Which scales should I learn on the piano?

Practical reports from the TASTENWELT

by TW-Redaktion on.

There are many reasons to start playing the piano as an adult or to dare to return to it. In this special we explain why learning instruments works differently for adults than for children. You will also learn how to practice correctly and have fun making music over the long term.

Learning to play the piano as an adult? No problem, says science. You just have to know that you have different prerequisites for this than a child: some things can be done better, some things worse. In any case, it is worthwhile to start with: Playing the piano is fun and creates a sense of achievement, creates a counterbalance to the often stressful work and family life, gets the brain going and, according to experts, can even prevent senile dementia.

When researching this special, we had the following target groups in mind:

Adults from around 30 years of age who are learning an instrument for the first time; The piano or digital piano is particularly suitable for this for various reasons
Returners who have already played the piano and want to build on previous knowledge and skills
Keyboard players who have so far neglected their left hand and want to learn to play the piano "properly"
Instrumental teachers who teach adult piano students and do not feel fully trained enough.

Our brains make it possible

The human brain is a plastic organ. It reacts lifelong to new challenges and circumstances. In the meantime, brain research has also been able to sufficiently demonstrate this. Accordingly, musical learning is also possible into old age, as neuropsychologists from the University of Zurich have shown in an experiment. They taught 70-year-olds who had never had anything to do with music to play the piano.

"After the first piano lesson, the centers in the brain that are responsible for hearing network with the centers that are needed to move the fingers," explains Prof. Eckard Altenmüller, head of the Institute for Music Physiology and Musicians' Medicine in Hanover at tastenwelt -Interview.

And further: "After three weeks of 20 minutes of practice per day, this network solidifies so much that it will last for many years."

As new networks emerge in the brain, its reserves in terms of age-related degradation processes also increase. Making music can very likely promote mental flexibility and productivity well into old age. Condition: You should stick to it regularly and with joy over a long period of time - so always hit the piano keys diligently.

Expectation as a problem

What is the most common cause of failure for adults in the “Learn the Piano” project? Scientists and music educators agree on this point: on their own expectations and impatience with regard to learning progress and results. In children, hearing and motor skills develop in parallel. You have no problem subjectively experiencing your own, still imperfect game as beautiful and enriching.

Adults, on the other hand, come to piano lessons with trained hearing but underdeveloped motor skills. And quickly resigns because one's own game does not meet one's own expectations. The “biggest stumbling block” for adults is “the CD collection at home”, as Prof. Altenmüller puts it in a nutshell.

The good news: musical learning is also possible in adulthood, but it follows different principles than in young years. The crux of the matter: It is no longer as easy and quick as it used to be. In this case it should be taken literally.

Simple tricks help against this:

have patience
don't lose heart
accept the existing restrictions
are happy about small advances
Develop serenity and humor

These mental compensation strategies are quite suitable for everyday use. Unfortunately, they are often lost and can be reactivated and relearned by making music. The piano has the advantage that you don't have to struggle with the sound generation as such. Once you have the first simple pieces in your fingers, the whole thing sounds like music.

Dominance of the left brain

Our brain is made up of two halves. Each half is responsible for different mental achievements. Research by Roger Sperry with split-brain patients (epileptics for whom the nerve connection between the two hemispheres has been severed) has made the following clear: The right hemisphere dominates in the pictorial conception, it thinks in pictures, so to speak. The left left is particularly good at putting pictures and acoustic signals into words. The studies have also shown that the right half is responsible for sound memory. She is able to distinguish sounds and develop sound ideas. The left hemisphere comes to the fore in intellectual performance. This includes reading and writing notes, capturing rhythmic structures and analyzing formal processes.

One would think that musical learning is mainly done by the right hemisphere. However, the left hemisphere is particularly challenged and encouraged by the nature of the upbringing and schooling in our culture. This, as the dominant hemisphere of the brain, also determines musical learning.

