A piano is indispensible for learning music theory. Piano theory implies the use of the instrument, which in turn implies sound, which of course is what music is all about. However, many music students make the grave mistake of learning music theory on paper only.

Hearing the music first in your mind's ear and then "for real" on the piano (or by singing) is most important when learning music theory. Far too many students end up learning theory only "in theory," on paper, and they rarely learn how the music actually sounds. For them, learning music theory is like solving math problems, whereas it is applied theory that is really most important, since that is what will so greatly facilitate learning the piano.

Applied piano theory also means the ability to play the proper harmonies (chords), with proper voice leading, as fast as you can think them. It's one thing to be able to analyze a I-IV-V-I chord progression in a piece of music, but playing it on the piano, in any key, is another, and much more advanced, musicianship skill.

A further point must be mentioned with regard to piano theory. As I've stated in other articles (see Piano Key Chart), the keys are not the notes. This is a point of enormous confusion for many piano students, since it was never taught to them from the beginning or they try to use "shortcut" methods such as "learning piano by chords." Worse, many teachers are only trained in the very rudiments of music theory themselves (and usually poorly at that), and they inadvertently end up creating this confusion in their students!

Always remember that any key on a piano can in theory play any number of notes, called enharmonic. C, B-sharp, D double flat and A triple sharp all correspond to the key we usually (falsely) refer to as "C"!

Along with listening, this is the most essential point in learning piano theory, and, like listening, it is all too often ignored.

An intimately related point is that so much of listening to music involves psychoacoustic and not purely acoustic phenomena. A chord that sounds consonant in one context may sound very dissonant in another. Further, the same keys on a piano will play, say, both a dominant seventh chord and a German augmented sixth chord. (It's perfectly safe to ignore this technical vocabulary for now; I just wish to give you a revealing example.)

Let's say we're in the key of C major. Listen to the following chord progression:

piano theory ex. 1

Don't worry about the technical details for now, but this is a basic I-IV6-V-I progression in C major. Now listen to the following chord progression:

piano theory ex. 2

These examples start with the same chords, but pay close attention to the third chord in each example. Don't worry if you can't read the notes just yet (though be sure to Learn to Read Music); here's what's important: The same keys are played on the piano, but they're not the same notes. In the first example, the top note of the third chord is an F (highlighted blue in the example), while it's an E-sharp in the second example. On the piano they sound exactly the same (since they're played using the same key), yet they seem to sound totally different, depending on the key in which you're playing! (Beginners should not be confused by the duplicate use of the word "key" in the English language as it relates to music: Piano "keys" are the buttons we press on a piano, while works of tonal music will be in the "key" of C major, G-sharp minor, etc.)

In the first example, the third chord is a dominant seventh. The E-sharp in the second example, however, makes it something totally different, namely a German augmented sixth... even though they sound the same. (Again, don't worry about chord names for now, as augmented sixth chords are quite advanced music theory material. Also, for purposes of voice leading I slightly changed the "spelling" of the second and third chords, but that doesn't affect the harmony.) What's interesting is that the E-sharp is a surprising harmonic twist that leads from the expected C major, all the way to B major, a very remote key!

This is the reason why you must not rely solely on the piano keyboard when learning music theory. Piano theory needs to be informed by reading music; otherwise you're merely learning which keys to press, not the actual notes. Your goal should be to become a musician, not a sort of trained monkey. I'm sure monkeys can be trained to type, but if they have no idea that they're typing words and that those words have meanings, then this activity won't be especially meaningful. It may put on a superficial show for spectators, but discerning ears will know there's nothing behind it.

By way of analogy, learning "piano by chords" (which more often than not involves merely pressing the right keys yet not understanding the actual notes behind them) would be like a surgeon just learning to go through the motions and making incisions here and there, yet never bothering to learn how the actual systems of the body work and how they're put together. Would you entrust your life to such an untrained surgeon?

