A question I’m constantly asked is what pieces to learn on the piano, especially from beginners. There’s such an overwhelming amount of piano music out there, so it’s difficult to choose!
The problem with this question is it’s highly individual. This is the kind of problem I like to solve in the studio, one-on-one, to customize a learning plan.
However, since this is such a common question, I wanted to at least provide some general guidance and suggestions. I’m also thinking about expanding on this topic in the future by doing a course or online coaching, so let me know if that’s something you’d be interested in.
From 0 to Chopin
Here’s a common scenario: A relative beginner listens to Chopin, falls in love, and decides to learn some Chopin. Problem is, even the easiest Chopin is at an early advanced level. So this beginner attempts to learn, say, Chopin’s Prelude in B minor. They pour a ton of time and energy into it and are eventually able to play it…
…Sort of. Playing it is a struggle, they’re so focused on the notes that any expression suffers, and they have to play it constantly in order to maintain it. Maybe they’ve had to spend months learning it, a single piece, and nothing else.
This pattern continues, and maybe in a years’ time this person has learned 3 or 4 pieces. Hours of work to only have learned a few pieces in a single year? That’s a very unproductive way to spend all your practice time.
If you’re spending a few months only on one piece, you’re not going to be developing your sight reading skills. You’ll sight read until you get to know the piece well enough, and then you’ll only be using the music as a memory aid. You’ll spend months at a time not actually reading, and thus not actually learning.
But learning Chopin is exciting, and impressive – and learning short little etudes and Mozart pieces is far less glamorous.
What pieces to learn: More is more
I’ve seen this in my studio time and time again – you’ll have far more success learning lots of short, level-appropriate pieces than you will learning a few behemoth pieces. And once you’ve spent years (yes, years) going step-by-step through all those little pieces, you’ll be infinitely more equipped to tackle a Chopin piece.
Learning it won’t be a struggle. You’ll be able to see patterns (melodies, harmonies) in the notes. You’ll be able to focus on all the details, instead of just the rhythm and notes. And you’ll be able to learn it quickly, since your sight reading skills are so well-developed – no more spending months upon months on one piece only.
The glamour of a difficult piece
Learning a challenging Chopin piece seems like it would be way more fun than learning all those beginner pieces. Weirdly enough, though, I find the opposite ends up being true in reality.
Since learning that awesome Chopin piece is such a struggle, it makes practicing piano a real grind – even if you love the piece. And since you have to grind through it for so many hours, the love of that piece usually dies somewhere along the way.
Beginner pieces seem less glamorous at first sight, but end up being more fun to practice – because you can actually accomplish them in a reasonable amount of time, without getting a giant headache.
Chopsticks might not look exciting on paper, but being able to master it in a couple weeks is really motivating.
Then you get to move on to an ever-so-slightly more challenging piece. And then the next, and the next. You’ll actually be able to look back and measure your progress over the span of a year, which you can’t really do if you’re only learning a few big pieces.
What pieces should I learn?
Okay, now back to the main question – what pieces should I learn on piano?
The short answer is: Easier ones than you might think (see above).
One resource I ALWAYS recommend, whether or not you’re a part of a music school, is to flip through the RCM piano syllabus.
This syllabus has a HUGE amount of music organized by grade/level, in all kinds of genres – Classical, Baroque, pop, jazz, etc. If you know nothing about beginner piano repertoire and you don’t have a teacher to give you guidance, browsing the list between a Preparatory-Grade 2 level will give you a ton of ideas.
One of the first videos on this channel was on recommending books for beginners, which can give you more ideas if you’re just starting out. I’ve also done similar videos for a grade 1 and grade 2 level.
Standard books in my studio
As I mentioned, each student I teach ends up with a customized learning path, but there are some consistencies, especially when they’re beginners. I almost always use:
–Piano Adventures method books (lesson, technique, theory) – the main series if they’re a child, the Adult series for, you guessed it, adults. We go through these books in order, since there are music lessons within.
