When you’re learning to play scales on the piano, you often begin with scales containing the most white keys. The more flats and sharps a scale has, the more black keys will be used, necessitating different finger patterns. But, as you will see in this article, though the finger patterns are indeed different for the A flat major scale, they are not necessarily more difficult. And through a variety of piano diagrams and images, you’ll better learn how to play this scale today!
What is an A Flat Major Scale?
Before we can dive into how you can play A flat major scale, it’s best we first quickly cover the concept behind scales and why they’re important.
Now a musical “scale” is a graduated sequence of notes dividing an “octave”, or set of eight notes. An A flat major scale is one such scale set in the tonality of A flat major, a major key containing four flats. There’s quite a bit more vocabulary to unpack, so we will do so now.
In music, a “major” key is a key with a major third distance between the first note – the “root” note – and the third, creating music that carries a “happy” sound to our ears. The root of a scale gives the scale its name, so the root of the A flat major scale is A flat. That is where our scale will begin. As stated before, the key of A flat contains four notes ( B, E, A, and D) that are “flat”, or lowered by one semi-tone.
Take heart though, all of those flats won’t change the way a major scale sounds. It will still sound like the “do, re, mi” pattern that you may have learned as a child.
Now here’s what the A flat major scale looks like written for the treble and bass clef (right and left hand):
You’ll note that the flats are notated with what looks like a lowercase “b.” That is called a flat sign and even though, musically, the sign is always located in front (to the left of) the note, it will be spoken the opposite way, as in “A flat” or “B flat.”
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Navigating the Keyboard
Now that we’ve gone over the notes that make up the A flat major scale, we will learn how to play it on the keyboard. As we learned earlier, a scale starts on its root, so we will need to locate an A flat.
If you are playing on a piano, you’ll notice that, excluding the one farthest to the left, the black keys are grouped in twos and threes. In the picture below, I’ve circled the groups of two in blue and the groups of three in red.
To find an A flat, first locate a group of three. The A flat is the black key in the middle.
This is true of every group of three black keys on the piano. To play a lower sounding A flat, find a group of three towards the left of the piano and to play a higher A flat, head towards the right side of the piano. It will, however, be easier to start as close to the middle as possible. Pianists orient themselves using the key in the middle, known as Middle C, so the A flat I will be using is the A flat directly to the left of this key.
Now, let’s see the notes of the scale! If you recall on the notated scale above, the pitches are separated into whole steps and half steps. All major scales use the same combination of whole steps and half steps shown in that image. To figure out the notes that we will be playing for this scale, start at the root (A flat) and then go up note by note using that major scale formula.
Remember, the key of A flat has more flats than it does naturals (notes that are not sharp or flat). What that means for the piano, is that you will be playing more black keys than white keys. To make a note flat, you will play the note directly to that note’s left in place of the note itself. Our flat notes in this key are B, E, A, and D, and the note directly to the left of all of these is a black key.
Let’s now take this knowledge and apply it to our fingers.
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A Flat Major Scale – Right Hand Fingering
This scale is a personal favorite of mine because, after the comparatively difficult F major and E flat major scales that usually precede it, the A flat major scale is much less complicated.
And you don’t even need all of your fingers. The right hand only uses three! Ninja Turtles, rejoice!
To make playing easier, a pianist numbers their fingers from thumb to pinky, like so:
A “fingering” for a scale is the finger patterns used to play it and for this scale, I strongly recommend that you use the fingering I am about to describe. It will make your playing much easier and smoother.
To start in the right hand, put your 2nd finger on the A flat you wish to start with. Again, just because your body will be in a more comfortable position, I recommend starting towards the middle of the keyboard. Once you’ve got your 2nd finger on an A flat, rest your 3rd finger on the next black key, the B flat. Because of the way the scale is fingered, those are the only two notes you need to be touching. Here’s how that looks.
To begin the scale, play the A flat, then the B flat and now we are ready to make our first hand position change.
There was a reason we started this scale on the 2nd finger instead of the 1st. A pianist climbs up the keyboard smoothly when playing scales, avoiding sudden jumps. Think a spider instead of a typewriter. The third note of our scale is a C and we need to play that note with our 1st finger (thumb). To do that, move your elbow out and bring your thumb underneath your 2nd and 3rd fingers, landing your fingertip on the C, as in the picture below.
Once you’re there, rearrange your 2nd and 3rd finger like this on top of the next two black keys.
Remember, we don’t use the 4th and 5th fingers, so they get to float. Keep them rounded though, not sticking up in the air. No Queen of England pinky here! That creates tension and that’s something we definitely don’t want when we play scales.
Moving on: we’ve just played the C with our 1st finger. The next note is D flat, played with the 2nd finger and then the 3rd finger follows with an E flat. After that E flat is played with the 3rd finger, the thumb will repeat the same motion it did earlier and move under your 2nd and 3rd fingers to land on F. Like this:
To finish off the scale, rearrange your 2nd and 3rd finger, like this:
The 2nd finger plays G and the 3rd finger finishes the scale with A flat. Now that we’ve reached the top, it’s time to come back down! You can repeat the top note to come down if you wish, but most pianists do not. Your 3rd finger just finished playing the A flat, so follow that with your 2nd finger on G and your 1st finger on F.
