The Why and How of Correct Piano Fingering

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Planning the piano fingering of a piece might feel like an uninspiring chore to do...

But using correct fingering at the very start of learning a piece helps you not only to learn it faster, but also to memorize it easier. 

Work Out The Fingering First

With great fingering you will be able to play with more ease and fluidity, so it is well worth the effort!

Piano Fingering RulesLearning the correct fingering immediately, saves time later.

Make sure to start by working out what fingering you will use immediately when you begin a new piece. In this way you'll learn the correct "movement" with your fingers right away, and don't have to waste time later trying to re-learn incorrect fingering too much.

Today most piano sheet music from a good edition has fingering already written in the score, checking it out first will save you a lot of time.

Start by evaluating the fingering that's already there and see what works. There's no need to re-invent the wheel!

But in some music there is no fingering, so you need to know about some common "rules", fingering that has been tried and tested and works for most pianists.

Should Everyone Use the Same Fingering?

Great Tip

Get the fingering right and stick to it.

The "muscle memory" gets activated the first time you play, and if you don't change it, it will become automatic so you won't have to think about it anymore!

You might find some fingering that doesn't feel right at all. Sometimes the fingering will suit one persons hand better than another, so it is important to change if it doesn’t suit you.

When you work with the task of fingering (and practicing!), always keep a pencil handy and write any changes you do as you work your way through the score.

Don't trust it to memory only, thinking “ah, I will remember it anyway”. Because you won’t! And it is a big waste of energy trying to remember what worked before... 

Fingering is fundamental, but you have better things to focus on when playing the piece – like musical expression and phrasing.

So how do you plan your fingering? Fingering serves one simple purpose; to help us perform the piece easily and in the most effortless way.

It should help us to play difficult and/or fast passages with fluidity and without hesitation, and ultimately is a basic tool for us to be able to perform the piece as we want to express it musically.

When you start to learn how to play the piano, clever fingering becomes necessary when you leave the “five finger stage” of playing. As soon as you need to change hand position or stretch more than a fifth, you need to figure out what fingers to use.

Piano Fingering Rules

Basic Piano Fingering Rules

So, what are the rules for good piano fingering, especially if there is no fingering written in the music?

Well, actually- I would say whatever works- works! But it is harder for a beginner pianist to know “what works” of course.

Here are four basic rules when planning what fingering to use:

1. Avoid using your first fingers (thumbs) on a black key.

The reason for this is that the thumb is very short, and your hand will make unnecessary jerky movements.

But, there are exceptions to this “rule”; for example when you play the whole piece mostly on the black keys, your hand will already be up on the black keys, so using the thumb is working well then.

2. Learn basic fingering patterns.

Learn the basic fingering patterns used when playing:

This will teach you tried and tested (over hundreds of years) fingering patterns that work!

Since music is made of three main types of "building blocks" (or patterns);

  1. scales or part of scales,
  2. chords – broken, blocked or arpeggiated,
  3. and intervals,

learning the fingerings for these patterns takes care of most of your fingering “problems”.

3. Find fingering that works for as long as possible.

Try to find a fingering that lets your hand stay in the same position for as long as possible. Be "cleverly lazy" as I tell my students, and avoid moving around your hand here and there. Stay!

4. Fingering should always serve expression.

Think about each musical phrase you play. 

  • Where does it lead to?
  • Where is the peak or climax?
  • Where is the landing or resting point?
  • At what point does the phrase need to flow forward, and where can it stop?

If you notice what you thought was a clever and practical piano fingering stops the flow, or makes a passage difficult to play- find another fingering and you have solved a very important passage! (It will also be much more fun to play now when you “won” it!)

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