How piano beginners learn to think in harmony

August 01, 2017

The language of piano is harmony and it's expected of piano players to move between keys as if they moved between rooms in their home.

All piano players can learn to think in harmony and conquer the keyboard. From the very beginning.

I invest a lot of time in a lesson with basics, more so than with pieces, always working on the player's sound, understanding of harmony or their capacity to react. Whenever I do this, I'm positively surprised with the effects and the success, as are my students.

I'm happy to share my experience with you and hope that you can gain some insights from it, either as a player or as a teacher. If this process is interesting for you, you can download a free guide and a checklist for you to print (including circle of fifths).

Why the approach of most piano books fails.

Some piano books handle harmonic understanding with presenting a new scale to the student. Then, 3-4 pieces in that key follow. Afterwards, a new scale in a new key is introduced and the process is repeated. For most piano beginners, tough, it is not possible to feel themselves into new keys as quickly.

Getting to think in harmony and knowing the Circle of Fifths is a teaching arc that reaches for many months and even years. The healthy approach is to go from the practical to the analytical. Before explaining anything, the fingers have to know where to go.

Like learning languages, it becomes easier the more different languages you learn. With harmony it's quite similar.

How much harmony we teach depends in great part from the student: their age, experience and thirst for music theory, which on the other hand is very tied to the physical craft of piano playing.

Note: The heights of notes referenced here are not absolute.

Further note: The steps are interchangeable when possible and this is not a strict approach. There are many ways to thinking in harmony.

First phase: developing a sense for harmony

In this phase the student gets to know the piano, the basic functions of harmony and to develop a sense for harmony. The player can then apply this knowledge to simple pieces and learn to distinguish between Major and minor. The requirements to begin with the teaching arc of the Circle of Fifths are:

  • to be able to play parallel with both hands (C-D-E-F-G)
  • to distinguish triads visually (in some piano schools conveniently called "snowman")
  • the visual distinguishing of line/space

1) The scale. Present the scale and the fingering of C Major, slowly and gradually other keys in the direction of #-keys to keep using the same fingering. In the beginning don't introduce the Circle of Fifths per se but work gradually with the keys. When I want to present G Major, I ask the player to play the C Major scale from G. Most of the time the student will notice that at the very end there is something "off". We find out together which note should change and why, etc.

2) The steps in the scale. Next, I put over each step of the scale a triad, each named after Roman figures. We can play answering questions like "what is the III step in C-Major?" And the student would play the answer. Advanced students can play each step chord of a scale and name the harmony, e.g. in C Major they would play and say: I C Major, II d minor, III e minor, IV F Major, etc. We do this exercise in those keys where the player is comfortable playing the scale. We can also introduce here the concept of parallel keys (see Third Phase below).

3) Dominant / Tonic / Subdominant. Now we can start talking about the function of the steps in a scale. We will especially look at the relationship between V and I, the dominant and tonic. I usually say "the dominant is called that because it's so dominant that it always leads back to the tonic" (just to give them a sense of harmonic function). When I play some examples, they can also identify this by hearing.

4) Intervals: the fifth and the octave. I introduce intervals as "distances between notes" and prefer to use the word "interval" even with younger players. Intervals should be understood from the very beginning aurally and visually. For the visual reading I have an easy and very effective system to teach beginners to read intervals. First, this principle eases the musical reading itself, second I get players used to look between the notes and not so much on the notes themselves. Emotionally, players learn that the content of the music is to be found between the notes, too.

When it comes to count keys in order to name the interval, it's important to say that with intervals we count the first key as one.

Along the months I gradually introduce the different intervals, with the aim to get players used to words like "third", "fifth" or "second" (which is fairly easy in English, but in German they have complicated latin names which are not always logical to young players).

5) Hearing: Major or minor? In this first phase I also talk about the aural difference between Major and minor, for example with games, where players guess the mode with closed eyes. I play the chord and also a little melody in the key (with the 5 notes of the position), then ask them if it sound "sad" or "joyful". The association with a tendency of "joyful" or "sad" emotion is important for them to realize the emotional content of harmony. Once the player can identify the difference easily, I move to extreme positions on the keyboard and ask from there.

6) Playing easy songs/blues. Players can apply what they know about chords and steps in songs, playing a melody in the right hand and basic chords in the left. Children's songs are perfect, or maybe a simple blues (for this, obviously we need to spend some time on blues structure). The aim of this is to get used to how chords "belong together" and to understand how harmony supports the melody.

Second phase: conquering the keyboard

After the first contact with key and harmony, patterns of the triads are understood visually and tactically, and progressively played on the whole keyboard. The craft of piano playing is at the foreground of this approach. Thus, the harmonic horizon broadens and the keyboard becomes more and more familiar.

7) Getting to know the visual patterns of keys. Left and right hand are each on one basic triad and play each of the notes one after the other. (e.g. in C Major, the left hand would play C-E-G, then the right hand C-E-G and back). When this becomes very straightforward, I make them go with the left hand over the right one, to play the next C above the G that the right hand just played (and back again). We want to make sure that the instrument sounds open and free each note. I often say: "This is a hearing exercise, not a playing exercise." Simply remind yourself and your players that piano playing is actually about hearing and not so much about playing. ;-) On the practical side, the sounds should be clear from one another, thus lifting the finger whenever the note has been played. I find helpful to establish a trigger for the left going over the right. A trigger note means that the moment you play this note, something else will happen (in this case, the left going over the right hand).

8) Broadening the visual key horizon. When I show the triad patterns, I on purpose don't follow the Circle of Fifths . After C Major I directly go to grouping keys visually (by white/black keys pattern), starting with the pattern "black key in the middle" (e.g. D Major, A Major, etc.). First off, patterns of different colors are easier to learn, secondly it's known to be much more exciting to be playing with black keys. The third advantage is that we have advanced inside the Circle of Fifths without making much fuss about it.

