In order to play piano scales successfully, specifically major scales, a musician needs to understand what major scales actually are and how to build them. Once they understand the ‘formula’ to build major scales, they can build any major scale.
I am including a graphic of a keyboard (above at the top of this article) with the keys labeled in order to explain the formula for a major scale and how to build it. Visualizing a major scale on an actual keyboard or a paper keyboard helps to understand the “why’s and wherefore’s” of building a scale.
A diatonic major scale is the foundation upon which Western music is based. Western music consists of music composed mostly in Europe and North America from the mid-1600’s to the present time.
There are five elements that must be understood in order to build and play a major scale. These elements are listed below:
- Whole steps and half steps
- Tetrachords and the rules
- The ‘formula’ for major scales
- Fingering for white key major scales (except F)
- Fingering for F major scale
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Whole Steps and Half Steps
If you look at the keyboard above, you will notice a pattern of white keys and black keys. Black keys are in groups of two and three. Every black key has two names: one flat name and one sharp name. A flat sign (b) lowers a note. A sharp sign (#) raises a note.
Major scales are built using a formula of whole steps and half steps. A half step is the distance between two keys with no key in between; e.g., from C to Db is a half step. From B to C is a half step. A whole step is the distance from one key to another with one key between; e.g., from C to D is a whole step, as the black key Db is between the C and the D.
When building a major scale, get into the habit of naming the keys without repeating a letter. From C to C# is a half step, but for the purpose of building a major scale, use Db instead of C#. I will explain the importance of this habit later.
The term “tetrachord” is a bit deceptive. ‘Tetra’ means ‘four,’ and this definition is pertinent to our discussion. ‘Chord’ usually indicates three or more notes played together, either separately or at the same time. In its truest sense, this isn’t really a ‘chord.’ However, it IS the name of this pattern, so bear with me.
A tetrachord is a four-note series with the pattern “whole step, whole step, half step.” For example, if you start on the key C, the first whole step leads you to D. The second whole step takes you to E. The last step of a tetrachord, a half step, takes you to F. Thus, the first tetrachord in a C Major scale is C-D-E-F.
There are rules regarding tetrachords and scales, namely the letters MUST be in alphabetical order and no letters can skip or repeat. For instance, if you begin a tetrachord on the key A in the above keyboard graphic, the first whole step lands on B. The next whole step lands on a black key labeled “C#” or “Db.”
If you recall the rules just given, you understand that the key must be called C#, because you cannot skip a letter in a tetrachord. Four notes = four letters. The half step then takes you to D. This verifies that the black key must be called C#, since you cannot repeat letters in a tetrachord. So, the tetrachord on A consists of A-B-C#-D.
Practice this formula on all of the white keys. Then check your work on this chart:
A = A + B + C# + D E = E + F# + G# + A
B = B + C# + D# + E F = F + G + A + Bb
C = C + D + E + F G = G + A + B + C
D = D + E + F# + G
If you correctly identified the note names in the white key tetrachords above, you are now ready to complete the major scales. Congratulations!
The Formula for Major Scales
Believe it or not, the formula is rather simple: tetrachord + whole step ‘bridge’ + tetrachord. A major scale consists of eight notes in the pattern tetrachord + whole step ‘bridge’ + tetrachord.
Why is the whole step ‘bridge’ necessary? This bridge leads us to the first note of the second tetrachord. Let’s start with a tetrachord build on A:
A + B + C# + D = the first tetrachord in an A major scale. So now where do you start the second tetrachord? That’s what the whole step ‘bridge’ is for—to lead us to the first note of the second tetrachord. So a whole step ‘bridge’ above D takes us to E. E is now the first note of the second tetrachord: E + F# + G# + A.
So an A Major scale consists of these notes: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, and A. Or, as they sang in “The Sound of Music,”—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do!
