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Cheat Sheet

Piano & Keyboard All-In-One For Dummies

Playing piano and various keyboard instruments can become a lifelong passion, so be careful what you wish for. But it all starts with — and often, even for the masters, comes back to — the basics, including scales, posture, and determining which type of keyboard you'd like to play.

Building a Musical Scale

Put simply, a musical scale is a series of notes in a specific, consecutive order. Major and minor scales are the two most common types, and they have the following attributes:

  • They're eight notes long.

  • The top and bottom notes are an octave apart, so they have the same name.

  • The series follows a stepwise pattern up and down, and the name of each note in the scale follows the alphabet up and down.

Each scale gets its own wacky-sounding name, like C major. A musical scale derives its name from the following two things:

  • The scale's bottom note, called the tonic. For example, a C major scale starts on C.

  • The stepwise pattern used to create the scale. Music has two kinds of steps — half steps and whole steps — which are the building blocks of scales. The "major" part of C major means the third note of the scale is a major third interval above the tonic.

Some white keys have a black key in between and some white keys are side by side:

  • Two keys side by side (whether black or white) are one half step apart.

  • Two keys separated by one other key (black or white) are a whole step apart.

  • Two half-steps equal one whole-step.

The suffixes sharp and flat are used to name the black keys. When you measure half steps up or down, you help define the black keys as sharps and flats. For example, find any D on your keyboard. Move one half step higher and play the black key to the right. That's D sharp. Now play one half-step lower than D. That's D flat.

You can build any scale starting on any root note simply by applying the correct scale pattern, or combination of whole (W) and half (H) steps.

  • Major scale: Tonic-W-W-H-W-W-W-H

  • Minor scale: Tonic-W-H-W-W-H-W-W

Proper Posture for Piano Practice

Aim to situate yourself comfortably in a stable, balanced position so you can play and read music, with room to move freely. Keyboardists can get so caught up in the complication of notes, clefs, fingering, rhythms, and dynamics that they often forget about their bodies.

If you're too close to the piano or keyboard, you cramp up your arms and scrunch your shoulders. If you're too far away, you overreach, putting stress on those parts (the neck, upper arm, and pelvic support) that have to work to support your overextended parts. You want to feel comfortably loose, with enough room to move freely and enough support to feel light and long in the upper body and head. You should be able to move easily in either direction of the keyboard, just enough to follow and support your arms when they venture away from the middle to the high or low registers.

Check that your bench or chair is the right height. A common way to measure this is by seeing that your elbows are even with the height of the keyboard when you're sitting at the piano with your hands in playing position. You should see a slight arc from the elbow to the top of your wrist and back down your hand to the keyboard:

Good posture is all about support. Think about building support from the ground up:

  1. With the floor and the bench or chair providing your support base, align your body so your torso, shoulders, neck, and head are fully supported from underneath.

  2. With both feet on the floor, and with your knees directly above your feet, sit evenly on your sitting bones so you feel a strong, stable support for your upper body.

  3. Don't let your weight fall back; bring the back of your pelvis (your hip bones on the sides and sacrum in the back) up above the sitting bones, and continue this line of support up through your spine to the top of your head.

    Your spine has four curves; it takes careful awareness and support in both the front and back to balance and feel centered throughout your upper body.

  4. Keep your head supported above your spine; don't let it drop or lean in any direction.

    If you're hunching, slouching, or leaning, you're going to have to use your muscles and energy to compensate for the imbalance.

  5. Release your shoulders if they're holding any tension, and let your arms hang to the side.

  6. As you breathe in, feel the full length of your upper body from the sitting bones to the top of your head.

  7. Breathe out and feel a relaxed, stable balance throughout your body.

The Electronic Keyboard Family

Electronic keyboards fall into well-established families or categories of instruments. Each has a relatively standard set of features and is meant to be used for specific musical needs and playing situations. Within each family, you encounter entry-level models that are more basic and then step-up models that add to the quality and number of sounds, number of features, size and quality of the keyboard feel, and so on:

  • Digital pianos: Acoustic piano wannabes or replacements.

  • Stage pianos: Digital pianos intended for the performing musician, with additional sounds and pro features.

  • Portable keyboards: Fun, lightweight, and full of features to help you sound better.

  • Arrangers: Keyboards with sophisticated backing features to produce the sound of a full band from your simple chord input.

  • Organs: Instruments dedicated to reproducing the sound, features, and feel of the legendary Hammond B3. They may include some additional sounds such as pipe organ, combo organs, and even other keyboard and synth sounds.

  • Synthesizers: Keyboards that allow you to make your own sounds and adjust the sounds provided. They can sound the most electronic and imaginative but now often include imitative and natural sounds as well.

  • Workstations: Basically, synthesizers with onboard recording systems to allow you to create complete works of original music. Very advanced and feature-rich.

  • Controllers: Keyboards that don't make sound themselves but are used to trigger sounds from your computer and other keyboards. These options use the MIDI standard to communicate with the sound-producing devices.

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