The Key of One Part 2: What traditional piano lessons get wrong

In this column, I will discuss what things traditional music lessons get wrong, and how you can correct them, no matter what stage you've reached in your musicianship.

If you’re a keyboard or piano player, chances are you’ve taken piano lessons from a private instructor or maybe even gone to a music school to further yourself. As a private instructor who has also taught for years at an accredited music school, I’ve had a firsthand look at students of all levels and ages, and have noticed quite a few deficiencies across the board. In this column, I will discuss what things traditional music lessons get wrong, and how you can correct them, no matter what stage you've reached in your musicianship.

There are several issues that I see with a lot of students, many of whom are years into their studies: the inability to understand or articulate basic music/chord theory; the inability to improvise or free play; inability to transpose music easily; the inability to see patterns in notes and chords; and the inability to play melodically rather than just running scales.

There are a couple of ways that traditional music lessons fall short, and cause these inadequacies. One is that music teachers often teach notation without teaching the music theory behind it. Think of notation like Latin (an ancient language) and think of music like math (a concrete set of numbers and formulas). Because traditional music teaching is all about making you fluent in notation, it’s akin to teaching you how to do math in Latin without teaching you how to actually understand math—or even that there is such a thing as math to learn.

Plus, by being locked into notation, you are tied to a rigid document that from which few musicians will diverge. What if, in order to have a conversation, you had to pull a script out of your pocket and read it as is? Not only would you not be conversing, you’d be inflexibly tied to the text, speed, and dynamic. Reading notation has nothing to do with understanding music at its base. It merely turns you into a phonograph needle. Playing music as an intuitive language that can convey your own personal expression and catharsis? Priceless.

Traditional music instructors also tend to emphasize how everything is different based on different shapes, rather than examine the commonality of the numerical formula for music.When I was a beginning student, learning all the different scales and chords was overwhelming. It seemed like there was so much material, I didn’t know if I could remember it all. That illusion of difficulty discouraged me from continuing with lessons because I figured I wasn’t cut out for being a pro. What I didn’t realize at the time is that, though each of the 12 keys is shaped differently, we are still playing one numerical formula based on seven notes starting on the 1, which is whatever key we are in. The seven basic numbers have a sound, and that the order of the numbers—and most importantly the sound of those numbers—stays the same, regardless of the different shapes.

I didn't see that, as far as basic major and minor triads, there is one of each in each of the 12 keys, making only 24 basic chords that exist, period; that all those sixths, sevenths, ninths and elevenths, plus the sus chords, augmented and diminished fifths, and even your b2/b9 are just additions or tweaks to those triads, like frosting on the cake. And if you really learn how to bake the cake instead of getting lost in the frosting, you can learn your way around the entire chord matrix and develop a complete grasp on the art of interpreting, writing, and speaking music—all while developing your ears’ ability to hear those numbers and use them to begin singing with your fingers.

In order to stabilize the foundation of your musical knowledge, let’s re-affirm these five truths:

1. The beginning of the alphabet is ordered A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Music uses these letters in the same order. These letters have not only a sound but also a multitude of relationships and patterns based on scales, modes, and melodies.

2. The beginning of the number line is ordered 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Music uses these numbers in the same order. These numbers have a sound but only one relationship based on their order.

3. There are only 12 keys and 24 basic triads. The more you play on/with them, the better you will be at using them.

4. The piano is a percussion instrument. Therefore, you are a melodic percussionist who can practice anywhere, not just on the piano.

5. We get rusty at reading notation but do not get rusty at understanding. Once we understand something, we can only build upon it.

When you were a child, you learned the alphabet and number line and you were able to understand they were unchanging, concrete formulas that formed a foundation for a lifetime of conversing, counting, and understanding. If you give the same consideration when applying them to music, you’ll open up a world of expression, imagination, and fun!

In the next “Key of One” column, we’ll learn how to build your knowledge of chord theory and maximize your use of inversions. See you next month!

Robbie Gennet is a touring keyboardist, guitarist, longtime Keyboard contributor, and educator at Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California. His book, The Key of One (Alfred Music) outlines a thorough method for understanding music without learning traditional notation. You can get it at, and take private lessons from Robbie at

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