According to pianist and music pedagogue Professor Herbert Wiedemann, playing the piano under the dominance of the left hemisphere shows two elementary deficits: "It sounds mechanical and unmusical and gives the impression that it is going on without internal involvement". In addition, there is a second, decisive disadvantage: “A state in which playing the piano is experienced as relaxed activity cannot be achieved in this way”.

Activate the right hemisphere

The best results and progress in learning an instrument are achieved when both hemispheres work together according to their tasks. This enables a holistic learning process. Piano lessons, which are mainly geared towards playing notes and reproducing pieces of music, will, on the other hand, strengthen the dominance of the left hemisphere. The aim of age-appropriate teaching must be to wake the right part of our brain from its deep sleep. Prof. Wiedemann recommends the following method: "The way to do this shows us the return to the most elementary form of dealing with music: Listening, singing or replaying what you hear," listening to yourself "and trying to represent what you hear on the instrument".

This approach can best be implemented with small improvisation models in which no “wrong notes” can occur. For example, using pentatonic scales, which are also particularly popular among improvising guitarists. Music arises spontaneously, only following the inner sound conception. Analytical thought processes are left out. Allow sufficient time for this important first phase of right brain-guided musical learning. This also enables you to later turn a sheet music text into music. Problem: Many academically trained piano teachers are themselves at war with improvisational approaches.

Beginners and returnees

Beginners and re-entrants come to piano lessons with different requirements. These can have both positive and negative effects on instrumental learning.

Option 1: You had piano lessons in your youth and think back to it with joy - even if you sacrificed playing the piano in puberty to a supposedly more exciting hobby or your first love. Nothing prevents you from building on your early positive experiences: Take on one of the pieces that you knew how to play on the piano and enjoyed playing (if possible, not the most difficult). Get the sheet music and get started! The rusted fingers are usually faster than expected and old neural connections are reactivated. If you master the piece as before after a few days, the first sense of achievement is perfect and the basis for further learning is created. This is how I have seen it with many of my adult students.

Option 2: Your memories of piano lessons from back then have negative connotations: You were afraid of the piano teacher, the lessons were boring, your parents forced you to play the piano. It is best to dare a completely new beginning with a teacher who sets new accents with alternative methods and modern pieces. Otherwise, your re-entry and joy will be overshadowed by negative memories and experiences.

Tip: Talk to your new piano teacher about such problems. A good instrumental teacher is also to some extent a therapist.

Option 3: As a “complete beginner”, you approach the matter unencumbered in every respect. However, you may be able to fall back on motor skills that you have acquired in other fields, as the music teacher Martin Gellrich says: “It is easier for adult pianists who have written a lot of typewriters in their previous lives. You can transfer the skill you have learned from typewriting with both hands (!), To move the third, fourth and fifth fingers in isolation, quickly and skillfully, to playing the piano ”. If you like to dance, you already have a strong sense of rhythm. You are able to physically feel the pulse of the music and translate it into movement. You don't do anything else while playing the piano. If you love to sing, you have the sound of the melodies in your head. You have an inner sound concept that is extremely important in order to fill music with life.

Practice piano playing properly with clear goals

Adults take a little longer to establish the neural networks required to play the piano. This is due to the decreasing concentration of neurohormones, such as dopamine, in the brain with advancing age. Our hearing perception is already fully developed and mostly far ahead of motor skills. Don't let your hearing perception put your motor skills under pressure and make you cramp in the process; this delays or prevents progress and your motivation will quickly deteriorate. Choose a piece that you can master in a manageable amount of time and set yourself intermediate goals: perfect command of the left hand, slowly playing the first line with both hands, and so on. In this way, you can always book new small successes at short intervals.

An important prerequisite for successful practice are the emotions that this activity triggers in you. Positive emotions cause the hormones dopamine and endorphin to be released. And the ability of the nerve cells to communicate with one another is positively influenced by this - which in turn leads to faster learning success, says Prof. Altenmüller. If you keep a few things in mind when planning your piano practice lesson, this positive feeling will come quickly.

Lessons or self-study?

