When I was a kid (10 to 14 years old) I was taught how to play the piano. Or that's what I thought until today. I haven't been playing piano for about 10 years so I am of course rusty, but what I noticed is that when I learned I had developed bad practices (for example constantly looking at the keys instead of looking at the sheet). Moreover, I wasn't taught anything at all about chords, scales and so on.

So what I did back then was playing pieces (I remember playing a Ravel piece during my last year) by heart without particular knowledge of what was behind them. I'm trying to start playing again but now that I'm older (and my learning is less elastic) I find it really hard not to get discouraged. I think that I should go back to the basics, but I'm a bit confused on where to start again.

What theoretical concepts should I cover to fill my knowledge gaps? Is it a good idea to learn with a teacher?

  • 4
    Learning to play complicated pieces without being taught the theory required to understand how they work is not unusual; most traditional music teaching seems to work this way. (It is probably true that you can't start early enough with playing an instrument, even at an age when most of the theory would go over your head.) When I was a self-taught teenage bedroom musician, I was often surprised that friends who were taking piano or violin lessons didn't know the basics required to put together a simple chord sequence for a pop song. Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 23:57
  • What are your goals this time around? Just get back to playing pieces from score again? Why do you think it is that the gaps in your theory are now noticeable? Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 12:27
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    @topomorto I really want to dive deep into the reasons why I'm playing certain notes, how harmony works, and I also want to develop the ability to sight read. I want to be able to anticipate the following bars in a sheet. I want (of course) to play mid-difficulty pieces again, but that's not my main aim right now. What I want, I guess, is to understand and "feel" more what I'm playing and why pieces are written in determinate ways.
    – user105620
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 12:34
  • Do you have a particular style or period of music in mind? "reasons why I'm playing certain notes" is something that can be very genre-specific. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 12:51
  • @topomorto I mainly play classical music, and that's what I want to play (other than videogames soundtracks). I don't have any specific periods in my mind, but I guess I enjoy classical music coming from the XIX and XX centuries.
    – user105620
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 12:56

4 Answers 4


Lets start with the obvious: you will do better with a teacher than without a teacher. This is for many reasons but two of the main ones are that it will bring structure to your learning and development and you will get regular feedback on how you are progressing.

If you cannot get a teacher then you are going to have to be very disciplined. If you were playing Ravel when you gave up previously then you must have made some progress back then (I can't think of any really easy pieces by Ravel) but that is no longer your starting point.

Start with the basics and move forward only at a pace that does not skip things. Its obvious I know but its amazing how easy it is to move on from a piece when you can play most of it and you intend to "come back to that hard bit later". Usually does not happen.

If you get it right then you will learn about different keys and chords as you progress. If you end up without a teacher then try to get a look at the syllabus from one or more of the music schools (ABRSM for example). Their grade 1 to Grade 8 pieces represent a reasonable line of increasing difficulty and complexity, as do their scale and arpeggio requirements which go alongside them.

You have already recognized that you have some flaws in your approach (you mentioned looking at the keys) so that's a positive. You have recognized an issue which is halfway to fixing it.

Go for it. Good luck.

  • 3
    "its amazing how easy it is to move on from a piece when you can play most of it and you intend to "come back to that hard bit later". Usually does not happen." : this is SO true!
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 12:02

First of all, I recommend not thinking about your age or the "elasticity" of learning now. I got interested in music when I was 14, and in the country where I lived at the time I would not be accepted into anything but percussion, because I was considered too old (and even that came with noticeable displeasure from my teacher).

I had played percussion (drums, kettle drums, xylophone) for 8 years in a folk orchestra (so no classical music or jazz). I was very careless with practising and rarely played outside of the 3 3-hour-long rehearsals per week with the rest of the orchestra. After a few years into university, I completely gave up on music (I didn't have the time to come to the orchestra anymore, and I didn't have much money to eat, let alone purchase a drum set).

I started to play saxophone (tenor), my favourite instrument, just around the age you are now. Most people in my place would've given up on the idea as soon as it arrived in their mind, but I had an almost lifelong passion for the instrument, and having worked for a number of years after finishing university allowed me to buy a professional instrument and enrol into a semester at the local conservatorium.

