Learn Keyboard - Piano Fingering


In early piano fingering systems the thumb was rarely used as a pivot over which the fingers could pass either up or down the scale—and then virtually only in the left hand. Lateral movement of the hands was most often achieved by passing one of the middle fingers (usually the long 3rd) over one of its neighbors. Thus, in the right hand the 3rd finger would be slipped over the 4th when ascending, and over the 2nd when descending; and in the left hand vice versa.

Hence, the thumb and fifth finger were used far less than today, and the middle three fingers far more. The majority of players would now find it impossible to follow the various older systems.

The basic principles of modern fingering first became widely known through C.P.E. Bach’s Versuch of 1753. Originally it contained a supplement of six fully fingered sonatas showing how the rules for fingering were applied in practice. His son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, wrote

My deceased father told me that in his youth he used to hear great men who employed their thumbs only when large stretches made it necessary. Because he lived at a time when a gradual but striking change in musical taste was taking place, he was obliged to devise a far more comprehensive fingering and especially to enlarge the role of the thumb.

Important features in C.P.E. Bach’s modern fingering system were:

  1. Thumb used as pivot to achieve lateral movement of the hands

  2. Thumb and 5th finger used on white notes only, except for wide stretches

  3. Thumb passed under 2nd, 3rd, or 4th finger, but not under the 5th

  4. 4. Thumb used for passages in thirds

  5. 5. Fingers changed silently on a note

  6. 6. An adjacent pair of black and white notes played legato by sliding one finger from the black note to the white

Fingering for all the major and minor scales were given, sometimes with two or three alternatives. The fingering nearest the notes in either hand is the most usual, according to Bach, though a player of today would not always agree with him. For broken-chord figuration he recommends the fingering that would be used for the chords in their unbroken form.

Scarlatti must have used a far more advanced type of fingering than most of his contemporaries, otherwise many of his Sonatas would have been unplayable. The MS sources contain interesting indications that mean “change the fingers” and “with one finger” (i.e. glissando).

In Haydn’s Fantasie in C the right hand demi-semiquaver octaves towards the end of the piece were almost certainly intended as glissandos, for they could hardly have been played otherwise at the indicated tempo.

There can be no doubt that octave glissandos in each hand were intended in the Prestissimo coda of the last movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, for his student Czerny, who wrote finger exercises, recorded the fact. Octave glissandos of this kind would have been possibly on the early fortepiano, with its light and shallow touch. But on a modern piano they are so difficult that it is wiser, whenever possible, to divide them (fingered) between the two hands.

Both Chopin and Liszt reverted at times to the practice of slipping the long 3rd finger over the 4th or 5th, particularly when the thumb was otherwise occupied and the 3rd finger could play a black note. Chopin’s Etude in A minor, Op. 10/2, is based entirely on this fingering.

Though Brahms never included fingering in his piano works, other than arrangements and exercises, the music itself shows that he must have fingered wide-ranging arpeggios in an individual way. This consisted in dividing the arpeggio into complete handfuls, instead of part-handfuls, and relying on the pedal to mask the break in legato that occurred when jumping from the thumb to the 5th finger, or vice versa.

Choosing Fingering

One of the principal aims of good fingering is to avoid unnecessary hand movement. Hence it is often helpful to see how many notes of a phrase can be played legato without any hand-shift. If the whole phrase can be included, the player should then decide whether this fingering will best produce the articulation he requires, or whether it would be clearer with a less static hand position. In every instance, the various alternatives should be weighed and tried, to see which will best produce the desired musical effect.

When shifts are necessary, they should if possible be made to underline the phrasing rather than contradict it; thus it is always an advantage if hand-shifts can be made to coincide with breaks in a phrase. In passage-work, the player should be continually on the look-out for patterns in the music—particularly the less obvious ones that begin off the beat—and should try to match them with fingering patterns.

In passages founded on broken chords, it is always helpful to reduce the chords to their unbroken form, as this indicates where the most natural hand-shifts occur.

A change of finger on a single note can be used for two opposite effects: (a) to underline detached phrasing, and (b) to obtain a long legato.

When the detailed fingering of a passage has been worked out, its essential features should be written into the copy; but everything that is obvious or can be taken for granted should be omitted. Changes of hand position are important, and can generally be made clear for the right hand by marking the thumbs in ascending passages, and the third and fourth fingers in descending ones; and vice versa for the left hand. Any unexpected or irregular fingerings should also be marked, preferably only by means of the key finger involved. Otherwise the player’s aim should be to reduce the fingering in his copy to the minimum consistent with clarity, for the fewer the marks the easier they are to read.