Self-teach yourself the piano - here's how!

by Elke Galvin September 23, 2022 • 12 minute read
Can you teach yourself to play the piano? We say yes. Read on to find out how to make it work.
Hands on a piano
Teaching yourself to play an instrument is possible, yes, but we'll be upfront about what you need to pay attention to. It isn't suited for everyone, and it isn't ideal for every instrument. Read on to find out whether you & self-teaching are a good match, whether the piano is a good instrument to learn by yourself, how to organize your studies, and which tools to use to help you enjoy the experience. We'll even share why we think it can be a smart thing to self-learn the piano if you keep a few things in mind.
✨ Unlock Your Piano Power!
Subscribe to 'All Things Piano' by OKTAV.
You get a fascinating chord poster + exclusive content!

Do you have what it takes to teach yourself the piano?

Let's be honest - learning an instrument all by yourself is not the easiest road to travel.

  • You have to have a certain attitude toward your instrument, learning, and music.
  • You'll have to make time for it.
  • You will have to have realistic expectations and a certain determination.
  • You have to have the ability to structure and supervise your learning, and
  • You have to find all the learning resources you need by yourself.

Sound scary? Ask yourself the following questions, and let's explore how to best tackle each aspect.

Do you love your instrument?

You've got to feel attracted to your instrument. This may sound weird, but if you don't feel drawn to any piano that comes into view, if you can't see yourself longing to touch the black and white keys, if you aren't prepared to share your living quarters with a rather bulky roommate, then don't bother starting. If your great-aunt left you her upright acoustic piano, but you secretly dream of playing the electric bass, do yourself a favor: Sell the piano, buy the bass, and don't forget a decent amp, too. But if you can look us straight into the eye and unflinchingly answer: "I do" then read on.

Have you learned to learn?

This might sound strange, but your previous learning experiences really are determining factors for successful self-teaching. This is why we would not recommend self-teaching to a child. It has not developed any strategic learning skills and techniques yet. It won't know that you'll have to work on unpleasant, difficult bits to resolve and master them. This has got nothing to do with talent or intelligence, but with experience. A talented and/or intelligent child will still need a teacher. Adults know things like preparing a beneficial learning environment, structuring learning material, sticking to a schedule, measuring success, and setting realistic small goals. If you don't it's probably best to either get a teacher or read up on those skills before starting to self-teach yourself anything. If you do, read on.

Do you love music?

What a stupid question, you might think. Obviously, you do, or else you would not even read this. But do you love music enough to sit down and listen to new pieces to choose what you want to learn and what you don't want to learn? Do you love music enough to learn more about how it is built, how chords and scales are constructed, and how basslines are created? Do you love music enough to care to learn sight-reading? If your love of music is not THAT strong and you prefer to appreciate it in a less industrious and more leisurely way, fine. But don't aim to teach yourself the piano. Get a teacher who helps you appreciate the finer aspects of music theory, who kicks your ass to improve your sight-reading, and who chooses your repertoire for you. If, however, you say: "No, I love music and want to do and learn more!" then read on.

Do you have the time?

You can answer "yes" to all of the previous questions and still not be an ideal candidate for self-studying an instrument: If you are at a stage in your life when you don't have time for it. This can be the case, even if you have the best intentions: If you care for a newborn or a sickly relative, if you start a demanding new job or need to travel a lot, or are in the middle of your final exams you might have no choice but to prioritize other things. Be honest to yourself about how much time you can really make, and be realistic. 15 minutes, daily, are a good starting point. Half an hour every other day is doable. If you are very busy you might want to consider help with finding new sheet music suitable for your level, to use the little time you have for practice. But if you can make time to play the piano, read on.

Are your expectations realistic?

If you self-teach as an adult, chances are you won't enter a professional career as a concert pianist. And your progress will likely be slower than if you hired a teacher or tutor. You will also have to deal with frustrations and hard parts on your own. And if you would like to eventually perform for an audience, you will have to organize it yourself. Are you okay with that? If not, go hire a teacher or tutor, or apply at a music school. If you are, read on.

