Tools of Learning a Piano Piece: Looking at the Music

Starting to learn a new piece on the piano can seem overwhelming.  We all want the satisfaction of playing a piece in its entirety effortlessly and musically from beginning to end in record time. This is human nature.  The problem is that learning too quickly without going through the necessary steps can produce unreliable and even disastrous results.

There are important stages of mastery and pianists need to be patient with each stage! 





What is the title of the piece?  What mood is the composer hoping to convey? Is the tempo fast, slow, lively with momentum, or more melancholy?  If it is from the classical repertoire, in what period was the piece written:  Baroque,  Classical, Romantic, Contemporary?  Is it a jazz or popular piece?  There are many differences from one style to the next and it is important to understand the many distinctions in interpretation.


Begin by looking at the overall form of the piece.  Is it in three parts with the first and last very similar to each other?  Are there certain sections that repeat exactly?   This basic step can reduce the time of learning a piece. 


The key of the piece is essential information.  This has to do with key signature and whether it is in major or minor.  After determining key signature, the actual key will likely be the very last note of the piece.  In other words, a key signature of 2 flats can be either Bb major or G minor.  If it ends on G, it is likely in G minor. You can also look at the general chord structure to confirm the key.  There can be changes of key within the piece, so it is a good idea to map out the piece and see if there are any accidentals that emerge consistently. That can be an indication of key change.  I like to write the name of the key at the beginning of the piece and at the point of any key change.  It is wise to play the scale or scales representing the key(s) of the piece, plus the primary chords (I, IV and V) before playing a single note of the music.  This will allow you to grasp the tonality in an auditory sense and to process the necessary sharps or flats. 


What is the time signature?  Is it 4/4, 3/4, 6/8?  Does the time signature remain the same throughout the piece?  Determining meter has to do with where the accentuated notes fall.  In other words, a piece in triple meter (usually 3/4) has one accented beat followed by two unaccented beats in every measure.  All waltzes are in 3/4. A piece in 4/4 has one accented beat followed by three unaccented beats. Meter is the driving force that repeats over and over again as the music moves along. By feeling meter, it is far easier to count the beats and grasp the rhythm of the piece.


Often, composers change clefs throughout the piece.  Take a close look for clef changes and circle them. 

There are many other things to observe, but this is a good start!  Look for part two in the next post!