Piano Lesson 6: What Is a Pickup? (Hint: It’s Not a Truck or a Flirtation)

piano lesson rests and pick ups

In music there are stronger beats and weaker beats. In 4/4 time (4 beats per measure), beat 1 is generally the strongest beat and beat 3 is the second strongest. This point is well illustrated in this video. When conductor Gustavo Dudamel turns around to face the audience you can see him pulsing his left hand on beats 1 and 3, and the audience is clapping on beats 1 and 3. Beats 2 and 4 are counted in between, but not felt as strongly.

Sometimes music doesn’t start on the strong beat 1! The Godfather theme Speak Softly Love starts with what we call a “pickup” – it starts with beats 2-3-4 (“Speak soft-ly”) followed by beat 1 (“love”), the strong beat. Count along with this performance of Speak Softly Love starting with “2-3-4, 1-2-3-4” etc.

Today you will learn about pickups as we work through p.27 in Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 1.

[NOTE: If you are just joining us for the first time, you will find the list of my previous Sixty and Me Free Piano Lessons at the bottom of this post.]

6.1 What Is a Pickup in Music?

Pickups are incomplete measures that don’t start with beat 1. When a piece has an incomplete measure at the beginning, the missing beat(s) must be in the last measure of the piece; the number of beats in the first measure plus the number of beats in the last measure added together equal the top number of the time signature.

For example, if a piece is in 3/4 time, with a one beat pickup, the missing two beats will be in the final measure. Watch the video below for more information about pickups!

6.2 The Quarter Rest

French composer Claude Debussy famously said that music is in the silence between the notes. We have symbols for those silences, and they are called rests! On p.27 you see that a QUARTER REST is equal in length to a QUARTER NOTE; it indicates 1 beat of silence.

After you watch video 6.2, try the MUSICAL MATH exercise. You will count a QUARTER REST the same as a QUARTER NOTE: 1 beat. The first musical math problem shows a quarter rest plus a quarter note. That is 1 + 1 = 2. To check your answers, go to my website: UpperHandsPiano.com, click on ANSWERS at the top, then click on p.27 under “BOOK 1 ANSWERS.”

6.3 When the Saints Go Marching In, p.28

As I demonstrated When the Saints Go Marching In on p.28, I counted “1-2-3-4, 1” then I started playing on beat 2. That’s because the song has a pickup that starts on beat 2. Notice that there is a QUARTER REST in the last measure of the song. This 1-beat rest plus the 3 beats in the first (incomplete) measure together equal 4 beats. All measures in 4/4 time must contain 4 beats, with the exception of the first and last measures, which together must add up to 4 beats if the first measure contains a pickup.

6.4 Eighth Notes, p.29

Eighth Notes are a little tricky. 2 eighth notes are equal in time length to 1 quarter note. So now, instead of counting a piece “1-2-3-4,” we count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” so that we can be sure of playing the eighth notes exactly twice as fast as quarter notes.

In this video I explain more about eighth notes, and I demonstrate the exercise at the top of p.29, twice. In the second demonstration I am using a metronome. You may have a cool old metronome from years past, but today most people just use a metronome app on their phone or tablet. There are many free metronome apps available, just choose one that looks good to you, and you will be able to use it after a short download to your device.

Press and hold the center knob pushing it up to make it slower and down to make it faster. I set mine to 58 (beats per minute or BPM). I don’t use metronomes all the time, but they are helpful when you are first learning a new rhythm. They keep you honest when you start to veer from the beat. If playing with the metronome confuses you too much, don’t worry about it. You can try using it again later in your studies.

6.5 The Half Rest and Hallelujah, p.29

Rests are very common in music, so I introduce a HALF REST at the bottom of p.29. A HALF REST indicates 2 beats of silence and is equal in length to a HALF NOTE. In the second measure of Hallelujah, you see a HALF REST. That measure therefore contains 2 notes and 2 beats of silence.

Here’s how to remember what a HALF REST looks like. This is important because they look a lot like a WHOLE REST which you will learn about on p.37. “A HALF REST sits like a HAT on a table” is the little saying we used to use when I was first learning to play the piano.

6.6 Oranges and Lemons + the Value of Reviewing, p.30

In this video I demonstrate Oranges and Lemons on p.30. Be sure that your EIGHTH NOTES are exactly twice as fast as your QUARTER NOTES. Students tend to rush them, thinking that they are very fast, but they are exactly 2 for 1; 2 EIGHTH NOTES played evenly in the time of 1 QUARTER NOTE.

OK! I’ve presented many new musical concepts in Lessons 5 and 6! This is what we call music theory, and it can be a bit tricky when you are first learning it. In the coming weeks we will focus more on the songs and less on introducing new terminology and rhythms. I’ve just had to show you a lot to get you started, so stick with me and I promise you will have fun in Lesson 7! Here are our past lessons:

INTRODUCTION: Getting Started

LESSON 2: Reading and Playing Our First Notes

LESSON 3: Health Issues and Playing the Piano

LESSON 4: Feel the Beat

LESSON 5: Bass G

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Do you find that it is easier to play songs and pieces that you have heard before? If so, you probably have a good ear that helps you play the notes and rhythms more easily. Have you been practicing consistently? Try to schedule your practice 3-5 days per week in your calendar for steady progress. What have been your greatest obstacles in learning to play the piano? What have been your triumphs?