Obviously, there's nothing life-threatening about learning piano (at least not until you get to the more advanced stages, like Carnegie Hall). The essential point, in any case, is that learning piano theory must not only involve but also integrate all aspects of musicianship. I wish you much success in your work.


Piano Theory Lessons

    Bach's Ornaments
    Question: Great Web Site! I am studying the Bach B Minor Invention BWV 786. In the Explication, the manner of execution of the trill is very clear, and yet...
    Bottom Keys of the Piano
    Question: What are the bottom notes of the piano? Albert's reply: Assuming you're using a standard full-sized, 88-key piano, the bottom key plays A.
    Chord Inversions
    Chord inversions are 'spellings' of a chord with a note other than the fundamental in the bass. Let's take a simple example:
    Circle of Fifths
    The Circle of Fifths depicts all key signatures in order of increasing sharps and flats:
    Common Chord Progressions
    This lesson will introduce you to the most common chord progressions, so widely used that they can be found in virtually every piece of tonal music...
    Difference Between Motives and Phrases
    Question: Hi Albert, Would you be so kind as to help me get clear on the meaning of 'motive'? Also can you differentiate a 'motive' from a 'phrase'? I want...
    Difference Between Pitches and Notes
    Question: What are the two pitches in music called? Albert's reply: There aren't just two pitches in music, there are as many pitches as there are colors.
    Distinguishing Minor from Major
    Question: How can I distinguish minor from major pitches? Albert's reply: Major and minor aren't properties of single notes or pitches but rather of groups...
    Double Expositions
    Question: Hello Albert, My question today is: Where did the idea of double expositions in piano concertos come from and how did it affect later compositions?
    Fugue Analysis
    Question: I'm starting to learn Bach's Fugue in D major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I've read your extremely useful article, How to Learn a...
    How Much Music Theory?
    Question: How much theory is important when learning to play the piano? What's most important to know? Albert's reply: This is a critical question for all...
    How to Harmonize a Melody
    Question: Hey Albert, I am glad to hear of your success at the TED convention. My two-part question is one that may sound odd but 'How can I be sure what...
    How to Play a Piano Scale
    Piano scales are one of the biggest stumbling blocks for most piano students. In this lesson, you'll learn how to build any major scale at the piano;...
    How to Practice the "Moonlight" Sonata
    Question: Albert, I am very impressed with this website. It is sure to help many people as it has helped myself. I am going to be playing the 'Moonlight'...
    How to Tell the Key of a Song
    Question: Hello Albert, Many years ago, I was taught that by looking at the last note or notes of a piece of music, one could tell what key it is in, that is...
    Key Signature Chart
    This Key Signature Chart is designed to help you learn all the key signatures easily. It's written with increasing sharps and flats.
    Key Signatures and Accidentals
    Question: I am currently working on naming the keys of melodies with accidentals, then re-writing them with key signatures. How can I go about doing this? I...
    Key Signatures
    Key signatures are designed to simplify music notation by indicating the key. Without them, composers would be forced to write accidentals (sharps and flats)...
    Key vs Scale Intervals: Which to Learn?
    Question: I was about to memorize the number and types of intervals in the scales. Then I noticed this distinction between keys and scales.
    Learning Music Theory in Lessons
    Question: I am 67 years old and returned to piano less than a year ago. My teacher is a world class pianist who doesn't have much time for me. But then too I...
    Major and Minor Chords
    Question: How do I determine the difference between major and minor chords? Albert's reply: Major and minor chords are both triads. A triad consists of three...
    Major and Minor Keys
    Question: This may be very basic, but could give me a broad overview of major and minor keys and scales? My real question is, for every major there is a...
    Major Scales for Piano
    Here are all the major scales for piano, with all proper fingerings, for free download! Simply right-click the download icons or links and select 'Save' to...
    Melody Writing
    Question: What is the definition of the following? 1. Tendency tone 2. Stable tone 3. Active tone Albert's reply: These are harmonic terms having...
    Memorizing the Keys in Sheet Music