My preferred sequence:

  • C, D, A, E, c, f, g (thus covering all white/black/white patterns),

  • then black/white/black: c sharp minor, g sharp minor (I explain that we will learn the minor chord first, so that they make sure their third finger touches a black key on its left side) (the Major chord I will present at a later moment, to make the difference much more clear),

  • then f sharp minor, E flat Major, C sharp Major, then "G sharp Major" or better, A flat Major,

  • then F Major, G Major (the easier keys at the end), etc.

9) Harmony in the touch. Keys have something very yummy and haptic about them, and to make players aware of this broadens their perception of keys and their sense of space. The further the keyboard is explored, the more important this sense becomes. Each key makes for a different feeling in the hand. I encourage players to look for that aspect.

10) Conquering the keyboard. We widen the disposition of the chords further and further, e.g. left hand C-G-C right hand G-C-E (later with the left going over the right again). On the one hand, the player becomes familiar with the different keys, on the other hand gets more comfortable moving around the whole keyboard. That gives them a sense of accomplishment, because they understand what they're doing and it sounds great. They're also very welcome to play with pedal.

11) Arpeggios with both hands. Once the (relatively) fixed positions of key patterns are internalized, we can go further and play arpeggios with both hands parallel (as we would do with scales). In the beginning, like always, pay attention to sound and playing in smooth, flexible movements (looking for pleasurable sensations in the arms, hands and fingers), more and more finding one movement for groups of notes (this is possible when the eyes can grasp visual patterns of notes into one chunk - then, intuitively they can look for one movement). From this phase also it can be interesting to play Hanon exercises in different keys as well.

12) Arpeggios in different dispositions. For advanced players. Once the triad C-E-G is completely understood in its base position (e.g. of C Major), we can break that structure and introduce the other who dispositions: with C Major it would mean starting the arpeggio from E or from G, changing the fingering and the visual pattern of the triad.

13) One step further: shifted arpeggios. For advanced players. The next step would be to play different dispositions in different hands (going forward, the playing direction can also be altered from parallel to contrary motion), e.g. in C Major the left hand would start with C and the right hand with E. It can also be interesting to play scales with a third's distance.

14) Piano literature to support this progress. Progressively, all of these steps can be supported through and applied in piano pieces or improvised songs.

Coming full circle. Introducing the Circle of Fifths.

Once the player can recognize keys visually and aurally and play them through the keyboard, understands the concept of harmonic function and knows the tonic and dominant of many different keys, it's a good time to present the Circle of Fifths, which brings everything together.

15) The principles of the Circle of Fifths. In the Circle of Fifths, each step is one fifth away, in both directions. To the right, clockwise, there are the #-keys. To the left, counterclockwise, there are the b-keys. Because the player understands the concepts of fifth, tonic and dominant, it becomes obvious that the dominant of each tonic becomes the new tonic. I recommend starting in the direction of #-keys (at least for piano players), and if all is clear until F sharp Major, to continue from C in the direction of b-keys.

16) Enharmony. It's exciting for beginners to know that there are not just 5 chromatic signs (for the 5 black keys). but that there exists a note which is C flat. Why is it not a B? Because in certain keys, there is no B. With some experience and the Circle of Fifths, it makes sense over time. It becomes quite interesting when one pattern of keys can mean two different keys altogether, e.g. F sharp Major or G flat Major. That means enharmony. I explain by saying that when we start adding up sharps, there comes a point where it makes sense to switch to flats. Because 7# means that all notes are elevated and then you start getting fun notes like B sharp or E sharp. In my Circle of Fifths PDF, the only example of this is F sharp Major - G flat Major and d sharp minor - e flat minor. It's about understanding the principle, on the one side, and on the other side they likely won't be playing pieces in C sharp Major anytime soon, and when that happens, they will have gained enough experience to understand why it makes sense in this key and not in D flat Major. (The reason is sometimes arbitrary and has to do with the haptical feeling of the key, the preferred way of writing of the composer and also with emotional reasons, the explaining of which would burst the length of this article).

17) Parallel keys. (This could be introduced in the first phase; I write it up here to have together all the elements of the Circle of Fifths.) Every key has a parallel key, always pairing a Major with a minor key. And: Major is further up on the keyboard. When we want to find the minor key, we count 1 1/2 steps downwards, i.e. 3 keys (in this case, we don't count the first key). We get the parallel key in minor. When this concept is understood, we can ask questions like "What's the parallel key of…?" and "How many  signs has x key?" etc.

Note: Identifying and really knowing parallel keys is internalized in most cases after months. I use random questioning to help them remember and repeat (between two topics or pieces in class I like to put these kind of short units, like a short question).

18) Know the order of keys with mnemonics. While mnemonics are really fun sometimes, the best way to learn the Circle of Fifths is by playing. For the order of #-keys: "Go Dancing After Eating Battered Fish". For b-keys: "Find Bears Exciting And Do Great". Players can count the words to find out how many flats or sharps the key has. Ask them a question like: "What key has 3 flats?"

19) Know the order of sharps or flats with mnemonics. Again, playing scales in the order they appear in the Circle of Fifths helps most players memorize the order of the chromatic signs. For sharps: "Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket", for flats: "Blanket Exploded And Dad Got Cold Feet".

Understanding the Circle of Fifths means understanding piano - with hands, emotion and mind. Without the practical part it makes little sense to teach the Circle of Fifths. Progressively, players apply what the know about harmony in their pieces. Coming back to the Circle of Fifths makes more sense each time.

Through working consistently at harmony a player can learn to fully express themselves with harmony.

If this process is interesting for you, you can download a checklist for reference, with working sheets for piano teachers, including the Circle of Fifths.