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Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes

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In playing piano, using both hands enables you to play more advanced pieces as well as to accompany yourself. But it is important to learn the notes of each hand first. In this guide, we look at the notes for the left hand and how they look in the music.

Note: To make practicing easier, you can download and print out all of the music exercises in this quick guide here.

Middle C for the Left Hand

Our Quick Guide, Piano 101: Learning the Right-Hand Notes, introduced the right-hand notes by starting with middle C as a home base. Conveniently, middle C is an anchor for the left-hand notes, too. Just as the right hand plays middle C with the thumb, so does the left hand. When your left-hand thumb rests on middle C, your other fingers extend downward on the keyboard, ready to play its lower half.

When first finding notes for the left hand, you need to become familiar with saying the alphabet backward. When the right hand plays notes upward from middle C, it’s easy enough to recite the alphabet forward as you play successive notes: C, D, E, and so on. With the left hand, the order is backward as you proceed down the keyboard to the left: C, B, A, and so on. The figure below illustrates the keyboard notes extending downward for one octave from middle C.

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: An octave of notes (without accidentals) from middle C down to the next C.

Middle C is both a left-hand and right-hand note. This illustration shows you an octave of notes (without accidentals) from middle C down to the next C.

Left-Hand Notes on the Staff

Now that your left hand is finding its way around the keyboard, you need to know how to recognize left-hand notes as they are written in music notation. Learning the left-hand notes introduces the two clefs—treble clef and bass clef—used in keyboard and piano notation. The treble clef is used for right-hand notes, and the bass clef holds the left-hand notes (the following figure illustrates the two clefs as they normally appear together).

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: The treble clef (for right-hand notes) and bass clef (for left-hand notes).

The treble clef (for right-hand notes) and bass clef (for left-hand notes).

In real-life playing, you sometimes reach down to the bass clef notes with your right hand, and there’s no law saying your left hand can’t play treble clef notes. But for most practical purposes, each hand usually stays on its own clef.

The bass clef staff works exactly like the treble clef staff, in that notes are placed on lines and in spaces between the lines. In fact, the staffs are identical (five horizontal lines each), but the clefs make the note placements different. A note placed on the middle line of the treble clef (B) is not the same as a note placed on the middle line of the bass clef (D).

The treble and bass clefs are divided around middle C. Middle C on the bass and treble clefs; it is notated on the bass clef as the note resting above the staff on a single leger line (see the following figure).

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: Middle C can be notated on both the treble clef and bass clef.

Middle C can be notated on both the treble clef and bass clef.

Double Staff

This is a good time to join the two music staffs into a single, double staff. In piano music, the left-hand staff (bass clef) and right-hand staff (treble clef) are joined together with bar lines that extend vertically down through both staffs. To emphasize the bonding of the two staffs, a bracket on the left end of the double-staff joins them together (see the previous figure).

As mentioned above, the two staffs (treble and bass clef) are identical in how they function, but note placements are different. This is undeniably more difficult than if the note placements were the same. If they were the same, you’d only have to learn one staff, then apply that knowledge to both hands. As it is, however, you must learn how to read the staffs independently. This is perhaps the trickiest part of learning to read piano music, but like anything else it just takes some experience and practice.

To start, look at the following figure, which spells out all the notes of the bass clef down to the first leger line beneath the staff. You can use this illustration whenever you need a refresher course in reading the bass clef.

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: The bass clef notes, and where to find them on the keyboard.

The bass clef notes, and where to find them on the keyboard.

To help you learn the bass clef notes, you can use a mnemonic device. If you take the notes of each of the bass clef lines, bottom to top, they can form an acronym for a memorable phrase. The notes are: G (bottom line), B (next line up), D (middle line), F (below the top line), and A (top line). Here are a few phrases sure to help you remember the order of bass clef lines:

Hands-On with the Left Hand

Now it’s time to give your left hand some hands-on experience with the keyboard. Try placing your left thumb on middle C, letting your other fingers rest on the four keys to the left of middle C. No need to actually play any key yet—though if you did, the roof probably won’t cave in. Now place your right thumb on middle C, without removing your left thumb. That’s right—both thumbs are sharing the key, but just resting on it without playing the note.

Your hands are now resting in the classic ready position for playing a keyboard, sort of like resting your fingers on a computer keyboard, ready to type. From the middle C position, your hands are best poised to leap into musical action.

Keeping both hands resting in the ready position, thumbs resting on middle C, play the keys downward with your left hand, starting with the thumb and proceeding to the little finger, then reverse the direction back up (see the following figure).

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: Play these left-hand notes with the fingerings indicated.

Play these left-hand notes with the fingerings indicated. Remember that left-hand fingerings mirror right-hand fingeringsfinger number 1 is the thumb.

Remember, you can download these exersises here.

Now try getting both hands into the act. Start from the bottom—the little finger of your left hand, which should be resting on the F key—and play each note all the way to the little finger of your right hand (resting on G). When you get to middle C, play it twice on the way up—first with your left thumb, then with your right thumb. On the way down you also play it twice, first with the right thumb. Take your time, and don’t worry about rhythm or counting. Just play each note clearly, and release each key as you play the next key. The following figure spells out the notation for this exercise.

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: Play the notes slowly up from your left-hand little finger to your right-hand little finger, then back down.

This exercise uses all your fingers. Play the notes slowly up from your left-hand little finger to your right-hand little finger, then back down, using the fingerings shown here.

Here’s one more thing to try. This exercise is exciting (assuming you’re as easily excited as I am) because it starts you playing with both hands at once. Start by playing middle C with both thumbs pressing the key down. Using both thumbs on one key may seem like wasted effort, not to mention cramped conditions for your thumbs as they squeeze onto a single key, but it helps your coordination.

Now play both index fingers at the same time—your left index finger should be resting on the B below middle C, and your right index finger should play the D above middle C. Then move on to the middle fingers, then the ring fingers, then the little fingers.

The figure below shows you what this exercise looks like on paper. Don’t worry in the slightest about rhythm and counting—just concentrate on playing the notes with both hands simultaneously. Remember to release the keys when you play the next keys. As shown in the illustration, when you get to the little fingers, turn right around and work your way back to the thumbs on middle C.

Piano 101: Learning the Left-Hand Notes: Time to play with both hands at once!

Time to play with both hands at once! Middle C is shared by the thumbs of both hands.

Congratulations: now you’re playing piano with both hands! For more information on playing piano, be sure to check out our quick guides Piano 101: Learning the Right-Hand Notes and Piano Exercises: Fingering and Practicing Chromatic Scales. Happy playing!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Piano, Third Edition, by Brad Hill