The age-old question…how long does it take?!
You know what I’m about to say, don’t you.
Yes, it depends.
But what does it depend on? And all things being equal, how long does it take to learn piano?
That’s the subject of this post. Read on, friend. Read on.
Table of Contents
First, Some Questions…
Can You Already Play Another Musical Instrument?
If you can already play another instrument to a decent standard, that’s a big ‘+1’ and you can expect to learn the piano (or any new instrument for that matter) more quickly.
If you’ve already made grade 8 in violin for example and can already read music, you’ll pick the piano up much quicker. You already understand the fundamentals of music, you’re simply learning the mechanics of a new instrument.
If you’ve never played an instrument, not only are you grappling with a new instrument (and the physicality of it), but you’re also learning the basics of music.
Are You Willing (or Able) to Hire a Piano Teacher?
Are you working with a good teacher who can spot your weaknesses and quickly address them? Or are you bouncing around from one youtube video to the next?
If it’s the former, then you’ll progress much faster – especially if they’re experienced at training complete beginners.
The fact of having a time in the diary each week (or whichever frequency you agree) is massive too, as it’s lame to rock up to the next lesson having done no practice since the last session whatsoever (especially if you’re paying for it out of your own pocket).
If it’s the latter, then your progress will be slower.
There’s only so far you can go on your own. I’m an advocate of self-directed learning but you need some sort of structure to your learning.
It’s like learning a language. To learn to speak Spanish, you also need to understand some fundamentals such as how to conjugate verbs. The same is with music.
Having a teacher there to steer the ship is a massive bonus.
How Much Time Do You Have for Practice? (And How Good is Your Routine)
The amount of time you have to practice is obviously one of the (if not the) determining factor for how fast you’ll proceed with the piano.
It’s not just about quantity though, it’s also the quality of your practice time. Are you following a learning program of some description, or are you just bouncing around the web looking for stuff to learn?
The trendy term for this (thanks to the work done by Anders Ericsson on the 10,000-hour rule) is ‘deliberate practice’. The time you spend learning, whether it’s ten minutes or 2 hours, needs to be as deliberate as possible.
What does deliberate practice mean when it comes to learning music?
Ok, let’s say you’re learning a new scale.
It means playing it slowly so you only up the speed when you can play whatever you’re learning fluently, and not before.
It also means being hyper-focused on your technique while you do it too.
One of the commonest mistakes people make is to play too quickly before they’re ready. This is the antithesis of deliberate practice!
The issue with deliberate learning is boredom. It’s painful to go slowly when our natural inclination is to ‘bash it out’ and move on.
The trick here is to devise a learning schedule that you can stick to that doesn’t make it a burden. This means mixing up what you do and having a blend of different things to play (again, another argument for a good teacher).
Using a metronome is generally considered a smart move too, as you’ll start to build your ‘inner clock’ for perfect timekeeping.
How Well Do You Want to Be Able to Play?
Want to become a world-class pianist like the brilliant Lang Lang? Or are you content with being able to tap out a nice version of happy birthday at your grandchild’s fifth birthday?
If you’re intent on being the best, in that top 1%, then I congratulate you (someone has to be there, why not you?).
But you’re going to need a good teacher and plenty of time to dedicate (see above) as well as a healthy dose of motivation (and a hint of stubbornness helps).
Anything is possible if you commit yourself.
Remember that playing the piano is a really positive thing to do, anyway. We’ve already written about the remarkable health benefits of playing piano.
You can’t really go wrong.
Ok, let’s cut to the chase. All things considered, how long does it take to learn piano?
Right, here are some ballpark timings for what you can expect to achieve.
- Able to play a simple melody with one hand, one note at a time
- Able to play simple two-note chords
- Can play the melody to tunes such as Amazing Grace or Happy Birthday
In one year:
- Expect to reach grade 1 or grade 2 at a push (ABRSM qualification)
- Able to read a little sheet music
- Able to play some easy piano songs and simple classical pieces like Gurlitt “Vivace”
- Know all major and minor chords
- Able to play basic one-octave scales
In three to four years:
- Expect to reach grade 4 or 5 (ABRSM qualification)
- A basic grasp of sightreading
- You can play four-note chords and you know chord inversions in a few keys
- Able to play scales in most keys up to three octaves
- Can play more challenging arrangements, such as Minuet in G and movie themes like “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars.
In five to ten years:
- Expect to reach grade 8 level (ABRSM qualification)
- Fully competent at sightreading
- Can demonstrate virtuosic speed and play double octaves and arpeggios
- You know every scale and chord inversions in every key
- You can play heavily technical pieces such as Debussy’s “Claire De Lune” with aplomb
Playing piano is a lifelong pursuit, but as we’ve seen here you can make significant advancements in as little as a year if you take the right approach (a good piano teacher, regular practice, etc.). There’s no harm in learning from youtube videos, but to progress, you need a structure.
Of course, the more you advance, the greater the knowledge of music theory will be required.
A few minutes a day is generally considered preferable to more time less frequently (e.g. an hour every week).