Learning to the play the piano isn’t exactly easy, and if you’re trying to learn something like the C major piano scale, it can downright confusing. So in this article, we’re going to provide everything you need to know (including helpful images and diagrams) pertaining to symbols and terminology for reading scales, as well as how to can properly play C major scale with correct fingerings for both hands.
The Building Blocks of the C Major Scale
What Is A Scale?
The word “scales” is used to describe a series or sequence of tones which are played together to create harmonies and melodies. All major and minor scales consist of seven notes, though you’ll sometimes see them written with eight notes. The last note is a repeat of the first note, the root note, and completes an octave.
Common Terminology in Reading Scales
To help us understand, read, and talk about piano scales, let’s review some common terminology:
A staff of five lines where the G above middle C is on the second from the bottom of the lines is written using the treble clef. This ornamental symbol looks like a tall, curly G and is sometimes nicknamed the “G clef.” More often than not, you’ll play music written in the treble clef with your right hand since it’s above middle C.
A staff of five lines where the F below middle C is on the second from the top of the lines is written using the bass clef. This ornamental symbol looks like a short, curvy F with two dots to the side and is sometimes nicknamed the “F clef.” More often than not, you’ll play music written in the bass clef with your left hand since it’s below middle C.
A natural note is often represented by the white keys on the piano keyboard. Natural notes are named such because their pitches have not been altered, or in other words, they are not sharp or flat. Usually, natural notes in sheet music are not accompanied by any symbols.
An accidental note is often represented by the black keys on the piano keyboard. Accidental notes are named such because their pitches have been altered, or in other words, they are sharp or flat. The symbols are # for sharp and ♭ for flat. If these symbols are added to a note in a measure, they take precedence over the key signature and only last for the duration of the measure. Any of that particular note will be affected (with or without the symbol) unless a natural symbol ♮ is added.
A key signature are the sharp or flat notes written individually near the treble and bass clefs on the left of the staff. When these symbols appear on certain lines or spaces, it means that all of the corresponding notes which appear on those lines or spaces should be played as flats or sharps instead of naturals.
An exception is made if the symbol ♮ is placed in front of a note—in this case, the note is placed as a natural, even though the key signature indicates that it should be played as a sharp or flat. You can learn more about key signatures and their pattern here.
A half step is the shortest distance you can move between notes on the piano. It occurs when you move from one note to the immediate next note. This could be either moving up the piano (to the right), or down the piano (to the left).
A whole step is the next shortest distance you can move between notes on the piano. It occurs when you move from one note two half steps to the next note. This could also be moving up the piano (to the right), or down the piano (to the left). If it’s any help, you can remember that two half steps make a whole.
If you need more help reading sheet music or understanding what a music term means, check out this tutorial.
Understanding a Major Scale
Major scales are often described as happy, upbeat, positive scales in comparison to their relative and parallel minor scales. While major scales don’t immediately seem related to one another, each follows this pattern:
Root — Whole Step — Whole Step — Half Step —Whole Step —Whole Step — Whole Step —Half Step
The sound a scale produces depends on the half steps (or semitones) are located. As you can see in the image below, all major scales have semitones located between tone 3-4 and 7-8.
How to Play the C Major Scale
The C Major Scale
This scale has no sharps and no flats, which is why it’s the best scale for beginner pianists to learn first. It also doesn’t hurt that a great amount of music is written in this scale.
These are the notes in the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
This is how the scale appears in the treble clef:
This is how the scale appears in the bass clef:
Playing the Scale and Fingerings
“Fingerings” might sound like a daunting term, but it’s actually nothing more than a fancy way of saying “the fingers you need to use to play these notes.” They’re sometimes written directly above or below the notes you’re playing, but as you advance, you’ll see them less because beginners are expected to memorize them.
In order to play a scale, you need to know which numbers correspond to which fingers. For both of your hands, your thumbs are 1, your index fingers are 2, your middle fingers are 3, your ring fingers are 4, and your pinkies are 5.
Playing scales are one of my favorite ways to warm up during practice. However, as a beginner pianist, I struggled with fingerings because I didn’t understand their purpose. So, I played with whatever fingers I felt like… Eventually my scales and rhythm got sloppy, and I couldn’t figure out how to play quickly without messing up!
Professional pianists recommend that you use fingerings to improve your hand technique, play smoothly, and build muscle memory. As you practice your scales with the correct fingerings—no matter how unnatural it feels at first—you’ll be well equipped to play music in their related keys in the future. (You can find all of the major scale fingerings here.)
For the C major scale, these are the fingerings:
Left Hand: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1
Right Hand: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
And this is how they line up on the keyboard:
As you play with the left hand, cross your middle finger over your thumb as you go up the scale. When you’re coming back down, slide your thumb under your middle finger.
As you play with the right hand, cross your thumb under your middle finger as you go up the scale. When you’re coming back down, cross your middle finger over your thumb.
Now that you’ve got the fingerings, go ahead and give it a try. Play the scale with your left hand, then play it with your right hand. Then, place both hands on the piano and play the scale together.
Congratulations! You’ve just played the C major scale!
It might feel weird at first, especially with the fingering transition at different places for either hand, but as you practice, your hands will get used to the crossing movement and you’ll be able to transfer it to any musical piece you’re learning!
Let’s take a moment to recap what we’ve learned today,
Scales are made up of a series of tones, and for the C major scale, these are the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C. It’s named after the root note, or first note of the scale.
To know what scale you’re playing, you need to look to the staff, or the lines upon which the music is written. To the far left, you’ll see either the treble or the bass clef along with the key signature. In the C major scale, there are no sharps or flats in the key signature, so you know that all of the notes are natural.
When you’re playing the C major piano scale, pay attention to the correct fingering. As you practice, your hands will become accustomed to the transitions, and you’ll be able to transfer them to other songs you’re learning!
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