The Piano Keyboard

Why It Isn’t Just For Piano Players

So, you’re probably wondering, what does the piano keyboard have to do with music theory? After all, you obviously don’t have to know how to play every instrument to learn music theory. So what’s so special about the piano?

Well, I’ll tell ya. The piano keyboard can actually be a powerful tool you can use to help kick your musical knowledge up a notch! There’s so much information to learn about music, all kinds of scales, chords, voicings, intervals, etc. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was some way to organize it all easily and efficiently in your brain?

That’s where the piano keyboard comes in.

Seeing Is Believing

If you’ve ever found it difficult to memorize things like chords, scales, and musical patterns, you’ll be glad to know – there’s a better way! We can use the piano keyboard instead to learn to see the building blocks of music, visually. (And yes, I’m aware I just said, “to see visually” :).

After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Once you can see the music on the piano keyboard, you’ll be able to instantly access the info in a flash. Much more efficient!

The cool part is – you don’t need to actually get good at playing piano in order to take advantage of what the keyboard has to offer. It’s simply one of the best ways to understand some pretty major parts of music theory. And it doesn’t matter what instrument you play, or even if you don’t play any instrument at all.

To sum it up, knowing your way around the piano keyboard will…

  • Give you a way to get specific about your music even if you don’t read any music
  • Enable you to visualize music in your head (which will help toward the real goal of being able to hear music spontaneously and know exactly what’s going on)
  • Help you organize information like chords and scales with much less effort
  • Help you make your own outstanding cappuccinos and lattes from the comfort of your own home (OK, maybe not that last one…)

You don’t need to actually get good at playing piano in order to take advantage of what the keyboard has to offer.

The Piano Keyboard: A Calculator For Music

You know that math teacher you liked, because they always let you use a calculator on tests?

Well, you can sort of think of the piano keyboard as a giant calculator for music. Once you know your way around, you can figure out any chord, scale, melody or voicing, and measure any interval, in a precise way. No other instrument comes close to giving us this kind of visual guide to music.

The piano is used almost universally as a music tool for songwriting, composing, teaching, arranging – you name it. It’s probably more famous for its role as one of the most important instruments in most genres of music, including pop, classical, jazz, rock, etc., but the piano has a whole other side to it – kind of a like the piano’s side-job.

Music schools are usually filled with pianos. Many professional musicians either have one, or use one often, even if their main instrument is something else. And composers always seem to be pictured sitting next to a piano (although that might just be because it looks so good :).

So, What Makes The Piano So Special Anyway?

I’m glad you asked. Well, the piano actually has a bunch of features that are important for music theory:

1. Huge Range

The piano has a massive span of notes, from super-low bass notes all the way up to tinny high notes, and everything in between.

In fact, the range of the piano covers the range of almost every instrument known to man, from the low double bass to the piccolo. Because of this, almost any note on any instrument can be represented by a note on the piano.

2. Sound Quality

We’re so familiar with the sound of a piano that it seems somehow like a sort of musical “default” sound. Its pure, clear, sort of neutral tone helps us focus right in on the musical notes. This makes it perfect for composing music, analyzing music, figuring out harmonies, and more.

3. Many Notes At Once

Another big advantage the piano has is its ability to play many notes at the same time (up to about 8 using two hands, or even much more by using the piano’s sustain pedal). Most other instruments can only play one or a few notes together.

This makes the piano a great choice for figuring out the right chords to your tune. or even playing entire compositions with multiple parts.

4. Easy For Beginners

It’s also a pretty easy instrument to start out playing. It doesn’t hurt to play, unlike guitar and many other instruments. The technique to produce sound is also pretty simple – it’s just a matter of pushing down the keys with your fingers. Even a cat can do it.

With some instruments, it can take weeks or months of practice just to get a good sound out of them!

5. Unique Keyboard Design

These other features are great, but there’s one part of the piano that really sets it apart: the keys are laid out in the most musical way of any instrument.

Most instruments were designed for the purpose of making them as easy to play as possible. Very little attention was paid to making it easy to tell which note is which, or pretty much anything to help us organize musical ideas.

For example, the keys (buttons) on a saxophone are totally out of order. They’re designed simply to make the instrument easier to play. At the same time, there’s no connection between how the keys are arranged and how we hear music. And the same goes for most other instruments.

The piano, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Its keyboard is designed in a way that really helps us connect what we play to what we hear.

Side-by-side comparison of a piano keyboard and a guitar fretboard

Piano Keyboard vs. Guitar Fretboard

Check out the difference between a piano keyboard and a guitar fretboard in the image above:

Notice how the piano has a special arrangement of white and black keys across the keyboard? That’s what makes the piano such a visual instrument.

Compare that with the guitar fretboard. See how all the notes basically look exactly the same? (Those dots on the fretboard are pretty much the only visual guide on a guitar. They offer a little help in getting around, but that’s about it.)

On a guitar, you pretty much have to memorize which note is which; there’s no other way around it. That’s assuming, of course, that you want more control over your music, and actually know what notes you’re playing – which is a really good idea!

To make things even more complicated, almost every note on a guitar can be played in multiple positions along the fretboard. Translation: the same exact note can be played in many different places on the guitar. So for example, the lowest D note on a guitar can be played on: the tenth fret of the E string, the 5th fret of the A string, or the open D string. On a piano, in contrast, each note is found in exactly one place along the keyboard. This makes it much more suitable for learning music theory.

Other Reasons To Master The Piano Keyboard

No matter what instrument you play (or want to play), a solid understanding of the keyboard is a great foundation, one that’s going to definitely speed up the learning process.

But there are other great reasons to learn your way around the keyboard. If you’re interested in learning any sort of keyboard instrument, you can obviously benefit from taking the time to understand the keyboard better.

Some of these include: synthesizer, Hammond organ, electric piano, celesta, accordion, and harpsichord (if your jam is the Baroque period), but there are tons more as well.

Many melodic percussion instruments, like marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, also have their notes arranged in the layout of a piano.

A midi controller hooked up to a Moog synth module
A girl's hands playing a synthesizer keyboard
man sitting in his room with a modern music recording setup, with a contemplative look on his face
A vibraphone being played during a live performance

Nowadays, there are even more reasons to know your way around the keyboard.

For example, digital audio workstation (DAW) software programs (like Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, etc.) allow you to make music on a computer with a MIDI sequencer using samples, loops, and virtual instruments.

Even entire film scores can be (and sometimes are) done completely using computer software nowadays!

These software programs always have some kind of “piano roll” editor to create and edit MIDI. A piano roll editor has a keyboard represented on its side, and you can draw in or edit notes with your mouse.

So obviously, if you know your piano keyboard you’ll have a much easier time doing this type of thing.

Bottom line: It’s totally worth learning!! And if you follow me, you’re actually going to be surprised how easy it is.

Ready to Rock and Roll

If you have an actual piano or synth/keyboard to follow along with as you go through this section, fantastic. If you don’t have one, don’t fret! There are tons of free piano apps for Apple and Android devices, etc. and any should work just fine. (The simpler, the better – try to look for an app that just has an on-screen piano you can play.) Just find one that works for you, and you’ll be all set.

So if you’re ready to stop taping the note names to the piano keys…

Grab a nice coffee, fasten your safety belt and check out the next lesson!