Because I was older, it was actually much easier for me to follow a practising routine than when I was a teenager who was mainly concerned with getting good grades and staying in touch with their friends. Investing a car's worth of money into a professional-grade instrument was a great incentive to keep on practising too.

As @JimM said, it is a good idea to invest into lessons. If you practise for 25 minutes 2 times a day and see a teacher every week for 3 months, it will pay off much more than you possibly expect now. Just make sure you do not overexert yourself in the beginning, as it can lead to long-term physical damage to your fingers, hands and posture.

When I came back to playing music, I could barely read note sheets. I started with simple pieces (like Mozart's minuets) and had to write note names over the staff to play at all. Now the saxophone is in many ways easier than the piano, so you might have to separately exercise with the treble and bass clefs in the beginning, but do not let it deter from your desire to learn to play the instrument again. You have most likely retained some physical memory from playing it as a child, which will come back to you eventually.

I know it is daunting at first, even financially speaking, but if you love the instrument and truly want to master it, you will succeed. It took me 1.5 years to go through 10 years of school-level saxophone, and I am hardly a genius at music, so I'm certain anyone can repeat my "success".

Please do not forget to research instruments and how to look after them prior to engaging. You will eventually have to get an instrument of your own. If you have a local conservatorium, it might be a good idea to enrol there, they usually offer instruments for hire, so you might be able to get yourself some time to find out whether you want to be bothered with the instrument at all before you fully invest yourself into it.

As for chords and music theory, those concepts come in time as well. If you get a good teacher, you might ask them to help you analyse the compositional techniques behind a particular piece. Most (good) piano teachers mention the concepts of tonality and harmony right off the bat anyway, but it's a good idea to ask for additional information and books. As you get deeper into playing piano and progress to more difficult pieces, you will start noticing patterns yourself. Just give yourself time and do not expect to grasp everything at once.

  • 2
    You mention that "Most (good) piano teachers mention the concepts of tonality and harmony right off the bat anyway" - does that really happen for adult learners? I noticed that none of my childhood piano teachers brought up tonality or harmony until I hit the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) grade range where I had to start taking music theory lessons.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 6:56
  • @Dekkadeci, I guess that depends on country, luck and the teacher in question... When I was learning percussion, my teacher wanted to teach me music theory, but I, in my teenage stupidity, objected as much as I could. I am currently under the tutelage of an American jazz multi-instrumentalist, and he made it apparent straightaway that I need to learn scales and harmony if I want to succeed (I am learning saxophone, however, not piano). He happily shared many exercise and theory books with me as well and dedicated a number of classes to music theory (including piano). That is my experience.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 7:36
  • It's doubtful that a conservatoire would lend/hire out a piano. And without one available, it's a long, long journey.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 9:07
  • @TIm, the one in my city hires out digital ones. Of course, they are old and shabby, but it's a start. They also allow one to use designated practice rooms for 1 hour every day. I am not sure how it is in other countries though.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 9:17
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    Thank you for your reply. Luckily I own a piano so that is not a problem.
    – user105620
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 9:18

Another way to re-start practicing might be one of the many learning apps out there (for Android, iOS etc).

Some of them are quite good at teaching theory and getting you into a nice daily/weekly routine.

Once you get a feel for your available time (and interest) after a few weeks/months, you could move to the next stage and, as @JimM suggests, invest into lessons or a more formal method.

And, most of all, ejoy the journey!

  • If you have experience using one or more of these apps, feel free to edit your answer and go into more detail about what they do, how you used them, what was good or bad about them, and how to select a good app. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 3:25

Depending on whether your initial teacher used a particular method book to teach you from, I'd suggest obtaining that same method book and working through it again. Most of them are pretty focused on what you need to pay attention too, and you might find your training coming back to you as you work through it again. You can do this at your own pace and in addition start studying some basic music theory to help you understand scales, harmony and chords. Once you have a handle on the basics, you might wish to start playing with others. Ask others to come around and work on playing together. It's completely different from playing alone, and the learning curve usually turns dramatically more in the vertical direction. Learn how to develop your skills and try to have fun in the process. Once this is learned you'll probably be on the road to where you want to end up. That's been my experience.

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