When starting to learn a musical instrument, one thing that can put people off is the basic nature of the tunes on hand to get you off the ground.
Of course, it makes sense that the simplest music is the easiest to play, but who wants to learn nursery rhymes when the simplistic construction of many modern pop songs actually makes them just as easy to tackle as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’?
Learning to play pop songs is much more likely to keep you or your kids interested in persevering with the keyboard or piano, so we’ve prepared a list of epic contemporary beginner piano songs you can learn right now, each of which will help players focus on a particular skill.
Essential skills every piano player should know
So if you’re just unboxed your new beginner keyboard or digital piano, what should you be looking for in the songs you learn first? Let's look at a few of the core attributes that the songs we've picked will help you work on.
Learning how to send different messages from your brain to different hands at the same time is key to making any serious advances as a keyboard player, so any song where the left hand plays something different to what the right hand is playing is going to be good exercise. Similarly, being able to play separate notes with each finger without getting them mixed up is important. The ability to press down each finger individually without the other fingers getting involved in proceedings is known as finger independence. Songs that feature melodies good for practising this will thus be near the top of your list when looking for tunes to expand your repertoire.
Everyone knows that scales are an important part of the keyboard learning process, but practising them isn't the most exciting thing on earth. How much cooler would it be if you were able to incorporate scales into the context of playing an actual song? So try looking for songs whose melodies are made up of runs up and down the major or minor scales to make practising them a bit less of a chore.
Triads are the basic, three-note chords made up of a root note, a fifth and a minor or major third in the middle. Once you've mastered playing triads, you'll be able to attempt a basic version of pretty much any song there is. So to begin with, when finding songs to practise, it makes sense to seek out tunes that contain relatively few chords. This way, you’ll be able to play whole songs with only a couple of chords under your belt.
Songs with a combination of major and minor chords - which to be fair is most of them - will not only teach you how to swap between major and minor shapes from a muscle-memory point of view, but will also serve to illustrate how using both types can affect the overall sound and mood of a chord progression.
Inversions are chords where the notes are played in a different order. Root position indicates that the root note of the chord is played at the bottom of the stack (lowest in pitch or furthest left on the keyboard), first inversion places the third at the bottom and the root at the top, and second inversion places the fifth at the bottom and third at the top. Inversions allow you to string chords together smoothly so your hands don’t have to leap all over the keyboard when playing a progression.
Arpeggios are where the notes of a chord are spread out and played individually, often in a run up and down the keyboard through multiple octaves. Practising arpeggios is a great way to develop overall dexterity as well as increasing familiarity with the notes in a chord and where they're located across different octaves of the keyboard.
Timing and rhythm
Timing is crucial when playing pop songs, as they’re almost always against a steady beat, so it makes sense to include a rhythmical element to your keyboard practice regime to develop a solid sense of timing. You can of course use a metronome to help yourself stay in time, but it’s far more fun to use a programmed drum beat from a DAW, drum machine or your keyboard’s auto accompaniment section to play along to. With either method, you’ll be able to vary the playback speed or tempo, so start off slow to make it easier to play with accurate timing, then speed up as your confidence grows.
When it comes to deciding exactly how to play these tunes, arrangement styles will vary according to your level of playing experience, but there will be two main approaches to playing songs on the keyboard. You’ll either be playing low octaves and perhaps fifths with your left hand, coupled with a mixture of chords and melody notes with the right, or you’ll be playing chords with the left hand and all melody notes on the right. If you’re accompanying a vocalist, you’ll most likely gravitate towards the first approach, while if you’re performing solo, the second technique might be more appropriate.
Of course, the main thing you should be looking out for when choosing a song to learn is that it’s fun for you to play, so don't pick a song you don't like just because it has a good mix of minor and major chords, say. It’s all about enjoyment, after all!
