How long does it take to learn piano? (10,000 hours redux)
In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to re-approach a question on this channel from a few years ago, when PianoTV was in its infancy – how long does it take to learn piano?
The very short answer from that video was this: A long time.
But since it’s been so long, I wanted to update the video using Malcom Gladwell’s Outlier theory: That it takes 10,000 hours to achieve true mastery at something.
Scene 01 face The theory
The theory from Malcom Gladwell’s popular book The Outliers goes like this:
You need to practice something for 10,000 hours to become an expert at it. Whether that’s piano, teaching, welding, painting, you name it. 10,000 hours.
Some popular examples he uses for people who have achieved this feat include Bill Gates, who had the unique opportunity to spend all of his free time in the computer center at the University of Washington, back in the early 70s when computers were still in their infancy.
Another example are The Beatles, who played long shows in Hamburg daily for 4 months straight, in addition to many other shows. It’s estimated they played over 1,000 shows before their first crack of success. By the time they hit America in 1965, their 8 years of performing would have totalled over 10,000 hours.
How long does it take to learn piano?
So how long does it take to hit the 10,000-hour mark?
A long time (does that just sound like an echo of the first video?).
If you played piano 8 hours a day, 5 days a week – treating it like a full-time job – it would take you nearly 5 years to hit this mastery stage. Most of us aren’t able to practice piano on a full-time basis, so what about us civilians?
If you practiced 1 hour a day every single day of the year, it would take you 27 years to achieve this level of mastery. At half an hour a day, we double that to become 54 years.
So what about those of you who start piano later in life? Those who simply can’t put in more than an hour a day? Is all hope lost?
Competence versus mastery
There’s plenty of support for the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. But that’s the key word – expert.
You’ll achieve competency, and even skill, FAR before the 10,000-hour mark.
Everyone’s idea of what constitutes competency at the piano is different, but most adults I teach hit that point around the 2-year mark. After a year or so they’re usually able to achieve an early-intermediate “stretch” piece – something that sounds reasonably impressive. At the 2-year mark, they start becoming more fluent in the language of music.
At two years, most committed adults can play a simple pop piece with chords/melody, an easier intermediate piece (something short and sweet by a composer like Yann Tiersen), and some entry-level Bach and Chopin.
Chopin’s easiest piece is at around a grade 6 level, but many people love to play Chopin and will push themselves a little harder to learn it.
Many of piano’s interesting pieces are at a grade 9 level or higher. This is beyond the scope of competency, and you need some real skill to get at these ones. I don’t know many people who can adequately play pieces at this level without at least 5 years under their belt.
How many hours have I logged?
For those of you who’ve been playing for a while, I urge you to consider how many hours you’ve logged at the piano.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I’ve done two main types of piano playing since I was a child – solo piano work, and songwriting/playing in a band. I consider the songwriting stuff to be different enough from learning solo piano pieces that I’m going to split them, and not include the many hours I’ve played in a band as actual practice time.
This will be further complicated by the fact that I’ve been an inconsistent practicer throughout my life, as a child and adult. There have been seasons of my life (usually during festival or exam season) where I’ve clocked multiple hours on a near-daily basis. There have also been seasons where I’ve barely even looked at the piano.
We’re going to start with the assumption that my practice would have averaged out to 30 minutes a day between the age of 7 and 12, 5 days a week. (650 hours)
I started getting a little more serious around the teenager stage, so let’s bump it up to 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, between the ages of 13 and 16. (1,040 hours)
Then I dropped out of piano lessons, joined a band, and started heavily getting into songwriting. Let’s call the period between 16 and 20 a complete lull (even though I played the piano more in this period than the entire decade before).
At age 20 I started getting back into exam mode. This is where my practice would swing from 2-3 hours a day, to nothing. So we’re going to average it out to 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, for the next decade-ish – age 20 to 31. (2,860)
At age 31 I had a baby, and though I’ve probably clocked a handful of hours since then, we’re just going to call that the stopping point for this time experiment.
If we’re to add all those numbers up:
Assigning hours practiced to degree of competence
I am not even halfway there. And to be honest, the numbers are probably more generous than reality. But since I’ve done so much piano playing outside of the solo piano context, I’m comfortable with the numbers used.
But if we were to give numbers to basic levels of competence:
At age 12, I was reasonably competent. I was consistently winning competitions in my age group. At age 14, for example, I played Yanni’s Marching Season for a competition.
I took my grade 8 exam around age 19. So let’s say it took about 1,500 hours to hit the grade 8 mark comfortably.
I took my grade 9 exam in 2014, and my grade 10 exam in 2015. I did very well on my grade 9 exam with a mark in the high 80s, but did poorly with my grade 10 exam with a mark in the high 60s.
For grade 9, I had clocked around 3,500 hours. By grade 10, the number was around 4,000 (though probably higher since I worked really hard for that one).
The jump from grade 8 to grade 9
If my estimations are even remotely close to being accurate, I doubled my practice hours between grade 8 and grade 9. I actually find the jump from 8 to 9 to be quite large – many students who aren’t as serious about piano drop off after grade 8. At a grade 9 level, you have to be really committed – the pieces are harder, there’s more homework, and so on.
And if I’m being realistic, having more like 5,000 hours under my belt before attempting grade 10 would have almost definitely earned me a better mark. That’s not going to be the same for everyone, but it feels pretty true for me.
Final thoughts on how long it takes to learn piano
So as some final timeline thoughts:
A grade 8 level is where I like to see kids who start piano around 7 or 8 get to be around the end of high school (earlier if they’re more serious).
Grade 8 RCM is very competent – I know kids who play at this level have a solid musical foundation they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. They won’t “forget” how to play. If you make it to a grade 8 level, chances are you’re still playing piano here and there throughout life, and you’re not usually the kind of person who drops piano for 30 years.
So if it took me around 1,500 hours, that works out to about 8 years of half an hour a day (every single day of the year).
8 years really isn’t so long! Turn that into an hour a day and you slash that number to 4 years.
And remember…the time is going to pass anyway!
I really enjoy Malcom Gladwell’s books and I highly recommend checking them out – this theory is from his popular book called “The Outliers”.
10,000 hours is a huge amount of time, but there’s a big difference between mastery and competency. I just wanted to bring in a different theory to give you another perspective on how long it takes to learn piano.