It's been almost 4 years since I had too much time on my hands while living in student dorms so I decided to learn to play the piano.

I always loved listening to classical and suddenly listening wasn't enough so I decided to start playing. I had really A LOT of free time, so I'd often sit for 8 hours straight without getting tired and couldn't wait to pick up where I left off the next day. Maybe it wasn't quite the smartest thing to do, but I started with a Chopin prelude (4th, the simplest) and raised the bar from there. In my defense, I never had delusions of concert-level mastery (I was 24 back then), just wanted to have some fun with my favourite pieces. It toook me months to pick up a new one but I didn't mind, the reward of a few bars of something I really loved was enough.

As time went, I got a little better. Having had little in the way of musical education (some recorder in primary school which I enjoyed a lot), I relied on occasional bits of insight from my roommate who was a fairly good musician (accordion, also decent on piano), the rest I picked up from books and Wikipedia. I learned the Raindrop prelude by Chopin, some time after that the Military polonaise, got even as far as the op10no12 (revolutionary) etude. Sometimes I gathered the courage to play at some venue and it gave me great pleasure when I'd get claps and occasional praise from more seasoned pianists, but not as much as I had from the knowledge that I knew how to play my favourite pieces and even play around with them a little (tempo, expression etc.).

Then things started to get complicated. I had about 20 pieces in my modest repertoire when realized I couldn't play the 4th prelude anymore, so I worked to get it back together. Then I developed problems with parts of other pieces I thought I knew. Everything started falling apart. Suddenly I realized I was just a trained monkey who learned how to type the works of Shakespeare without knowing language. I still don't know how I really remembered those pieces. It can't all be muscle/visual memory, can it? On the recorder, it was simple to play things by ear and my friend said I'd eventually 'get it' on the piano so I patiently kept playing and waited. Then I got really depressed and stopped playing for about two months. Every now and then I'd sit and try to play a Bach variation or something else, but I'd just get in despair at how it'd break apart. All the joy was gone.

I tried to begin anew, but this time simpler. I would listen to some simple pop music I liked and try to play it (sometimes with the help of chords from the net). I was determined to make it work, but after a two weeks' break, I can't remember how to play those pieces either. I wish I could just sit and play something I hear clearly in my head, but I just can't. Any advice on how to make this happen?

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    Started playing the piano with a Chopin prelude? Sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, sorry; no offense. There's little doubt it can be good for your musical education in general, let alone technique. Talk about jumping into the deep end...
    – Noldorin
    May 25, 2011 at 1:42
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    Nice writing. Have you considered that your level may not have gone down, only you are more picky with what you hear? Your expectations might go up faster that your playing level?
    – Gauthier
    May 25, 2011 at 8:20
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    I'm sure I'm more picky, and I sure hope I hear more than I used to, but the problem isn't that I don't like what I hear and it makes me go nuts, only that I don't remember pieces as musical patterns, but (I suspect) rather as quite arbitrary movements of the hands and if I slip in the middle, I have trouble recalling what comes next and while I'm practicing a new piece, I keep forgetting old ones. I know some theory but it's quite detached from the music for me at this time. I want to learn how to connect those... May 25, 2011 at 11:14
  • This question is, despite being somewhat vague, one of the best questions I've seen here despite all that. Very well written, @neuviemeporte! Do you have a blog or something? May 26, 2011 at 4:11
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    please consider replacing the title 'How do I begin finally making music on the piano?' with something that summarizes 'I wish I could just sit and play something I hear clearly in my head, but I just can't. Any advice on how to make this happen?'. Thanks.
    – user1217
    Sep 19, 2011 at 9:02

2 Answers 2


I'd advise you to sit down and improvise and play tunes that you know by ear, so that you can really build associations in your mind between what your fingers do and what you hear. Studying theory is helpful, but you're going to have to start connecting it to what you do and hear in real time (like learning to think in a foreign language instead of just translating it to your native language).

For example, you could try to pick a key and play the melody of "Jingle Bells" in that key, then go on to accompany it with chords. Or you could find a chord progression, play it and improvise a melody that goes with it.

