more than one note at time and even if they do, some of the voicing can be a challenge.

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    Most instruments have the notes laid out according to physical constraints of sound production. Only the piano and concertina / accordion really gave the instrument maker absolute freedom to lay the notes out according to user preferences / theory. – Level River St Jan 3 '16 at 0:21
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    Me trying to explain scales to beginners on the guitar: The major scale goes tone tone semitone, tone tone tone semitone. Look at a piano. Beginner: but I want to learn guitar, not piano! Me: You don't have to play the piano, just look at it! I'm sure others will have had the same experience. – Level River St Jan 3 '16 at 0:21
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    @steveverrill how does "tone tone semitone, tone tone tone semitone" explain the major scale? Why would it be your starting point when trying to explain scales to a beginner? Why not start by explaining what the most important harmonic relationships are and take it from there? You'll find that if you do that, the guitar in some ways makes more sense than the piano, as at least a part of its layout is isomorphic. – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 3 '16 at 3:03
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    @topomorto yes I do that too, show them what intervals are consonant and dissonant. Then scale boxes & easy stuff like the riff from "my girl" by the Temptations (an ascending major pentatonic scale set to a certain rhythm.) But for example, to describe how chords get their names, you have to turn to mainstream music theory. Formula for major chord is 0,4,7 and for minor chord 0,3,7. To explain why the intervals of 3 and 4 semitones are called minor and major thirds, you need to look at scales and piano keyboard is a very useful image for that. Guitar is good for explaining circle of 5ths. – Level River St Jan 3 '16 at 4:14
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    I suppose to further extrapolate from your answer, you'd use a piano rather than an organ or pitched percussion for very good reasons: 1. It's probably easier to teach piano than proper 4-mallet technique. 2. Digital pianos are of far higher quality than digital percussion instruments (very important for practice labs, especially since digital pianos will be near-silent with the students using headphones and digital percussion will still have the thunk of mallets). 3. Pianos have a sustain pedal, rather than making you hold all the keys you need until you no longer need them (unlike organ). – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 2:53

It is really useful for teaching music theory concepts. It is also good to play your harmony exercises for your students so they can hear why certain things work and others don't. I also, for instance, need a piano to teach my pupils how semitones and whole tones work.

You also have much more freedom in the chords you play on piano than what is the case on the guitar.

Also, aural training is done with a piano. You don't want to do the aural training on a guitar there is too many harmonics complicating the matter.

And lastly you may be required to do very rudimentary accompaniments when you teach and this is usually done on piano, not guitar (Although you can actually do accompaniments on guitar.)

All of this make having a passable knowledge of piano necessary.


Western musical tradition - and education - emphasises the importance of harmony. An individual student therefore needs an instrument on which they, unaccompanied, can play with a high degree of polyphony (in the sense of playing many notes at the same time, not the harmonic technique). The piano, with its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century, was one of the first relatively accessible and affordable instruments to offer this.

The piano has a number of other useful practical characteristics - upright models are portable enough to easily move around a room or from room to room; The piano is loud enough to fill a concert hall, or accompany any other instrument. It also requires relatively little day-to-day maintenance.

Skills learned navigating the piano keyboard are easily translated to other keyboard instruments such as organs and harpsichords, and more recently, controller keyboards for electronic instruments (well-performing examples of which can be built much more easily than string and wind controllers).

Dom's answer already points out the way the piano keyboard maps well to standard notation and the most commonly-used sytem for naming notes and keys.

It could also be said that some of the areas in which the piano is less capable are also areas in which there is less emphasis in Western musical education. for example, the piano keyboard emphasises the diatonic scale, which can lead to a reluctance to analyse music from a non-diatonic perspective; the piano is only capable of limited timbral control, which corresponds to a lack of emphasis on study of timbre; and the piano is capable of fixed pitches only, which means it is difficult to explore territory outside the 12 tone scale.

  • I learned percussion, so the layout of the notes is already familiar to me. Perhaps learning piano is easier than learning marimba (also a fixed-pitch instrument that commonly uses both treble and bass clefs) to a non-percussionist. Not to mention that digital pianos are of far higher quality than digital percussion. – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 2:38

Most answers here focus on the keyboard. That's sort of the same on a harmonium or accordion or organ. The piano, however, also is a percussive instrument with a reasonable balance between attack and sustain. That makes it well-suited for being discernible, rhythmical yet unobtrusive when accompanying singers and other non-percussive instruments since its attacks are very noticeable while it does not plaster over long notes.

It also is sit-down, so its player can turn/get up and move around without having to put instrument on/down.

That makes it quite suitable for teaching purposes. For teaching single students, some other percussive instruments like spinet or harpsichord are suitable as well since they have a clearer tone and their dynamic constraints are usually ok. The pianoforte, however, can better be adapted to the dynamic challenges posed by a variety in size and volume of music student groups.


It's practical.

So much music is for ensembles. When studying that music the piano a practical instrument for an individual to play the parts simultaneously. For example, four part vocal music. You can play all the parts on piano, but you can't on melody instruments like flute, etc. Similarly, in music theory you often have harmonic or orchestral reductions for studying harmony. You need an instrument that can play multiple parts for that.

Probably the other major reason is music teacher preparation. Music teachers often need to do some kind of accompaniment for students. The accompaniment will likely involve a bass part with chords. For all practical purposes you need a keyboard for that. If not a keyboard, guitar is a likely second place option.

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