There’s a lot that goes into learning music at the piano:
- Playing the correct notes
- Playing the notes at the right time
- Playing at a steady beat
- Playing at the correct tempo
- Playing with dynamic contrast (loud and soft)
- Playing with phrasing to give music a shape
- Producing a nice tone
- Conveying the appropriate emotion or mood through your music
These topics really just scratch the surface of things that musicians think about and prepare for as they are learning new music.
A lot of times when piano learners are working on learning a new piece, there is a lot of emphasis on learning the correct notes and rhythm. Of course, these two components of music are important and the backbone of your music. However, there is much more to think about beyond what to play and when to play it.
How you play those notes is just as important as when or what to play.
Many musicians compartmentalize the expressive qualities or the style of music. They will wait to think about or execute the parts of what makes music sound like music until after the initial learning is finished.
However, this is your challenge to approach your music more holistically from the very beginning.
The sooner you can start thinking about these “extra” parts of the music, the sooner your music will come to life and the quicker you will learn it.
Interestingly, many pianists find that when they approach their music with more of an emphasis on the style than on the mechanics, the notes and rhythms fall into place more easily.
Here are some ways to think beyond the notes and rhythms as you first learn your music.
Listen To The Music You Are Learning
Listening to the music you are learning is a really important part of the learning process and one that many people skip over.
When you listen to music, you make a lot of unconscious observations about how the music sounds. Many of these details will manifest themselves in your own playing.
It’s helpful to listen to several different recordings to hear different interpretations of the music. Then, you can make decisions about how you prefer to interpret the music.
Internalize The Beat and Rhythm Of Your Music
If you can’t feel the pulse of your music within your body, it’s very difficult to get the music to come out correctly on the piano.
The beat and rhythm of your music are like a motor. They propel your music forward, give it momentum and make it sound alive.
This forward motion is what makes music different from other art forms. Music moves in time. If we ignore it, our music can easily sound really stagnant or mechanical.
Tap your foot or move any part of your body along with the beat to help you internalize it. If you come across tricky rhythms, clap or tap them out to help feel them.
Use Descriptive Words To Plan What You Want Your Music To Sound Like
All music is expressing something, whether it is telling a story, evoking an emotion, or setting a mood.
Before you begin learning a piece, select a handful of descriptive words that will shape how you approach the music and the qualities of sounds you intend to produce.
For example, a piece with a strong driving beat might sound energetic, percussive and lively.
A more lyrical piece might be melodious, mellow and reminiscent.
When you sit down to learn either of these types of pieces, you’ll want to bring a different mindset and intention to how your practice them.
Starting out with this intention from the very beginning will drastically improve how your music progresses as you are learning it.
It will allow you to refine the most important qualities of music over time, rather than relearning the music to convey the correct feeling.
Think In Musical Phrases
On a lot of sheet music, the way the music falls on the page is fairly arbitrary. A line or a page of music may or may not contain a complete musical idea or a logical section of the music.
When we approach music, it’s important to find the musical phrases. If you’re not sure what a musical phrase is, here are some ways to think about it.
A musical phrase mirrors a phrase in speech that expresses an idea.
Musical phrases tend to fall in even numbers of measures such as 2, 4 or 8; however, there’s no rule about how long a phrase should be. You could easily find 3 or 5 measure phrases as well.
A lot of times, you will see long legato lines over phrases.
If you are playing a song with lyrics, the musical phrases will align with the phrases of speech in the lyrics. You’ll often see a comma or period in the lyrics at the end of a musical phrase.
A phrase will often end on a cadence or half cadence. A cadence is a chord that sounds final, while a half cadence will still feel like a stopping point, but it sounds less final. You can think of a cadence as a sentence ending with a period or exclamation mark. It sounds complete. While a half-cadence is like asking a question and awaiting an answer. It’s complete, but you know something more will follow.
Occasionally, you will find music where each line contains exactly 4 measures and each line is a musical phrase, but more often, the musical phrases will pass through a line of music. Similarly, it’s very common to end a phrase just after a page turn. Get in the habit of playing all the way to the end of a phrase, even if it’s on the next line or just 1 measure beyond the page you are working on.