  • Could you define the narrowest spectrum of theory that would be necessary to start doing this? I'm not sure I have everything needed because I don't know how to select appropriate chords for accompaniament other than trial-and-error. May 26, 2011 at 11:37
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    @neuviemeporte - I think that would make an excellent question on its own. :)
    – rshallit
    May 26, 2011 at 13:42
  • I don't know how relevant it is to your kind of music, but you might try reading jazzadvice.com to get a different pespective on learning to play. May 27, 2011 at 5:51
  • challenge accepted ;) I guess that's what I get for asking a vague question. :-^ I'd be grateful if you answered music.stackexchange.com/questions/3010/… Jun 4, 2011 at 19:29
  • @neuviemeporte - Unfortunately, I don't really know how to tell you how to do this. I remember following the process I described when I was a child, but I had perfect pitch and was surrounded by classical music, so I "just did it." Sorry I can't be of more help.
    – rshallit
    Jun 4, 2011 at 21:28

"I wish I could just sit and play something I hear clearly in my head, but I just can't. Any advice on how to make this happen?"

1) Learn to think in relative pitch by singing what you already know (or trying to learn*) in solfeggio. Detailed instruction on how to begin doing solfeggio by Gunharth Randolf starts with an explanation which addresses your feeling of "suddenly I realized I was just a trained monkey who learned how to type the works of Shakespeare without knowing language": Gunharth said, "Relative Pitch means that you are able to identify relationships between notes and chords in a theoretical and musical way ... If you think about harmony we are using a similar approach by giving arabic numbers to intervals and roman numerals to chords. Solfege is just an aural version of this system." By memorizing entire songs this way, you need not doubt if "It can't all be muscle/visual memory, can it?" any more.

Wikipedia's entry on Solfeggio has detailed instruction on what to do when the piece is in a minor key, and I find memorizing songs in minor using both ways to be very very helpful. I disagree with it as to what to do when the piece modulates to another key. For example, if a piece begins in C major then modulates to G major, I would sing the section in G major using 'So' 'La' 'Ti' 'Do' 'Re' 'Mi' 'Fi' 'So' (singing G as 'So', F# as 'Fi', E as 'Mi', etc) until it modulates back to C major (in which F is simply 'Fa'). If a piece begins in G major then modulates to C major, I would sing the G major section using 'Do' 'Re' 'Mi' 'Fa' 'So' 'La' 'Ti' 'Do' (i.e. G as 'Do') and then the section in C major using 'Fa' 'So' 'La' 'Te' 'Do' 'Re' 'Mi' 'Fa' (i.e. G as Do, F natural as 'Te' ... C as Fa etc.). Basically, I move my movable 'Do' to what key signature in the score indicates, and then sing the accidentals as they appear on the score, instead of trying to move my 'Do' every time I sense a modulation happening. At first this is more difficult, but later this pays off handsomely by allowing me to remember better how music modulates between keys.

2) Apply the skills you have acquired in 1) by trying to play the songs you have memorized in solfeggio without the score on piano (just the melody at first). Before you begin, do this little trick to reinforce what is learned in step 1): Identify the key and the scale used in the piece you want to play this way. Put little stickers labelled with 'Do' 'Re' 'Mi' 'Fa' 'So' 'La' 'Ti' covering the scale identified on your piano. To cover the entire range used by the piece, you may need more than 7 stickers; just use as many as you need (but use at most 7 per octave: this helps to visualize different scales on piano). Although this may seem silly to you now, when you actually do it, it will make a lot of sense. Do try. Singing and playing at the same time may help too.

3) Move the stickers to other keys (e.g. if the orginal song is in F minor, try B minor), covering the keyboard differently, and try the song again. This is a true test of you ability to think in relative pitch. If you can pass the test, try doing it again without the stickers. If you view this as a challenge, playing the same song again and again in different keys can actually be a lot of fun! When you are okay with doing that with your right hand, try working on your left hand using material from Collections of solfeggi copied in the early nineteenth century, which "sometimes begin with elementary exercises of simple intervals in long note values. Presumably those exercises, often titled Scale e Salti (Scales and Leaps) were intended for rank beginners. Other collections from that period continue the progression of mechanical pattern-based exercises to a level of great difficulty."

(*) you know pieces by Chopin but i would suggest you NOT to start with those because they have complex modulations in harmony and chromaticisms in melody which makes them harder to learn in solfeggio at first. perhaps start learning solfeggio with some material that has a more diatonic melody with simple or no modulations, then when you are secure with those, try more chromatic materials.

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