Why Learning the Piano is Hard
An 88-keyed lesson in seeing composite realities and avoiding the monolith fallacy
“I played piano for a couple of years, but I don’t anymore.”
It’s a stock phrase in the adult social world. Almost everyone seems to have dabbled with piano lessons in their youth, but the vast majority of the them didn’t stick with it. And plenty of adults, having never played as a child, try to pick it up later in life. The results are rarely different regardless of life stage: the piano gets dropped (metaphorically).
This is not a matter of musical talent, despite what people might tell themselves, and despite what they’re told by others. There are better and worse ways of learning (and teaching) piano, and we happen to live in the timeline that is dominated by lesser pedagogies.
If you want to learn a superior approach to piano, I highly recommend Fundamentals of Piano Practice, by Chuan C. Chang. That webpage has links to get a paperback copy on Amazon, but you can also get the PDF for free. The site has no SSL, and is just raw HTML, so you know it’s good (it is produced by a Bell Labs guy, after all). Reading the introduction will give you a good idea of the author’s method.
BUT: this essay is not about how to learn the piano, this essay so far to the seeming contrary notwithstanding.
It’s about why the piano tends to be hard for many people, and how to apply that insight productively.
The answer: it is composite skill, made of many different sub-skills, but most adults do not really grasp this. The psychological consequences spell inevitable dropped piano.
What are composite skills?
A composite skill is one that is actually the integrated performance of several sub-skills. It’s not always true that you, as an observer of a performed composite skill, will be able to determine all of its sub-skills.
If you aren’t aware of this reality, you will overweigh the importance of the skills you do observe, and you might ignore other necessary ones entirely. Your evaluations of composite skill difficulty, mastery, impressiveness, and invested work will be wrong.
Learning to identify composite skills is vital for life, and I’ll illustrate with some examples.
Let’s say you’re a gentleman of delicate proportion who hopes to put on some muscle. You cart yourself down to the gym and witness some hulk lifting hundreds of pounds in the squat cage, at the bench press, or wherever. You might initially think: aha, I just need to lift weights, and one day I too will impress the delicately proportioned.
You would, of course, be horribly incorrect. You’re witnessing a composite skill; within the achievement of a big lift of any kind are many sub-skills, like the execution of a planned exercise routine (called project management in other domains), a proper diet, proper form and body alignment, and much more. But most of those will not be immediately apparent to you in the moment, and some of them are impossible to witness then.
If you were to try to get swol/huge/jewcy/thicc solely by reverse engineering the witnessed portions of the composite skill of strength training, you would fail. And you would have a frustrating, bad time doing it. You’d hit walls, make little to no progress, and might eventually just say “it’s just not in my genetics.”1
Or, if you did this while learning the piano, you’d say “I’m just not musically talented.”
The Sub-Skills of Piano Performance
So what are the sub-skills involved in learning to play piano? I don’t think many people realize everything they’re trying to do at the same time (it’s truly extraordinary what humans can do), and not explicitly compartmentalizing each thing makes the whole extraordinary set of skills seem overwhelming and overly complicated.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything, but it definitely reveals the composite nature of “playing the piano.” You are, in fact, learning to do many different things across multiple sensory and modal dimensions:2
Muscle training, hand positions, fingering: there are particular ways of holding your hands over the piano keys to get the best result out of the instrument, and different keys and note patterns will require different hand positions. Your fingers also need to get stronger and cultivate new muscle memory. Further: there is a best way to use each of your fingers separately and together—you don’t just hit any note with any finger.
Mental-physical map of notes to piano keys: you must cultivate an almost synesthetic association of specific tones to specific piano keys (which will also then be linked to ideas about how your hands should flow over them).
Reading music: oh boy. It’s not like learning a natural language, but it still is gaining fluency with a complicated, sprawling notation system, and translating what you read into physical actions. The piano has an added bonus: you are learning to read two clefs at the same time, two halves of a grand staff. Although the bass and treble clefs are related and flow into each other, the practical reality can sometimes feel like learning to read two separate languages at first, one for each hand. And then reading both and playing both.
Theory: music theory (which technically encompasses musical notation too) is the study of the possibilities of music—of music as a system. It is a new way of thinking relationally about the world, and it introduces a lot of new concepts that take some practice to get your head around.
Pedals, your feet, and more?? Your posture, breathing, and whole body contribute to the ease (or not) with which you play piano. And piano pedals require integrating your feet into the instrument along with your hands.
Performance! How to perform, have showmanship, express things musically, and more. Performance is a major composite skill all on its own, even as it is a sub-skill of piano playing.
Some Other Common Composite Skills
Language fluency. If you have only ever learned one language—your native tongue—then it’s easy to overlook that it’s a composite skill; you learned it when you were still gaining your ability to form longterm memories, and with the natural fluidity of the very young. You need to attempt a foreign language as an older youth or an adult to really see all the separate skillsets needed to pull off a language (hearing, speaking, reading, writing). Foreign phonemes very quickly demonstrate the difficult, multifaceted nature of language.
Reading (see my thread). Reading well is not straightforward, and most people don’t do it! Also note: reading is a composite skill that is also a sub-skill of language mastery.
The Piano’s Lessons
Composite skills are everywhere, and most things are composite in one way or another. In the face of this, you should be curious about all the sub-skills that lurk beneath the observed surface of your behavioral world. More broadly: you should always question what unseen dependencies/components accompany that which is seen. This requires noticing, curiosity, and wonder.
However: the piano’s lessons aren’t just fun facts. They are vital for a resilient, enduring psychological posture.
If you fall to the monolith fallacy—treating everything as one big thing, rather than many sub-things, most things will look beyond your ability. You will feel weaker, less intelligent, and less capable than you actually are. The monolith fallacy forces you to attempt to eat the elephant all in one bite, rather than in many small ones.
But life, like the piano, is composite.3 We are all more capable than we suspect.
We all have physical and mental limits imposed by our own biology, but usually people stop learning a new skill well before those limits. In the first instance, most people don’t even explore enough to have a sense of their own limits!
I wrote about the monolith fallacy in the context of politics here; it has many of the same consequences you’d expect based on the contents of this essay, although I directly discuss the monolith fallacy’s relationship to anti-concreteness, scope, and resolution in the politics version of this essay.