The illustration on the cover shows a pair of disembodied hands playing the piano.
Jerry and his parents have just moved into a new house. Jerry starts out the book by forming clumps of dust into mouse-shapes and then crying that there are mice in the new house, which scares his parents. While exploring the new house, Jerry finds an old piano in the attic. Later that night, Jerry hears piano music playing from the ceiling, but when he goes to investigate, there is no one playing. The next night, he hears the music again, goes to investigate, and discovers nothing. Eventually, Jerry sees a ghost of a woman playing the piano, which has been moved down into the family room. She looks up at him and then her face melts off, revealing a bare skull. He screams hysterically for his parents.
Picking up on Jerry's interest in the piano, Jerry's parents enroll him in private lessons taught by Dr. Shreek. Dr. Shreek is a friendly, Santa Claus-looking old man. Dr. Shreek dwells on Jerry’s hands, constantly telling him how wonderful they are. Eventually, Jerry gets invited to take private lessons at Dr. Shreek's private school at the edge of town. When Jerry tells Kim, the Asian girl whose locker is next to his, about his lessons, she freaks out and runs away. Jerry is dropped off at the large, scary looking music school for his lesson. He immediately goes inside and sees a monster in the hall, except, it is a robotic floor sweeper that looks like a monster. Dr. Shreek tells Jerry that the maintenance man, Mr. Toggle, is a wiz at robotics.
Dr. Shreek then leads Jerry down the long, winding corridors to the private rehearsal room. Jerry hears piano music coming from every room in the building. As he walks down the halls, he can see the instructors hunched over the pianos, guiding unseen students. After his lesson, Jerry gets lost in the building again and Mr. Toggle comes to his rescue and leads him back to the entrance. He also promises to show Jerry his "private workroom", the next time he visits.
Jerry returns home and continues to hear the ghost playing her music. Eventually, he goes down to confront her again, and she raises her arms and reveals bloody stumps where her hands used to be. Jerry screams so hard that he passes out and when he wakes up, his parents tell him they're taking him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist tells Jerry that he is imagining the ghost, but that he is not "crazy." Jerry is outside shoveling snow when he runs into Kim again. He tries to tell her about the ghost he saw, but she also thinks he is crazy. He asks why she freaked out and she tells him that she heard a lot of spooky stories about the school and that's why she ran away, because she heard some stories. Jerry decides that he does not want to take lessons again.
But his parents tell him that since they've already paid for his last lesson, he can go in and tell Dr. Shreek in person that he is quitting. Jerry is dropped off at the school and wastes no time in telling Dr. Shreek that he is quitting his lessons. Dr. Shreek goes berserk and insists that he needs Jerry's hands, grabbing his wrists to force him to stay. Jerry escapes his grasp and scrambles through the school building until he reaches the auditorium, where there is a crushing cacophony of piano-playing. Jerry runs inside and sees row after row of black pianos, each with a head-nodding instructor, and each piano being played by human hands, but only human hands. Dr. Shreek dives through the air and tackles Jerry, grabbing onto his ankles.
Mr. Toggle bursts into the room and saves Jerry, by turning off Dr. Shreek with a remote. It turns out Dr. Shreek was a robot. Jerry asks Mr. Toggle to turn off the pianos and he does that as well. Jerry thanks him for saving his life. But as he turns to leave, Mr. Toggle stops him. Mr. Toggle is the one who needs Jerry's hands, he explains. Mr. Toggle is apparently a brilliant “robotician,” but he can't make human hands correctly. So he uses human specimens and using computer technology, makes the severed hands play beautiful music all the time.
Jerry tries to escape the auditorium, but he runs right into the ghost girl from his house. She screams at Jerry, telling him that she tried to warn him, to scare him away from taking lessons from the school. The ghost holds up her bloody stumps and then conjures up all of the ghostly spirits from the disembodied hands playing at the pianos in the auditorium. A swarm of ghosts attached to their human hands attack Mr. Toggle in front of Jerry, carrying the robotician off into the forest behind the school, never to be seen again...
Months later, Jerry decides to give up on the piano ambition and signs up for the baseball team, after going to a new school and making new friends. He is not only a good batter and runner, but also a good field man. He ends the story with him saying that his friends say he has "great hands".
Reprints and rereleases
So far, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder has only received one reprint, which was in August 2004. The cover is a mirrored version of the original.
2003 - 2007 reprint series
- The ghost in Jerry's house is never actually named in the book. However, in the Goosebumps Official Collector's Caps Book, it is revealed that the ghost girl is actually named Mara Klane. She lived in Jerry's house before him, and she was also one of Dr. Shreek's finest students.
- This is one of the few Goosebumps books to not have a surprise ending.
- The tagline is a Play-on-words of the phrase "Play it again, Sam".
- The cover of the book of the disembodied hands playing the piano might be a homage to the Thing from The Addams Family franchise.
- R.L. Stine was originally going to call this book, "Guitar Lessons Can be Murder" because his son was taking guitar lessons. But people kept telling him that guitars weren't scary, so it was changed to piano lessons.