For example, this version of Beethoven’s “Pathétique Sonata” has exactly 4 measures per line on the first page. It would make a lot of sense to practice this piece line by line or in 2 line sections because there is a cadence at the end of each line; every 2 lines makes a complete phrase.
However, this Clementi “Sonatina” also has 4-measure phrases, but you can see that they don’t fall on the page in equal lines. As you are practicing, you’d want to work 4-8 measures at a time rather than line by line.
Make Barlines “Invisible”
Similar to working in phrases, it’s also important not to get stuck within a measure of music. Barlines are important dividing points in the music and they definitely help us to keep the music organized and balanced. But, it’s very common for piano learners to make those visual markings too prevalent in their music. They can prevent you from playing with good continuity and with musical expression.
Practice pushing through the barlines in your music by creating a consistent, continuous sound.
Incorporate Dynamics and Expressions As Soon As Possible
Dynamic markings and expression markings are just as important as the notes themselves, so you are doing yourself a disservice to ignore them in the early stages of music.
Dynamic markings are the symbols: pp, p, mp, mf, f, and ff that indicate how loudly or softly to play. Expression markings include symbols such as crescendos, diminuendos, staccatos, legatos, accents, tenuto marks. It also includes words that give an indication of how to play, such as dolce, agitato, pesante or leggiero.
For example, Chopin’s “Nocturne in E-flat Major” is full of expression markings to observe.
You can see dynamic markings ranging from pianissimo to forte in addition to several crescendo and diminuendo markings. Expressivo dolce at the very beginning tells you to play expressively and sweetly. The fz symbol followed by a p on the last line tells you to emphasize those grace notes, then immediately become soft. And of course, all of the legato and staccato markings are giving indication of how to approach those notes.
If you feel overwhelmed playing all of these details from the beginning, don’t feel like you have to master them all as you are working through the notes. But, also, don’t ignore them. Have an awareness of how and when to play them and work them into your practice as soon as you can, rather than treating them as an entirely different layer of the music.
Add Dynamics Even Where There Are No Dynamic Markings
While most music has dynamic markings written into the music, there are a lot of subtle dynamics that you can add in to the music that will really take your playing to the next level.
When you hear someone speaking with good inflection, you’ll notice that there are a lot of natural rises and falls in their voice. People who speak like this are interesting and engaging.
Our goal with music is to treat it in a similar way to how an excellent speaker speaks. You don’t want to sound like a robot or a machine.
Here are some general rules that you can apply with dynamics.
– Ascending notes can have a subtle crescendo, while descending notes can have a subtle decrescendo. This doesn’t work 100% of the time, but if you follow this principle most of the time, your music will take on a new and fresh sound.
For example, in Beethoven’s “Sonatina in G Major,” the first 8 measures are marked as piano and most of it is legato, but there is no other indication of how to play them. It would make sense to bump up the dynamic a little on the high G in measure 2, so that you could add a slight diminuendo on the descending notes that follow. Then, you could get a little louder again at the end of measure 3, going into measure 4.
You would follow this same principle throughout the the section and your music will sound much more interesting than if you just stayed at a static piano the whole time.
-Many musical phrases will have a rise and fall, so you will want to begin and end them just a bit softer than the middle part of the phrase. Don’t attack the beginning or ends of phrases, unless there are specific markings indicating to play that way.
“The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin is a piece that is arranged in even, 4-bar phrases, and this version has exactly 1 phrase per line. You can see that each line starts soft, then has a louder section when the octaves or chords start. The final chord on each line should taper just a little from the previous chords to round out the shape of the line. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a robotic sound that just alternates from soft to loud.
-Find ways to vary the dynamics in repeated sections of music. It’s not interesting to hear the exact same thing twice. If you have a repeated section of music or even a small phrase or motive that repeats many times throughout your piece, play with a different dynamic each time you play it.
The introduction of “River Flows In You” by Yiruma is the exact same 2-bar phrase, 2 times in a row. Even though it is marked soft, you can experiment with making the second phrase sound different from the first. You could get even softer and make it an echo of the first phrase, or it could build and get just a little louder. There’s not a right or wrong way, so you’ll have to decide what suits you the best.
It can definitely be overwhelming to try to tackle all of the details of your music all at once. But, the stylistic elements of your music are so crucial. They what turn the notes and rhythms into an art form. Have fun with the creative process and remember to tell a story with your music!