So you finally made the decision to take some piano lessons. The question now is how long will it take to learn? I’ve been connecting music students to teachers for about 6 years now, and this is still one of the most asked questions. I always struggle with giving a good answer over the phone. It’s not a bad question, it’s just a hard one to answer. In order to answer the question though we need to understand what “learning piano” actually means to you.
How Long to Master the Piano?
Piano, or music in general, can completely take over your life. When I was growing up I would practice 6-8 hours a day, and I would take 2-3 hours of lessons a week. I continued this through college. I don’t take lessons anymore, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make me a better pianist. Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. 10,000 hours is about 90 minutes a day for 20 years. Only planning on practicing a half hour a day? If you never missed a day, it would take about 60 years to accumulate the coveted 10,00 hours.
Scientists now believe the 10,000 hour rule to be a myth. Winners of major classical music competitions have something closer to 25,000 hours of practice. That’s three hours a day for 20 years. I personally don’t believe there to be some magic number of hours you need to practice before you become an international super star pianist. There are too many variables. The age you start, is obviously important. The methods and effectiveness of your practice also have to be heavily scrutinized. Regardless of these variables though, I don’t think anyone would argue thousands of hours of careful practice are required to be an expert pianist. For the purpose of this article, let’s assume decades of practice.
Your Goals for Learning Piano
Now that we understand how long it will likely take to play at a professional level, let’s tackle the real heart of the question. Most people that ask this aren’t asking “how long until I win that international piano competition?” Most people just want to know how long it will take until they feel fairly competent if placed in front of a piano. This is where we really need to define what “fairly competent” means to you.
Learning One Piece
Is there one piece you want to learn, and that’s it? You can learn one piece of music (that isn’t too difficult) fairly quickly with some practice. There are many YouTube tutorials that teach you pieces by rote. What this means is they play a piece for you and have you copy their finger movements exactly. If you want to learn just one piece of music, this is likely the most effective way to learn. People with little to no experience can learn fairly quickly.
The problem with this method is all you’re learning is one piece of music. Learning by rote won’t help you to read directly (unless you are learning by rote and reading at the same time). You won’t be able to play any other piece unless you have someone sit there and teach you by rote again.
So you want to learn just one piece? Learn by rote. You’ll probably learn a lot of the piece in just a few hours, even without a lot of experience. If you want to learn to play the piano, take lessons and learn to read. Rote playing may be part of your lessons, but eventually you’ll need to learn to read.
If your goal is to be able to read music, then we also need to understand how far you want to take that. Memorizing the notes on the page and the notes on the keyboard doesn’t have to take more than a few weeks. Although most students will spend much longer (sometimes months) learning the notes, that’s because they aren’t practicing, or practicing correctly. There really isn’t a whole lot to memorize. You only have to memorize where around 48 notes are on the page in relation to your keyboard to play most music. 48 sounds like a lot now that I actually type it, but what if you only had to memorize 48 words to learn Chinese for example. I think everyone would speak it. It doesn’t take a lot of time. Just concentrated effort and repetition.
Knowing where the notes are on the page is one thing though, and having your fingers actually hit them in time is another. Let’s assume you were practicing regularly and effectively, I would guess you could feel fairly comfortable reading simple music the first time you see it in about 6 months. Most people aren’t going to practice that well and consistently though, so about 3 years is probably a better guess on average.
In order to feel competent reading intermediate music on sight expect to add another 7 years to that. This is a pretty tough skill to develop.
For those of you who want to parse my estimates, yes I understand these are almost completely arbitrary numbers and it could take an individual much less, or much more time to learn. However I feel like it’s a disservice to the people asking the question if we don’t at least attempt to give some concrete answers.
Playing Advanced Music
Maybe reading in and of itself isn’t your end goal. You just want to be able to play some more advanced music. You know, the fast impressive stuff like Liszt, or Rachmaninoff. I would say on average a child that started from a young age that was consistent in practicing well and often, would likely be able to start this type of music by high school. So let’s estimate about 10 years. Pianists that begin as adults will likely take longer. Part of the reason could be just because it is harder to be a consistent practicer. The other, less popular reason, is that children just are able to learn faster. It’s sad but true. Missing out on those early years of practicing do make a difference.
The 10 years I mention can be much shorter, that’s why you see 7 year old piano prodigies. Prodigies like this are not as magical as you may think. If you start when you’re 2 and your parent teaches you daily, you can reach that level in often half the time.
Not interested in classical? Well you’re in luck. You just cut back the time it will take you to learn by quite a bit. Popular music, from a difficulty standpoint, is not even in the same ballpark as classical music. Once you feel comfortable reading music, and understanding chords and chord structure you can be a pretty competent pop pianist. Give it 3-5 years of practice, and most people that hear you will be impressed.
I think the reason this question gets asked so often is because the person asking the question is hoping that in a few months they can learn to play the piano well. Unfortunately that will almost never happen. If you’re not planning on making this a part of your life for at least a few years, you may end up being one of those people that “took piano lessons” but can’t play a single piece of music. So just in case you skimmed through the whole article lets review a general timeline for how long it takes you to learn how to play:
- Learn one piece by rote: A few weeks
- Read Basic Piano Music: 6 months-3 years
- Read Intermediate Piano Music: 3-10 years
- Play Advanced Classical Music: 10-15 years
- Play Popular Music: 3-5 years
Remember these are estimated numbers because I get asked this so often. The student could learn faster or slower than these numbers for a variety of reasons. Using these numbers however will show that piano isn’t something you can learn in a few lessons. No one does. It will take thousands of hours to feel competent. Does that mean you shouldn’t learn? No! The things that bring the greatest enjoyment in life are not the things that come easily. It’s the things that take real concerted effort that will bring you the most joy in your life. Playing music is so rewarding exactly because it’s not easy.
What has been your experience learning the piano? How long did it take you? Let us know in the comments.