The Best Way to Learn the Piano as an Adult

What is the BEST way to learn the piano as an adult? Is it by ear? Is it by reading sheet music? Or is it by rote with video tutorials or a piece of software like Synthesia? 


The Best Way to Learn the Piano as an Adult



In this post, my guest, Doug Hanvey, will be answering this very question: What is the best way to learn the piano as an adult?


Doug Hanvey is the best person to answer this question, because he is a piano teacher who specialises in adult learners. He has his own private piano studio in Portland, USA and teaches virtual piano lessons for adults over at Creative Keyboardist. I had the pleasure of talking with him about all things to do with piano and in this post, I’ll be sharing a short clip from the interview.



Here is the transcript:

What would you say is the best way, if there’s such a thing as “the best way”, to learn the piano as an adult? Would you say it’s by reading, by ear, by rote or is it a mixture? What is your opinion?

That’s a great question, because the three ways of learning that you just mentioned are the three ways that I talk about. I haven’t thought of a fourth. For example, you can learn to play a piece on piano by reading it, or you learn it by ear, or you learn it by someone showing you what keys to press.


I’m not a big fan of the latter. I’m not a big fan of rote learning. I think that leaves you as a piano student rather helpless. The piano is such a complex instrument. Granted, there have been pianists, even really excellent pianists, maybe even great pianists who haven’t read. Some of them are probably because they’re blind, but others because they’ve never taken the time to read or they were intimidated by it or maybe that’s not a natural learning capacity they have, but maybe they have really good ears. And so that’s another excellent way.


Actually, I think that between reading and ear, I think both of those are really important. Occasionally, a little rote learning isn’t going to hurt, but I’m really not a fan of these learning websites that show you what keys to press.


I’m not a fan either.

Maybe start there. That’s fine. If you’ve never played piano before, it gives you instant satisfaction. “Look! I can do this.” That’s great. But if you really want to know what you’re doing, and you want to be a good musician, then you really do have to learn to read or develop your ear, and preferably both.


I think with piano, there are weaknesses on both ends. People that are good readers, and it’s especially true I think, for classical musicians. If you’re a good reader, you don’t necessarily need to have a great ear because you can read everything.


There’s that classic cliched story of the good classical pianist who’s invited to a birthday party, and someone says, “Can you play Happy birthday while we sing?” There’s no music for them to read. It’s like they can’t figure it out by ear because they’ve never done that before.


And then on the other hand, there are people that play by ear but they’re missing out on the opportunity to what it gives you to be able to read music well, because piano music can get so complex. Sure, you can probably learn a lot of it by ear if you had a fantastic ear. But I think both those skills should be well developed in every good musician.


Yes. I agree. And that’s the thing. The harder the pieces become at the piano, the harder it is, I assume, to learn by ear because there’s so much information in the score.

True. I imagine there are people… Have you ever seen that kid on YouTube that just has the most phenomenal ears? Maybe I’ll send it to you later, but it’s unbelievable what he can do. (Here’s the link to the video Doug mentioned.)



In short, the answer is: learn the piano by combining ear and reading sheet music. I couldn’t agree more!


Let me know in the comments below: what is YOUR preferred way of learning the piano? Is it by ear? Is it with sheet music? By rote or maybe a combination? And after reading this post, are you going to make any changes to how you’re learning the piano?


Lastly, make sure you check out Doug’s website at to learn more about his adult piano course and have a read through his very interesting blog at


Go keep exploring!


To hear the whole interview with Doug Hanvey and I talking about Doug’s adult piano course and his unique approach, why some people prefer polishing pieces to exploring lots of pieces, how creating and notating music can help adults learn the piano as well as read music more fluently, and more, join the Sight-Reading Club!

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  • John says:

    I’m in my late 70s and would like learn piano. I taught myself to sightread while teaching myself the chromatic harmonica. I can sightread harmonica quite well now. But I am one of those, who if asked to play “Happy Birthday” on my harmonica, I would need to have the music.
    Do you have any tips on how someone who reads music can start to learn how to play by ear? I find it very difficult and frustrating when I try to pick out a tune without my paper crutch.

    • I think it’s a combination of practice and ear training. Try to pick out little tunes at the piano as practice and do some ear training drills so that you get better at discerning intervals and chords. Tenuto, Perfect Ear and EarMaster7 are great apps for this.

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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