The piano is a beautiful instrument, but how many people do you know who actually play well? You or someone you know likely has some stories about slogging through years of boring lessons. In fact, you probably know plenty of people who “learned” piano at some point in their lives, but have very little to show for it.

I was one of those people.

I used to feel really frustrated about how hard it was to learn new songs, let alone play songs I actually liked. I got the point where after 12 years of trying, I gave up.

But it turns out that I actually really like piano, and I still wanted to play. I just hadn’t found the right approach for my piano learning style and goals. Once I got the right information, it completely changed how I play. Nowadays, I honestly enjoy the piano. That’s because I found what works for me.

How about you?

If you’re reading this post, chances are good that you haven’t figured out the right piano approach to learning piano for you. Maybe you’re a complete beginner, unsure where to start. Maybe you’ve had lessons in the past but they didn’t stick.

Either way, you are in the right place! Let’s go through your options and find the best approach to learning piano for you.

But First …

First things first: Let’s put all the gimmicks aside.

Pianos with keys that light up when you press the right ones. Roll-up keyboards that are basically painted rubber with 20 “keys.” Phone apps that pretend they could ever be a substitute for a real instrument. These are ridiculous, and they’re not going to help you learn piano. I know it, and you know it.

Okay then, what really counts when it comes to the future pianist learning how to play piano? What are the real methods that work? And which one is right for you?

What are Your Goals?

Where to start? Let’s begin by looking at your goals. They are what will define the direction of your journey to how to play the piano.

Take a moment and reflect on what you want out of your piano learning experience. This is important, because different people can have vastly different goals. Do you want to:

  • Learn to play top 40 hits for your own enjoyment
  • Accompany yourself when you sing
  • Play songs of yesteryear for the residents at your local nursing home
  • Have a singalong with your family during the holidays
  • Help lead worship in your church’s music team
  • Share covers of your favorite tunes on social media
  • Add some depth to your band’s sound with piano
  • Serenade your significant other on your wedding day or anniversary
  • Entertain passers-by at public pianos in the train station or airport
  • Add chords to your song lyrics so you can play your own songs
  • Impress YouTube with your classical repertoire
  • Understand Hornbostel-Sachs classification (just kidding, this has nothing to do with playing piano)
  • Play Mozart, Chopin, or Bach for cheering crowds
  • Tour the world with a traveling orchestra

You might resonate with more than one of these potential goals. That’s fine. In fact, everything except those last three options can probably be achieved with similar levels of training.

Okay, so you have some goals in mind. Now let’s think about a few practical considerations.

Logistics and Learning Style

You and I and everyone else out there who’s interested in piano – we’re a diverse bunch. You might be an Ariana Grande super-fan who’s still in high school, or a flight attendant who’s constantly on the go. Or you might be a retiree looking for a new hobby, or an aspiring concert pianist.

Not only that: you might live in an urban area with easy access to music lessons. Or you might be more like Bill, a student who also happens to live on his remote farm in rural Australia.

And that doesn’t even take learning styles into consideration. You may be a strict note-taker who likes to regularly re-read everything you’re learning, or you might be an auditory learner who learns best by listening. You may prefer hands-on experience, or you might learn best by watching others.

Far too often, I see people trying to fit themselves into a structure that doesn’t work for their lifestyle or needs. To avoid this, you need to be your own advocate. If one option doesn’t make sense for you, you should walk away – hopefully before you’ve wasted too much time.

Option No. 1: Traditional Lessons

Let’s address the most widely-known option first. That’s right, traditional lessons. These present an iconic image in our minds of what we expect piano learning to look like. There’s a teacher and a student, usually in one of their homes. There’s sheet music on the music stand, and probably yearly recitals for students to show off what they’re learning. Sound familiar?

Let’s look at some of the logistics involved with this method. If you choose to learn how to play piano this way, you or your teacher will need to make time for regular lessons. Carving out time each week may work well for you if you have a consistent schedule. But it can be challenging if you have a lot of different things going on (or if you’re a spontaneous sort of person).

Since either you or your teacher will be traveling to your weekly lessons, you’ll need to make sure transportation isn’t a problem. Can you get to your lesson, on time, every time? The hour can fly by, so you don’t want to waste it.

If your teacher is the one doing the traveling, you’ll need to have a piano or full-sized keyboard available and in tune. Plus, you’ll probably be paying a bit more in order to cover your teacher’s transportation costs. Which brings us to another important consideration…

Costs and Benefits

Let’s talk about price. Traditional lessons usually don’t come cheap. An average one-hour lesson could cost about $40, depending on your location. Since you’ll need quite a few lessons in order to make progress, you’ll need to consider how this will affect your budget long-term.