–Christopher Norton Connections – I use these books for a few years, starting at the grade 1 level. These have really appealing tunes in them that everyone seems to like, regardless of age. And I like how each book is levelled (there’s book 1 for grade 1, book 2 for grade 2, and so on). You can use these books all the way up to a grade 8 level. We learn these pieces out of order, choosing whichever one the student seems interested in, or if I think they should study something in particular.
–Scales, arpeggios, and etc: I don’t like to spend too much time on piano technique, but we always spend at least a few minutes each lesson on this stuff. You don’t necessarily need a book (but the Brown Book of Scales is a classic), and a lot of these techniques are introduced in the Piano Adventures series.
-For fun books: In addition to all the above, we usually choose a for-fun book that the student chooses. I’ll show them some level-appropriate books from my studio, play them some music, and have them pick which one sounds the most interesting to them. These are all books that can be found in the RCM syllabus.
Classical vs. Modern
There’s a big debate on whether or not to teach Classical or modern styles to beginners. I’m personally a fence-sitter. Most awesome Classical music isn’t for beginners, so I don’t believe in a Classical-only approach. Sure, there’s some simple Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and I absolutely teach those. But a lot of the really expressive and interesting tunes at an earlier level are more modern.
I like to teach a variety. If a student has three pieces on the go, one might be Bach (from the Baroque era), one might be a modern jazz piece by Christopher Norton, and the other might be an etude by Carl Czerny. Czerny has about a million books of etudes for all levels, including beginners – that’s another good place to look if you’re wanting to build technique.
Well-rounded vs. Deep dives
Most students do well with a few pieces at a time in a variety of different eras and time periods, but I’ve experimented with deep dive learning as well. Some people (such as myself) seem to thrive if they throw themselves headlong into one style for a while.
For example, upon discovering Bach, you might be inclined to learn a whole bunch of Bach, instead of just a piece or two. I like doing this with albums. If I pick up a music album (such as Bach’s Preludes), I want to work through the whole thing, start to finish.
Both approaches have their merits – it just depends on your personality. If you tend to be a very obsessive, all-in person, the deep dive approach might work for you. But if you get bored easily and crave variety, that would be a disaster.
Specific recommendations on what pieces to learn
So far I’ve given some advice and general book recommendations, but I haven’t recommended specific pieces. Again, our learning paths are too individual for me to do that.
What I want to do with this video is give you some ideas and tools to do your own explorations. The RCM Syllabus is one of the best tools for exploring new music ideas.
If you’re really stuck, I suggest picking up one of the RCM or ABRSM repertoire books. Each music school has a repertoire book per grade, so you can choose a grade and explore a variety of music within that book.
These books have a wide variety of genres, from Baroque to modern, so you’ll be able to learn a variety of skills, as well as what kind of music you like.
Say you’re playing music from the RCM grade 1 book and you come across Anne Crosby’s Robots. You immediately love it (who doesn’t love this tune?). So you look it up in the syllabus and see that it’s from a book called In My Dreams. You look up this book to see what other pieces are in it, how difficult it is, and check out some YouTube performances of the pieces. You decide it’s awesome, and purchase it.
That’s a great method of finding new music!
Maybe you start playing pieces from In My Dreams and realize that, though Celebration is playable, Can’t Catch Me! Is a little too difficult. That’s okay! You can come back and try it later, in half a year or a year.
Sheet Music Plus also gives you an idea of how difficult a book is. For the In My Dreams example, it says the pieces in this book range from about level 1-3. So if you’re already playing lots of music at a grade 3 level, you should be able to tackle the whole book. If you’re playing lots of music at a grade 1 level, some of it might feel like a big challenge.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this video, I am thinking about doing a bit of online coaching in the future on this topic. I don’t have any plans on doing formal online lessons, but I think it might be fun to do some one-on-one music planning.
At the beginning of each school year, I make a rough map for each student – what kind of books we’ll be using, what pieces we’ll be learning, any performances or competitions – and help them chart out the course. Picking music is partly me telling them what to learn, and part collaboration. I thought some of you might find that process helpful as well.
If there seems to be any interest in this idea I’ll pursue it further. For now, hopefully this video has given you some ideas for charting your own course!