It sounds complex, but it really isn’t. Build all the white-key scales using the formula, remembering that the whole step ‘bridge’ merely takes a musician from the end of the first tetrachord to the beginning of the second tetrachord. The same rules apply: the notes must be in alphabetical order, no letter can be repeated or skipped.
When you think you’ve completed all the white key scales correctly, try building them on the black keys. Some of the letter names may be a little weird to you, but the keys will ALWAYS work if you use this formula. There are some great resources online to help you solidify the major scales in your mind. It isn’t difficult to learn piano scales quickly if you internalize this pattern.
Fingering for White Key Major Scales
With the exception of the F Major Scale for the right hand, all white-key Major scales use the same fingering. Playing scales effectively, rapidly, and with great musicality requires flexibility in the fingers and thumb. Do not skip any warm-up exercises, as these loosen the muscles and tissues of the fingers and hand in a way that smoothes playing scales with practice.
We will start with an ascending C Major scale. With your right thumb on C, use your 2nd finger to play D, then your 3rd finger to play E. As you press down the E key, pass your thumb beneath your 2nd and 3rd fingers in preparation to play the F with your thumb. Play slowly as you learn this pass-under move.
You must avoid any pauses or hesitations in your scale playing, so it is vital that you anticipate the pass under by the thumb and prepare as quickly as you can to play the F. If you do not anticipate the thumb passing under the 2nd and 3rd fingers, your scale will have a hesitation in it.
Do not go forward with the rest of the scale until you can play the first four notes without any pauses or hesitations. Practice these four notes slowly, with a metronome if you have one or a free online metronome. Set the metronome at 52 beats per minute and practice these four notes until you can play them smoothly, passing the thumb beneath the 2nd and 3rd fingers without hesitation.
Then increase the metronome setting by 4 beats per minute until you can smoothly play the four notes at about 80 beats per minute. Once you’ve reached this milestone, continue the rest of the scale by playing the last four notes with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th fingers of the right hand.
A descending major scale begins with the 5th finger on the uppermost key of the scale. The pattern is 5th finger, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st. Then pass the 3rd finger OVER the thumb to play the next key downward. Finish by playing the 2nd finger and then the 1st finger. Practice these last four notes with 1st finger, 3rd finger crossing over, 2nd finger, 1st finger until you can play smoothly with no hesitation. Once again, you anticipate the crossing over of the 3rd finger to finish the scale.
Fingering for F Major Scale
The F Major scale is the only white-key scale with alternate fingering for the right hand due to the location of the keys in the scale. Remember that the notes in an F Major scale are F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F. Because the Bb is a black key, the human right thumb does not easily reach the distance between the A and the Bb. So some smart person devised an alternate fingering. Playing the keys starting with F, the fingering is 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.
You will pass the thumb under the 4th finger on the Bb to play the C above it. Remember to play smoothly with no pauses or hesitations. Practice this fingering slowly until it feels comfortable, and then increase the tempo little by little.
To play a descending right hand F Major scale, begin with the 4th finger on the upper F. Play the first four notes descending with the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st fingers. Cross the 4th finger over the thumb to the Bb below the C. Practice the crossover until you can execute it smoothly and comfortably.
Playing black key scales requires some alternative fingering, as the black keys are situated above the white keys. Here is a good chart that illustrates the fingerings of the black key major scales. Take the time to look them over and try them on your own keyboard or piano.
Playing scales improves listening skills and finger dexterity. It improves musicianship and increases facility at the keyboard, as well as helps a musician play smoothly and more expressively. If you are interested in composing, playing scales allows smoother transitions to playing melodies and even countermelodies.
As your musicianship improves and you begin to play pieces of greater complexity, practicing and playing scales every day will enable you to play the masterworks of some of the greatest composers who ever produced music.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. You will have good days and bad days as a musician. Sometimes practices don’t work out the way we would like them to do. Short-term memory loss is sometimes a good thing for musicians. If today’s practice felt like it was a waste of time, tomorrow’s practice will likely be better. Quitting is not an option!
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