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Basic Piano for Songwriters

basic piano for songwriters
Photo credit Rob Goebel Adobe Stock

Songwriters sometimes worry about how well they can play an instrument or sing.

It’s a common thread for a lot of people.

My dad, hit songwriter Kim Williams was one of those people.

He told me on many occasions that he was insecure about his ability to write melodies, and suffered from lack of confidence as a singer when performing his songs.

Always the one to apply a positive mental attitude, he took steps to work on his melody writing by taking guitar lessons and practicing a lot.

But he never fully overcame his shyness about not being able to read music.

Honestly, there are probably way more songwriters that don’t know how to read music than those who do.

But if a person is insecure about something, there’s not much you can do to help unless they set their own mind to the task.

That’s what this post is about – a few basic steps to help you start getting more confident about reading sheet music and playing simple melodies on the piano.

Basic Piano for Songwriters - Why piano?

Piano is a wonderful instrument for learning music theory and for writing melody.

It’s literally laid out for you in black and white if you know a couple of basic things to get you started.

That's why learning a little basic piano for songwriters is a good thing.

Middle C

basic piano for songwriters keyboard
Photo credit Felipe Sanchez Adobe Stock

The first thing to know is that right in the middle of the piano is your north star you can use to guide yourself toward everything else.

This “north star” is called Middle C.

True to its name, the note of middle C is located right in the middle of the piano keyboard.

You can find it by locating the group of two black keys closest to the middle of your keyboard.

Middle C is the white note just to the left of those two black keys.

Now, walking up just the white keys of your piano gets you a C major scale.

If you want to try out a pentatonic scale, just play only the black notes.

See! You’re already playing the piano!

Most scales are a combination of white and black notes, and you can learn more about scales by looking at the number of whole and half steps between each note.

We’ll cover more about that in a later post.

For now, let’s move on to a couple things you can learn about reading music.

Reading Music

Songpreneurs sheet music for songwriters free download
Click to download if you want to print this out

Just like reading words, there are a few basic things to know about sheet music.

Now you know how to find middle C on the piano and play a couple of scales.

Let’s focus on how to read the notes as written on paper.

When you’re looking at sheet music, you’ll notice two groups of lines and spaces, one on top and one on the bottom, tied together. This is called a grand staff.

The one on the top has a symbol at the front that looks kind of like a fancy letter “S.”

This symbol is called a treble clef and is usually played with the right hand on the keys.

The bottom group of lines and spaces is called the bass clef. It has a symbol that looks like a backward “c” with a couple dots next to it.

Notes written in the bass (pronounced "base") clef are usually played with the left hand.

Now, if you’re looking at all those spaces and lines on the page, it can be scary. You might think there’s no way you can ever remember what all those are called.

But here’s a simple little rhyme that will help you to remember.

If you’re starting at the bottom on the treble clef and look at the spaces, they spell “face.” The spaces are F-A-C and E.

The “C” written on the treble clef on the third space is eight notes above our middle C.

In music, eight notes has a special name. It’s called an “octave.”

Now you know the names of all the spaces in the treble clef, F-A-C- and E.

Here’s a trick to remember the names of the lines.

In the treble clef, the rhyme goes: “E-G-B-D-F, E-G-B-D-F names of the lines of the treble clef.”

If you say the letters fast, the rhyme sounds fun and makes it easier to remember. Say it out loud now and listen.

Memorize that rhyme, and you remember the names of the lines. Then, any note written on that line is that note name.

Notes written on the first line at the bottom of the treble clef are always “E.”

Notes written on the second line from the bottom are always “G,” and so forth and so on.

Where’s our middle C written you might ask?

Look at your piano keyboard.

basic keyboard for sngwriters keys
Photo credit Peter Hermes Furian Adobe Stock

Find your middle C on the keyboard there to the left of the two black notes.

Now when you walk up 1-2-3 on the white notes, you’ll end up on C-D-E.

That’s the note we wrote on the first line of your treble clef staff. (Remember E-G-B-D-F.)

So that means you would count down two notes from your E back to the C, and you’ll move down two spaces on your staff.

From E the bottom line on your treble clef, you move down to the space below the line and that’s your D.

The next note down is your middle C.

That’s written by drawing a short little line in the space under your treble clef staff where the next note down would be, and then drawing your note head right in the middle of that line.