As a newcomer to the piano, you should look for a suitable teacher. After a short time they should be able to assess your strengths and weaknesses, know and accept your musical preferences (even if they themselves may have a different taste in music). He will choose the right pieces with you and define learning steps and goals. He will also give you practical tips on how to get there as quickly as possible. This way, incorrect posture and the wrong technique can be avoided. The regular piano lessons are always a small goal to work towards, and the feedback they get there gives them important new impulses and inspiration for their daily practice.

As a returnee, you should have taken piano lessons for a few years earlier and have basic musical skills. But here, too, there is a risk that you will be walking on well-trodden paths. Old blockages and mistakes can reappear and hinder learning progress or even bring it to a standstill. That is why I would also advise those returning to the piano to take an hour with an experienced piano teacher every two to four weeks - if necessary - in order to have something “adjusted”.

Helpful framework conditions

The feeling of disturbing other people - family members and neighbors - with your own practice has a negative effect on success. The very thought that the fiftieth repetition of a passage could make the neighbors incandescent inevitably leads to cramps. The consequence is that you will likely end your practice session earlier than planned and also frustrated.

Tip: talk to your neighbors and roommates. Try to find times when you can practice. But insist on not being disturbed while playing the piano. In addition or as an alternative, you have the option of putting your instrument at rest. Upright piano or grand piano with a silent mechanism enable practicing, so to speak, in camera: the hammers of the piano are intercepted in front of the strings, the sound is generated digitally and output via headphones. Or consider getting a digital piano or grand piano. There are now a large number of models that are hardly inferior to an acoustic piano in terms of feel and sound. At least this applies to all pianistic activities below the classical concert scene.

Strategies against standstill

Who doesn't know this feeling? You got lost and bitten, nothing works anymore. This is of course the same situation when playing the piano. Suppose you want to play a short sequence of staccato notes, i.e. only play each note very briefly. They have analyzed and understood the sequence of movements. Nevertheless, her muscles cramp after a short time and the staccato passage simply does not succeed. A change of strategy often helps in such situations. Do not practice doggedly the exact sequence of movements, but imagine the following picture: A grasshopper jumps very easily from one flower to the next. You are more likely to understand and execute the movement as a whole. The blockage will dissolve and the staccato game will succeed.

Another tip: Vary the passage, for example by playing straight eighth notes or vice versa. Sometimes a break of a few days helps to release mental and motor cramps.

There are many reasons to start playing the piano as an adult or to dare to return to it. In this special we explain why learning instruments works differently for adults than for children. You will also learn how to practice properly and have fun making music over the long term.

The psychologist Dietrich Dörner recognizes two different strategies in adults for solving problems when playing the piano:

the epistemic one based on our knowledge and experience
the heuristic structure that enables us to find new solutions

We are very familiar with epistemic thought patterns and use them frequently. Unfortunately, the heuristic structures often lead a shadowy existence and must first be reactivated.

That will be the case when you venture into unknown musical terrain and get to know new styles and forms of music: making music in a group, meditative forms of play and improvisations, composing your own music, engaging with the music of other cultures, to name just a few possibilities. Open your senses to the many facets of piano playing and music. In this way they create a good basis for a fulfilled musical life.


A number of sources of information were available to us for this article, the most important of which are listed below:

Prof. Dr. Herbert Wiedemann: Adult instrumental lessons using the example of the piano (presentation as PDF, 2003, http://goo.gl/T6bNo)

Peter Lissner: Adults learn piano with the help of the computer (eBook, 2006, www.grin.com, No. V70494)

Sandra Wackenhut: Musical adult education: learning an instrument in adulthood (eBook, 2011, www.grin.com, No. V171466)

Manuela Keil: Still learning to play the piano at 60? (Contribution from "Hamburger Abendblatt", 2010, http://goo.gl/DHYCY)

Verghese: Leisure Activities And The Risk Of Dementia In The Elderly (The New England Journal Of Medicine, 2003, http://goo.gl/MCb23)

Tags: piano