Are you determined to persevere?

There is nothing wrong with trying a new hobby every few months. But if this sounds like something you like to do, we recommend NOT starting to play the piano. A piano does cost a few bucks, and it does take up space in your living quarters, and if you stop playing in a few months chances are you will either have to endure a feeling of guilt every time you walk past it, or you'll have to sell it and might lose money. We recommend tinier, cheaper options like the recorder, the tin whistle, or the ukulele, all of which can be shelved easily once you lose interest, and they cost a fraction of the price of a piano. Or you could also take up running - if you stop doing that you'll at least be able to walk around in a pair of new trainers. But if you are the stubborn, persistent "once I got something in my head I will make it happen and stick to it"-type, read on.

Do you have the ability to structure and supervise your own learning?

So you have the time, determination, et cetera - but are you able to organize it in a practical manner? Or do you just sit down every day and play whatever strikes your fancy? It is fine to play whatever strikes your fancy, but if you really want to improve your playing over time, you should implement a minimum of structure into your "lesson". It could look like this:

  • Start with warming up finger exercises.
  • Do a few scales.
  • Tackle a hard passage.
  • Play something you enjoy.
  • Record a piece you can play well to make it "officially" part of your repertoire.

Can you source what you need to self-learn?

You will need sheet music, and more sheet music. You will perhaps want to work through a method book. You will have to decide what to play next. This is the "teacher" part of teaching yourself. If you are best buddies with someone from your local sheet music shop you might have it easy as you can ask them for recommendations. If you have to do it all by yourself, you will spend a considerable amount of time listening to Youtube videos and researching sheet music. Or you can use a sheet music service that helps you make this part of the self-learning experience a pleasant one.

hands playing keyboard

Is the piano a good instrument for self-study?

It is. In fact, it is the perfect instrument for self-study, and here's why:

  • The keys are logically arranged - from low to high notes - in a pretty self-repeating pattern of black and white. Trumpet players can only dream of that. And to produce a sound, simply press any key. This makes most other musicians envy us!
  • Posture is another no-brainer when it comes to the piano (at least when you're a hobby musician). You can't go too wrong - compared to the violin, for example.
  • And you don't have to tune the piano. If you play a digital one, you don't ever have to tune it at all, and if you play an acoustic piano, treat it kindly and it will require tuning about once a year - and someone else will do it for you. Think of how much more net time you have to play compared to guitarists who have to start each practice session tuning their instrument.
  • It is painless. Unless it falls on your foot, a piano will not cause you physical pain. Compare this to the raw fingertips guitarists or violinists have to endure until they toughen up, or to sore, swollen lips that brass players suffer from when they overindulge.
Various instruments hanging on a wall

Teach yourself the piano - this is how you make it work!

Find role models to keep motivated

Whose music makes you long for your piano? Whose music makes your heart melt? If you can answer that, you have given your taste in music a lot of thought - which is necessary if there's no teacher telling you what to listen to. Even if you can't play your hero/heroine's music when you're starting out, you'll get there. Choose your first easy piece from them as one of the landmarks of your learning experience. Once you are a bit further along the way you are bound to find other artists whose music excites you - it is a beautiful journey that can last a lifetime!

Give yourself space to exercise

And we mean both physical and mental space! The time you spend practicing the piano belongs only to you! Playing an instrument is about switching off the rest of the world and fully indulging in the music. Aim to feel the flow even when you practice! It's not about being able to play a certain piece, it's about enjoying getting there.

As to the physical space, wherever you practice, make sure the place oozes "me-time"-vibes. Make the place where your piano resides as inviting as possible (no dirty laundry on top of it!) And, of course, make sure you're not easily distracted there, and that it's okay to make some noise (or wear headphones), because nothing is more annoying than feeling like you have to hold back with your playing because grandpa downstairs will be grumpy or the neighbors will write another nasty letter of complaint to the landlord. The hallway of a shared condo is probably not the best place to have it set up, either, with people coming and going. Ideally, you will have lovely neighbors and an approving grandpa as well as a well-lit but quiet place to really let your music flow.