Beginner piano songs: Full list and lessons
1. Imagine - John Lennon
Great for: Right-hand finger independence
One of the easiest classic rock songs to learn on the piano, this will help reinforce your skills in the C major key, and give you some insight into building melodies from basic chords. Not only that, but the rhythm of the piano part in this is a distinctive rocking back and forth between thumb and third and fifth fingers that’s great for overall hand strength and finger independence, plus there’s that nice little twiddly bit that turns the verse progression around from the F chord back to the C. On top of all this, it’s a great song that almost everyone knows, so there’ll be no shortage of people singing along when you play it.
2. Lean On Me - Bill Withers
Great for: Moving a fixed chord shape
This one's on the list because of its shifting chord pattern that's very easy to get the hang of. If you start in the key of C major, you can play the majority of the song simply by forming a 1st inversion C major triad shape (E, G, C) and then walking it up the keyboard and back down again, one note of the scale at a time, maintaining the same chord shape throughout. The melody is formed by the top note of each chord, making it a great exercise for moving chords around in small jumps up and down the keyboard. This song also serves well as an introduction to the basics of diatonic harmony - essentially, which notes from a scale sound good when played together as chords.
3. Clocks - Coldplay
Great for: Arpeggiated triads
This Coldplay classic is great for practising arpeggiated triad chords - three note chords where the notes are played one after the other instead of all at the same time - against a steady rock rhythm. Playing the main riff against a backing beat or metronome will help to develop a rock-solid sense of timing, build finger strength and if you play in the original key of Eb major it’ll get plenty of those scary black notes involved too. As a bonus, there are only three main chords in the whole tune, so the progression is nice and simple but still sounds great.
4. Hey There Delilah - Plain White Tees
Great for: Fingerpick-style guitar impersonation
Understated, timelessly cool and romantic, this is a terrific tune to learn to impress a partner with. You can go one of two ways with this one - you can either just concentrate on the chords and melody, or you can go the slightly trickier route of trying to replicate the fingerpick-stye guitar part from the original version by using broken chords in the left hand. A simple chord progression that mostly uses only three chords, combined with a beautiful melody that works brilliantly when performed solo, makes this a worthy addition to any beginner’s repertoire.
5. Let It Be - The Beatles
Great for: Learning the universal 1-5-6-4 progression
Another easy Beatles classic that's a sure-fire singalong - everybody knows this one - Let It Be has all the basic classic elements. A simple, four-chord 1-5-6-4 verse progression, an easy melody consisting of just a few notes within a small range and an irresistible outro chant over just three chords. One of the most common progressions in the world of pop (if you’re in the key of C major, 1-5-6-4 translates to C-G-Am-F), get this nailed and you’ll literally be able to sing hundreds of other songs over the top. It’s like learning 500 songs all at once.
6. Blinding Lights - The Weeknd
Great for: Mixing major and minor triads in the left hand
This song uses a repeated progression of the same four chords for each section. In the original key, the chords are Fm - Cm - Eb - Bb, so once you’ve got the progression down, all that remains is to master the different right hand melodies that define each section. The chords are a mixture of major and minor triads - two of each - great for illustrating how the two chord qualities can be combined to make an effective and hooky progression. Throw in that easy and irresistibly catchy lead hook and you’re onto a winner.
7. Believer - Imagine Dragons
Great for: 12/8 time signature, black notes
Since the drums on the original version of this epic and dramatic number are such an integral part of the tune, when you play this barnstormer on solo piano, it takes on a whole new dimension as an acoustic number. The song is actually in 12/8 time, manifesting itself in a sort of bouncy, triplet feel to the main melody, so it’s brilliant for escaping that 4/4 bracket and introducing the idea of new and different time signatures. It’s also good for practising rapid, repeated notes, and in the original key of Bb minor, great for getting those black notes under your fingers.
8. All of Me - John Legend
Great for: Inversions, right hand fifths
This romantic piano ballad is easy to play thanks to its slow, steady pace, repetition of melody and small range of hand movement - the chords can be voiced using inversions in such a way that you only need to adjust the fingers of each hand slightly to achieve the chord changes. That iconic intro section alone is good for getting used to playing fifths in the right hand, but play with caution as this song has been known to lead to marriage proposals.