Fingering: The Intrinsic Logic Of Which Finger Should Go Where --
Or "Don't Re-invent the Wheel Whenever Possible"
As a piano teacher for many years now, I have had countless students
ask me some variation of this question: "What fingers should I use on such
and such a note, or such and such a chord?"
And my answer never fails to surprise them. I tell them "Fingering is
not written in stone. Moses did not hand down a commandment on fingering,
and neither did Bach or Mozart or Billy Joel or Dave Brubeck"
That comes as a shock to many adults because they think back to their
piano lesson days as children and recall their teacher telling them things
like "Don't use your thumb on that key!" and "Cross your 3rd finger
over..." and so forth.
So while there are no absolutes when it comes to fingering, there are
certainly general principles that pianists have discovered down through
the years. So whenever possible, don't re-invent the wheel. We all learn
from experience, but it doesn't have to be our experience we learn from:
we can stand on the shoulders of the giants of the piano that have gone
before us, and take advantage of what they have discovered.
So here are some general principles -- the intrinsic logic of
- 1. If you see a passage in your sheet music move higher on the staff,
use a low finger (fingers are numbered from the thumb outward, so your
thumb is #1, your index finger is #2, your middle finger is #3, your ring
finger is #4, and your little finger is #5) so you'll have fingers
available for higher notes. And of course, exactly the opposite if you see a passage move lower on
- 2. Hold your hand up in front of you. The longest fingers are in the
middle -- right? Your thumb is far and away the shortest because it starts
at a lower point on your hand. Now look at a piano keyboard. The black
keys are the furthest away from you -- correct? So which fingers can reach
the black keys best? You got it -- your middle fingers. Therefore,
whenever possible play the black keys with your long fingers instead of
your thumb. It's just common sense.
- 3. The corollary to that is obvious: use your thumb and little finger
on white keys whenever possible. (And it's NOT always possible.)
- 4. A scale contains 8 keys. You have 5 fingers. So it's logical to
assume you will have to use some fingers more than once. On right hand
scale passages ascending beginning on white keys, start on your thumb and
then cross your thumb under your 3rd finger except when the 4th note of
the scale is a black key. In that case, to avoid playing the black key
with your thumb, cross your thumb under your 4th finger. (And just the
reverse with your left hand, of course. On scale passages beginning on
black keys, start on a long finger -- preferably your index finger (also
called your "pointer finger") and then cross your thumb under whenever
the next white key occurs.
- 5. On chromatic passages, the best way I have found is to use just
fingers #1 and #3 except where two white keys in a row occur -- then use
fingers #1 and #2.
- 6. Fingering on chords is largely dictated by the size of the chord;
obviously if you are playing a 5-note chord, you will use all 5 fingers.
Otherwise just follow the intrinsic logic in the general principles listed
If you still find it hard to believe that fingering is not written in
stone, then watch any video of Art Tatum (available on YouTube.com), one
of the great jazz pianists, who stunned classical musicians with his
blazing speed while using extremely unorthodox fingering.
For a complete course on the subject of fingering,
please go to Which
Finger Goes Where?