The intensive nature of traditional lessons (sight reading, music theory, lots of regular practice) means that it’s not a good fit for everyone. Casual students, or people who don’t need rigorous training, may feel frustrated by this method.

That said, traditional lessons are great – if you want to become a classical musician. In fact, they’re almost always the best option for people who want to become professional pianists. If that’s your goal, traditional piano lessons are what I recommend!

Option No. 2: An Up-and-Coming Trend

You’ve found your way to my website, which means it’s likely that you’re already testing out option No. 2: self-guided learning.

Since the internet has become a part of our everyday lives, it has also become a portal to all sorts of knowledge. We turn to it for just about every other topic, so why not piano? It just makes sense that you would think about using online resources to your advantage.

Let’s think about what you’ll need to do to make this option work for you.

First, you’ll need to work out your own learning structure. Playing piano is dependent on combining knowledge and skills, but you have to start somewhere. Since you’re on your own with this option, you’ll have to take some time to find out exactly what you need to know – then go through it in an order that makes sense for you. At least this way, you’ll have the advantage of a completely flexible schedule. Your progress will all depend on you.

Upsides and Downsides

One of the great things about self-guided learning? You just might be able to learn what you want, for free. There are so many tutorials and articles available these days, and many of them are for free (especially the ones that teach you to mimic another person’s playing).

That said, there are some downsides to being completely in control of your piano learning experience. It’s a lot of responsibility to essentially be both student and teacher. If you have motivation and perseverance, you may get great results. But no one will be checking on your progress or making sure you’re sticking with it. It’s hard to become an online pianist that way!

If you have a nose for research and a love for figuring things out on your own, it is possible to learn to play piano with self-guided learning online. And while your results will depend entirely on you, if you’re on a strict budget this can be a good place to start.

Option No. 3: Chord-Based Playing

Our third option is less commonly known, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for you. Chord-based playing allows you to focus on the nuts and bolts of real songs: notes and chords. While some music is more melody-driven than others, the fact is that most modern is chord-based and can be played without sheet music. Why complicate things if you don’t need to?

To learn to play piano this way, you’ll begin with memorizing the 12 notes that repeat themselves across your keyboard. Then you’ll begin learning the chords themselves. Some people memorize each and every individual piano chord, but in my opinion that’s a lot of unnecessary work! In my own online resources, I teach simple formulas that make it easy to play just about any chord without a lot of extra memorization.

Working on rhythm, chord changes, and improvising comes next. While that can sound intimidating, I’d like to think that my approach keeps the process as streamlined as possible.

The Pros and Cons

The biggest benefit of the chord-based approach is that it is just about the fastest and simplest way to get playing real songs. Traditional lessons take a while before you can play recognizable pieces, let along tunes that you actually like. Self-guided learning may get you to that point sooner, but it’s harder to predict success without a clear system in place.

The only real downside to chord-based playing is that it won’t be a good fit for classical enthusiasts or people who want to become professional pianists. But you can always transition into more advanced training later if you need it. Piano – beginner-style – gives you a lot of options.

Option No. 4 (Sort Of): Ear Training

Ear training appears on this list because many people believe it a complete piano learning option. But the truth is, learning to play by ear usually has to be paired with other forms of training.

What does ear training actually mean? Simply put, it’s a process of developing your listening skills. You’ll need either in-person training or ear-training-specific resources to teach you to identify:

  • Variations in notes (pitch)
  • The intervals between notes
  • Rhythm and patterns
  • Melody lines

Once you can identify the components of different songs, you’ll practice picking them out in sequence on your piano. With some practice, you’ll be able to play what you hear after a bit of experimentation.

Unless you’re the kind of person who can naturally pick out tunes on your own, you need a foundation of either traditional or chord-based playing in order to make real progress in this area. Some students do start with ear training before learning much else, but in my opinion that may be more trouble than it’s worth. I recommend considering ear training only after you already have some basic knowledge and skills on the piano.

A Final Thought

Ultimately, you are a unique person with unique learning needs and goals. If there was only one way of learning piano, you might be in trouble. But you have options, and hopefully by now you’re feeling a bit more confident about which piano-learning approach is the top choice you could make.

When in doubt, starting simple is best. Why not try my free 5-day workbook and see if chord-based playing is the right fit for you?