Book Review

Fundamentals of Piano Practice, 2nd Edition

C. C. Chang
221 pages



Until they start learning to play, most people think playing the piano is easy: you just press down on those little black and white things on the front part of the piano. Little do they know that it takes ten years to learn how to press the correct black and white things, and to press them in the correct order. Hence the popularity of books that discuss the otherwise mundane topics of fingering and technique.

This book can be downloaded free at The author is a physicist and bases his teaching of piano technique on scientific principles. His basic points may be summarized as follows:

  1. The intuitively obvious way of learning the piano is often completely wrong.
  2. Repetitive, non-musical exercises such as Hanon are harmful.
  3. All technique acquisition must be done using one hand only.
  4. Repetitive slow play can be harmful when starting a new piece.
  5. Over-practice causes stress which causes you to learn bad technique.
  6. Music should be memorized by practicing small, overlapping segments until the brain conceptualizes each segment as a unit.
  7. A practice session should end by playing slowly at least once so that your brain remembers it correctly.
There are detailed explanations of topics like finger technique, piano care, tuning, and strategies for effective practice. These would be very beneficial for anyone learning the piano, and the author has done the world a great service by providing this information free of charge.

I would, however, add one additional rule: every piano player should use a sound level meter to make sure their ears are never exposed to sound in excess of 85 decibels. Many modern pianos create sound that is so loud that it rapidly induces hearing loss. A quick visit to any piano store without bringing your earplugs will prove this. A common misconception is that people who don't have tinnitus need not worry about hearing loss. As Chang mentions, tuning a piano is even more dangerous. Even among trained professionals, there is an epidemic of hearing loss caused by inadequate attention to ear protection.

The book contains much speculation about how the brain memorizes information, and many sentences like this:

"Serial play can be described by any oscillatory function such as a trigonometric function [or] hyperbolic function."
There is also a section on the "Thermodynamics of Piano Playing" and the author even tries at one point to relate Beethoven to Group Theory. Mathophobes will be relieved to know, however, that the equations the author presents for calculating how many times you need to play a piece are not really meant to be taken seriously.

This scientific viewpoint is especially helpful in understanding the physics of piano sound. Although it's not strictly accurate to call the author's approach `scientific', he systematically explains the reasoning behind his techniques, rather than forcing the reader to take his opinions on faith. Unfortunately, there are few scientific controlled studies on the best way to teach piano.

So, his methods, like those of others (such as Leschetizsky), are in reality based on intuition, even if it is scientific intuition. Nonetheless, his methods may still work. The book also has a useful bibliography. Even if the only benefit is to help you avoid having to call 911 to request the Jaws of Life when your finger gets stuck between A-flat and B-flat, this book is well worth reading.

Note added Mar 24, 2008: Dr Chang finally published this book in late 2007.


November 28, 2003; updated Nov. 12, 2008