    Question: I've often read that to play the piano properly, you must be proficient in key identification (knowing what the key is, based on the number of...
    Memorizing the Keys
    Question: Hi Albert, I'm finding it nearly impossible to memorize the keys. (Which key has 5 sharps, which key has 4 flats, etc.) It may not help that I'm...
    Metric Accents
    Question: Hi, I just wanted to ask some short questions: 1. Explain the following time signatures and tell where the accents fall in each: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4.
    Minor Chords in the Major Scale
    Question: Hey, good day to you. I'm a bit confused when it comes to chords/chord progressions. The thing is if I'm in a scale, let's say G major, I would...
    Music Modes
    Why does a piano keyboard look the way it does? The answer has to do with music modes. The modes are types of scales. A scale is simply a specified sequence...
    Music Theory Intervals
    Question: I have a question about intervals. My assignment is to write the full name of each interval: I'm very confused. Can you help me?
    Music Theory Through Piano
    Question: My idea of teaching music theory through piano was always burning in my mind... at last I think I found the right place to learn more.
    Names of Piano Keys
    Question: Hi Albert, I'm just beginning to play. Is there such a thing as a paper/cardboard thing you put on the keyboard with the notes on it?
    Natural, Harmonic and Melodic Minor
    Question: Which minor scale... natural, harmonic, or melodic, should I be practicing on when playing the major scale, then to its relative minor scale?
    Piano Key Chart
    If you're just learning to find notes on the piano keyboard, this basic piano key chart is designed for you. The chart includes naturals (C, D, E, F, G, A, B),...
    Piano Notes Chart
    This simple piano notes chart is designed to help beginners find their way around the piano keyboard. If you're just getting familiar with the piano keyboard,...
    Piano Theory Book
    Question: Hello Albert, About theory, what book would you suggest to purchase please? I need a book which will carry me through to the highest level. Most...
    Piano Theory Courses
    Question: Is there a book or a course for sale because I'm guessing the free lessons are probably very basic and don't cover everything mentioned above.
    Piano Theory
    A piano is indispensible for learning music theory. Piano theory implies the use of the instrument, which in turn implies sound, which of course is what...
    Playing in Different Keys
    Question: Hi, I am wondering how to get better at playing pieces in different keys. Different keys have different chords, which have different fingerings....
    Sharps and Flats
    Question: How do you know if a note is a sharp? When the sharp sign (#) is next to the G clef and F clef, how do I know what notes in the music piece are...
    Sonata Form and Symphonic Form
    Question: Some time ago, I read your interesting article about 'Sonata Form' simplified. What's the relationship between sonata and symphony, both regarding...
    Sonata Form
    From the Italian sonare meaning simply 'to sound, ' the sonata has undergone enough changes throughout music history to fill several encyclopedic volumes, as...
    Sonatas and Sonata Form
    Question: I am confused about sonatas. I've read that sonata is a single-movement piece, but others say that it has several movements... or was it only a...
    The Major Scale
    Question: These are the questions that my music teacher asked me and I didn't quite know what he was trying to tell me. Here are the questions:
    Tonic in Music
    Question: What's a tonic? Albert's reply: The tonic is the first note of any scale. If the key is C major, then C is the tonic. If you're in A-flat major,...
    Transposing Music
    Question: Hello Albert. Thanks a lot for putting together this helpful website. My question regards transposing music. Would you say it is best to memorize a...
    Transposing Scales
    Question: I was wondering how to transpose C major into the key of F major, on scales. Albert's reply: Scales are the way to transpose! You have to make sure...
    Transposing to C Major
    Question: How can I transpose a hymn in any key into the key of C? My friend plays the organ by ear and can only play in the key of C, so I need to know how...
    What Is Music Theory?
    Question: I had been formally trained in piano quite a long ago for a short duration of time. I have not been so much in touch with it since then, but I have...
    Which Chords Do You Really Need to Know?
    Question: Hi Albert, What are the chords that I really, really need to know as an intermediate piano player? Here's my guess: Major, minor, diminished, ...

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