Guide to Piano Fingering and Finger Placement

Piano fingering
Brandy Kraemer

Piano fingering refers to finger placement on the piano keyboard and the hand techniques used to play the piano. Fingered piano music marks each note with a number that corresponds to one of the five fingers. 

These fingered piano marks help beginner pianists know which finger should play each note, but it also assists more skilled pianists by suggesting the most efficient way to play a piece of music.

Although individual notes may be fingered in sheet music, chords do not always have fingering marks. There are, however, standard hand formation fingerings that you can use when playing chords.

Reading Fingered Piano Music

You will see numbers 15 written above or below notes in scales and songs. These numbers correspond to your five fingers and tell you which finger presses which key. Finger numbering for both hands goes as follows:

Thumb: 1
Index Finger: 2
Middle Finger: 3
Ring Finger: 4
Pinky Finger: 5

You will notice that the fingering technique is often the same for both hands. Look at the staves, above: The same fingers play the same notes in both triad scales, but the numbers are inverted.

Fingered Practice Scales

Good fingering is a valuable skill to have as a pianist. When you practice piano fingering, you’re enabling your fingers to execute new techniques, master awkward positions, and exercise speed and flexibility.

Practicing fingering may seem tedious at first, but stick with it; your fingers will adjust quickly.

There are a number of exercises you can use to develop your piano fingering skill. Start with ascending scales, then add descending scales. The slur mark, which looks like a parenthesis lying on its side, indicates where the thumb crosses under the other fingers to play the next note in the scale.

For example, let's say the first four notes of a scale are labeled 1, 2, 3, 1. Between the 3 and 1, the fingering guide would show a slur mark where the thumb reaches under the middle finger to get in position to play the fourth note.

You can also practice your fingering by playing pentatonic, or five-note, scales. Play the first five notes of each scale beginning the C scale, followed by the D scale, E scale, and so on. 

Piano Chord Fingering

Fingering for a piano chord is usually the same for your left hand as for your right, only reversed. Here are some guidelines for chords if the piano sheet music does not have fingering.

  • When in the root position, triad chords (three notes) are most often formed with fingers 1-3-5. For example, a C chord with the right hand would be played with the thumb on C, the middle finger on E and the little finger on G. 
  • Pianists typically form tetrad chords (four notes) with fingers 1-2-3-5, but the formation 1-2-4-5 is also acceptable.

Ultimately, the size and flexibility of your hands and fingers will determine your fingering position for larger chords, as will the chords or notes that follow.