As I observe my piano student of all ages learning to play the piano, I’ve noticed that it’s very common to have trouble remembering the names of the white piano keys. Both children and adults can have difficulty remembering which piano key is which.
It’s not that it’s hard to name the white piano keys. Even the youngest students can keep track of A-B-C-D-E-F-G. But rather, when you’re immersed in learning something at the piano, all of the keys start to look the same and it’s easy to mix them up.
(Note: if you’re new the piano and not sure of how the piano keys are set up, they are labeled with letter names A-G. This sequence repeats over and over from left to right, all the way up the piano.)
The most common problems I run across are:
-Mixing up C and F. These 2 keys are the same shape because they are both located to the left of a set of black keys. It’s very common for students to place their hand on an F when they’re really aiming for a C. Most beginning piano music is anchored around C, it’s easy to visually confuse C with F.
-Mixing up G and A. This happens almost daily in my piano studio and it makes sense. These are the 2 keys found in the middle of the group of 3 black keys. It’s easy to flip-flop them. They are also the same shape, so once again, they do look really similar.
-Mixing up G and F. This is slightly less common but it’s still something that I notice frequently. These 2 keys aren’ the same shape, so they don’t necessarily look similar, but maybe as the last 2 letters of the music alphabet, it’s harder to keep track of which goes first. Or, if a student is in tune with the symmetry on the grand staff or on the keys from middle C, it’s obvious that treble F and G mirror bass G and F. I can see why it’s easy to mix these keys up.
Here are my top 5 tricks for helping piano students keep the piano keys straight:
Drill Letter Names
One easy solution is to simply drill the order of the keys forwards and backwards, over and over.
A B C D E F G A B C…
G F E D C B A G F E…
There are a few ways to do this:
-Have the student say the letters out loud, especially as they are learning music where notes fall in consecutive order, either forwards or backwards. Scales and scale-like passages within songs are a good way to practice this. Many beginning piano songs are a series of step-wise notes, so this is a good time to drill letter names.
-Write each letter of the music alphabet on a sheet of paper. Place each paper on the floor in consecutive order and have the student walk from letter to letter saying the names as they go. If you have space, it’s even better to make 2 octaves of the music alphabet so that students can have more experience transitioning from G to A.
Any time you can find a way to incorporate a larger body movement like walking, it will help to reinforce the finer details students are learning at the piano.
-Practice naming the keys all the way up and down the piano. Say the letters with the student. It’s OK if you need to write the sequence down to give a visual cue of the order of the notes, especially when you’re descending.
Learn 5 Finger Scales In Every Key
I make a point to teach my students to play 5-finger scales in every key as soon as possible. As we move from key to key, we always name the notes in both directions while playing the scale. Students become very proficient at finding the correct starting key, then also naming the other keys within the scale.
When students are practicing this over and over, the key names will naturally click and identifying them will become second nature.
Piano Practice Pads
Piano Practice Pads are a really handy tool for studying and learning about the piano away from the piano. Sitting in front of 88 keys can get overwhelming, so sometimes it’s helpful to move away from the piano and give students more space while trying to soak up a concept.
Piano Practice Pads are small plastic 2-octave keyboards. They keys don’t actually move and they don’t make any sound so this makes them perfect tools for learning. When students can turn off the sound, not worry about playing the correct notes and what the music sounds like, they have the freedom to focus on what they are trying to learn.
Students can hold a piano practice pad on their lap or sit with one on the floor. It’s an easy way to practice identifying keys and to keep track of new concepts. Then, when they return to the piano, things are already making much more sense.
Piano Practice Pads are available in the Pianissimo Store.
Iwako Erasers are small erasers puzzles that fit perfectly on piano keys. These are an excellent teaching aid to keep at a piano because there are endless ways to incorporate them into piano lessons.
Here are ways the students can use Iwako Erasers to learn piano keys:
-Practice finding all of the like keys, such as all of the the C’s, all of the G’s, etc.
-Place the erasers on each note of a scale and name the notes of that scale.
-Move the eraser by steps or skips between keys and naming the key that it moves from and to.
Amazon is my favorite place to get Iwako Erasers. I keep a big collection in my studio. My students are always asking to take one home, so I always include an Iwako Eraser as a part of their Christmas gift.
An excellent book to reinforce piano key names is Handy Houses. Handy Houses is a short story that uses images to relate with each key on the piano. It only takes about 5 minutes to read and once a student has read it, they can easily name remember the order of keys on the piano.
I’ve never had a student who couldn’t remember piano keys names after reading Handy Houses. And, many of my students who seemed to have trouble keeping track of the piano keys have immediately improved after reading this story. It is so memorable that students can always refer back to the story when they get mixed up about a note.
Once a student has read Handy Houses, we often uses a paper keyboard to illustrate the Handy Houses on the keys. Then, students easily transition to playing games using Piano Practice Pads and Iwako Erasers. At this point, they love having a chance to find each letter using their Handy Houses tricks they they have just learned.
Teachers, what other tricks do you use to help students keep the piano keys straight?
Parents, have you noticed your child getting confused by the layout of the piano keys? Try some of these tricks at home.