Your piano learning toolbox

So you think you need only two healthy hands (and one foot) to play the piano? Wrong. Get a metronome, sheet music (and a tablet, or a folder for storage), and a pencil. A Bluetooth pageturner might be useful if you use a digital sheet music device that does not offer Autoscroll. You might also want to prepare some device to record yourself with.

Someone playing a piano looking at their mobile

Teaching yourself the piano improves your quality of life

You discover more music and understand it more deeply

Once you dive into it, playing music will let you discover more music, and will let it experience it in more depth. There are studies that musicians' brains work differently when listening to music compared to non-musicians. Musicians use more of their brains to analyze the piece they are hearing while hearing it. Fascinating, isn't it? Now, if you have a piano teacher you will certainly discover more music, too. But there is an added element of adventure if you discover music by a new artist all by yourself.

You get used to achieving your aims in a self-reliant manner

Hats off to anyone who has taught themselves to read sheet music and play the piano! Being an adult, you know that you need to work systematically to acquire the knowledge and skill you need. The skills you acquire when self-teaching are certainly not going to only apply to playing the piano - you will discover you have become more self-structured and self-reliant in general life!

You train your brain

Learning an instrument is like taking your vitamins: It is beneficial for you, and you want to make use of that. Over time, as you train your brain it will connect and synchronize various regions - this happens at any age - and as we know from sports, training keeps you fit and healthy. That's what you want for your brain!

a floating brain

Why teaching yourself the piano is worth it

Thy will be done

  • If you want to concentrate on playing Jazz, Blues, or Boogie-Woogie then that's what happens.
  • Do you want to sing your favorite hit songs and accompany yourself on the piano? Go for it!
  • No Classical music for you, thank you very much. Then it is completely within your power to skip all Classical music. Indulge yourself!

You dictate the tempo

You are extremely busy right now? Your children keep you up, and you can't even remember the last time you got a full night's sleep? But you know that in a few weeks things will have calmed down and that, in time, you'll have time for your piano again? The beauty of teaching yourself is you don't have to have a bad conscience when taking a break. Except if the reason is pure laziness, but even then it's your own business.

You control the cash

It is not cheap to learn the piano: Costs for the instrument, lessons, travel to and from class, and costs for sheet music. If you self-teach you control all the costs. The most cost-effective option: A good used piano, Youtube tutorials, and a digital sheet music subscription (no additional costs).

Elke Galvin
Elke Galvin is a British-Austrian singer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. She has worked both as a musician and journalist for over 25 years. Not only is she an acclaimed songwriter, she loves to write about music, too! Making music theory easy to understand is her passion, as is writing about music styles, music and the brain, and how to have fun learning and playing music.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the biggest obstacle when self-learning the piano?
    Lack of a plan. You are your own piano coach now, and this requires more defining and planning your goals than if you had a teacher. Make a realistic plan that contains reachable milestones, and follow it. It is better to practice for frequent, short periods of time than rarely, but for long sessions.
  • Where can I get help when self-learning?
    The web is your best friend. Search for video tutorials, music theory blogs, digital sheet music, and method books. You'll also find useful tools like online metronomes or auto scroll sheet music players. Ear training apps can help you, too. More and more music schools are offering online lessons - this might be a good option to look into if the reason for self-teaching is that you don't have time to drive to and from your nearest school.
  • What do I have to expect when self-learning the piano?
    First of all you'll probably progress a bit more slowly if you start out self-learning. Choosing suitable exercises and pieces is more time-consuming than if a teacher presented you with them. A sheet music service with a skill level indicator can help with that. Furthermore, you will have to pay closer attention to keeping the joy alive. You need to set your own milestones to keep motivated, especially when practicing all alone. Perhaps you could give a "concert" for your friends, or "serenade" a family member? You might also have to pay extra attention to posture mistakes. Getting rid of them when you are used to doing things the wrong way can take a lot of effort. Consider video recording yourself to make sure your posture is okay.

Recommended content