If you’re following along correctly, you’ve now run out of fingers, so it is time for a change in hand position. This time your 3rd finger will take the lead. Pivoting on your thumb, have your 3rd finger cross over your 2nd and 1st to land on the E flat key.
Once you’ve landed safely, bring your thumb back under and rearrange your fingers like this:
Play the D flat with your 2nd finger, the C with your first and then your 3rd finger is going to cross over yet again, this time landing on the B flat key.
Play the B flat and as you do, let your thumb come back to its original floating position that it started the scale in. Then your 2nd finger plays the A flat and the scale is complete! You’ve just played an ascending and descending A flat major scale with your right hand! Congrats!
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A Flat Major Scale – Left Hand Fingering
You’ve got two hands, so we’re not done yet! Now that we have learned the fingering for the right hand, we can now learn the fingering for the left. Unlike many other scales, your left hand will not quite be a mirror image of your left for A flat major. For the left hand, your 4th finger gets to join the party.
To play this scale in your left hand, you’ll start with your 3rd finger on the A flat of your choice. Let your 2nd finger rest on the B flat and your 1st on C. Your 4th and 5th fingers should be floating above the keys at this point, taking care that they stay nice and rounded. This is what all of that looks like.
Let’s begin! Your fingers will come down in order, 3rd, 2nd, and then 1st, before it is time to change positions. Your 4th finger will make the first move here. Just like the right-hand scale, pivot on your thumb and let your 4th finger cross over your 1st to land D flat, as illustrated in the picture below.
Once it’s landed on D flat, your 3rd finger should naturally land on E flat, the next black key. Play that and then let your 2nd finger land on F and your 1st on G. Your hand will end up looking like the picture below.
Play the F with your 2nd and the G with your 1st and to finish the ascending part of this scale, your 2nd finger needs to cross over one more time. It will do that right as your thumb plays the G! Using your thumb as an anchor once more, cross your 2nd finger over your 1st and reach up slightly to play the A flat at the top of the scale.
We have reached the top! Let’s now reverse all of that and descend back down the scale. Once again, while you absolutely can repeat that top A flat, you don’t need to. The ascending scale ended with your 2nd finger on the A flat. Your thumb should still be sitting on the G. Play that G and while you do that, rearrange your hand like the picture below, the way it was before your 2nd finger crossed on the way up.
Play the F with your 2nd finger, the E flat with your 3rd, the D flat with your 4th and we have one more position change before we’re done! This time, you will pivot on your 4th finger and bring your thumb under to land on the C.
Using your thumb as an anchor, bring your hand back around and arrange it in the same position it was when you started the scale.
We are now in position to finish it off! The thumb just played C, so the 2nd finger will play B flat and the 3rd will play A flat, the final note of the scale and you’ve done it! You’ve played the A flat major scale with both hands!
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Practice Makes Perfect
Now that you’ve got both the right and left hand fingerings learned, all that’s left is to practice until you can play both hands smoothly! And it does take practice!
As you practice, pay careful attention to the way your hands sit on the piano. It will be almost impossible and you’ll pick up tons of bad habits if your hands aren’t in the proper position. Here’s what your hands should look like:
Take note of the round shape of the hands and the way the fingertips touch the keys. It will be very difficult to bring your thumb under your fingers if your hands are not set correctly. Bring your wrists up to achieve a nice rounded and relaxed hand shape. The heel of your palm should not be touching the piano at all.
Sit at the edge of your piano bench (or chair, or apple crate) and scoot it up until you are close enough to the piano that your elbows have a nice natural bend to them and are not touching your sides. You can check out the link below for more tips on proper posture.
Speaking from experience, I recommend that you take your time when learning not just scales, but anything on the piano. Play each note clearly and separately, releasing one key before you play the next so that the notes do not bleed together and create a dissonant sound.
Start with your hands separately, playing one note at a time and carefully checking your fingering until the movements become natural and smooth. This can only be achieved by starting slowly. Do not attempt to speed up or play both hands together until you have mastered the scale or you could be doing your playing more harm than good.
But, once you’ve mastered the scale in each hand separately and you want an extra challenge, then go for it! Playing hands together takes much more practice but, if you move slowly, you’ll soon have that mastered as well!
And once you do, why not take the next step and play more than one octave? Playing more than one octave changes the fingerings slightly, so do not attempt to give this a try until you’ve mastered all of the previous steps.
That will do it for the A flat major scale. Hopefully you’ve found this article very helpful. Always remember to take it slow, practice, and, above all else, have some fun. And once you’re done, we’ll be waiting in the next article!
This article was written by Sara and edited by Michael.
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In case there were any words or language you didn’t fully understand in this article, here are some key definitions of piano terminology you should know:
Scale – a graduated sequence of notes or pitches that divide an octave.
Octave – a series of eight notes that occupy the interval between and including two notes of the same name.
Major – a key or scale in which the third note is a major third above the first, creating a happy tonality
Root – the pitch that establishes the tonality or a key, chord, or scale. The root gives a scale its name.
Flat – a note lowered by one semi-tone
Fingering – the placement of fingers in the most suitable way to play a series of notes.