To some musicians, “scales” may sound like a dirty word. Scales can be tedious, confusing, and not always fun to practice. You would never perform scales in a concert or recital (unless, of course, you are performing Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, movement 11: Pianists) you don’t hear them on the radio, and no one is excited to show off their scales at open mic night.
So, why are scales so important? How does one go about learning to play scales? Does practicing scales always have to be boring?
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What are Scales?
Before learning why scales are relevant and how to play them, you should first understand what scales are. A scale is a set of musical notes in order by pitch. Scales can be ascending, meaning, each pitch is higher than the previous, or descending, meaning, each pitch is lower than the previous.
When pianists, especially beginners, talk about scales, they are usually referring to major scales. Major scales are the most common. Major scales are made up of eight pitches, though the 8th pitch is a duplicate of the first, only an octave higher. The first pitch names the scale. When a song is built around a specific scale, it is said to be “in the key of” that scale.
When looking at an ascending major scale, there is a specific pattern of half and whole steps. The distance between two pitches is a half step if no other notes fall between them. E to F is an example of a half step. With a whole step, one note falls between the two pitches. For example, F to G is a whole step, because F-sharp (also know as G-flat) falls between them.
In a major scale, the pattern is:
whole whole half whole whole whole half
By knowing this pattern, you can construct a major scale starting on any pitch because the pattern of half and whole steps is always the same. Other types of scales (minor, mixolydian, phrygian, etc.) have different patterns of half and whole steps. Use this Scale Construction game to practice building major scales.
One of the most familiar songs involving a major scale is “Do-Re-Mi” from, The Sound of Music. Within the musical, Maria uses the song to teach the Von Trapp children the notes of the major scale. When practicing major scales, yours should sound very similar to that of the Von Trapp children!
How Scales Relate to Music Theory
You may have heard the phrase “in the key of ____.” This refers to the scale a song is built around. A piece of music “in the key of C major” would be framed around the notes in the C major scale. For example, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, frequently played during weddings, is in the key of D major. The notes in the D major scale form the basis of the piece.
Also, just as a scale begins and ends on its naming note, a song typically will as well. A song in the key of G major will usually start and end on G. There are exceptions to every rule, and music is no different, but understanding and being able to play within the rules at the beginning will make it easier to understand and successfully navigate music when the rules are stretched or broken later.
Learning to Play 5-Finger Scales
There are many ways for beginning piano players to learn how to play scales. One common method is to start with 5-finger scales (also called pentascales). In a 5-finger scale, only the first five pitches of the scale are played. The benefit of this method is that the hand position remains the same throughout the entire exercise. Students build finger strength, dexterity, and flexibility, as well as develop auditory awareness in the major keys.
When practicing a 5-finger scale, start with the right-hand thumb (finger #1) on the first note. One finger at a time, walk up and back down the five pitches. Learn the C 5-finger scale first. The key of C major is common, and it is the only major scale to use white keys on the piano exclusively.
C – D – E – F – G – F – E – D- C
After repeating this several times, do the same with your left-hand starting with the pinky (finger #5). Repeat this with your left-hand several times. Once the exercise can be played fluently with each hand separately, play both hands at the same time. Doing this at a slower tempo is highly recommended.
After learning the 5-note scale in the key of C (meaning it starts on C), try it in the key of G (notes = G-A-B-C-D). Next move on to D (D-E-F#-G-A), then A (A-B-C#-D-E), then E (E-F#-G#-A-B), continuing until all keys are learned. Be sure to use the pattern of half steps and whole steps as described earlier. Being able to play 5-finger scales in all keys is ideal.
Try this exercises for working on 5-note scales:
5 Walks, 3 Skips, 1 Chord
5 Walks – Walk up and down (one finger at a time) the 5-note scale, 5 times.
Fingers: 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1
3 Skips – Skip fingers going up and down the scale, 3 times.
Fingers: 1 3 5 3 1
1 Chord – play fingers 1, 3, and 5 at the same time. This is a major chord.
Fingers: 1 3 5 all together
Learning to Play Major Scales
C major is still the best place to start when ready to learn full major scales. The scale only uses white keys. Correct fingering patterns are essential for success playing scales. Begin with the right-hand thumb on C. Walk up the first three keys, C-D-E, with fingers 1-2-3. Next, pass your thumb under your hand to place it on F.
Continue to walk the rest of the way up to C, ending with your pinky (finger #5). Reverse the process to play the C major scale descending, beginning with your pinky on C and walking down to F, ending on your thumb. Next, cross your third finger over your thumb, placing it on E. Walk the rest of the way down to C.
The left-hand fingering pattern is similar. Begin with your left-hand pinky on C. Walk up the first five keys, C-D-E-F-G, using fingers 5-4-3-2-1. After playing G with your thumb, cross the third finger over, placing it on A. Continue walking up to C, ending with your thumb. Reverse the process descending, beginning with your thumb on C and walking down three keys to A. Pass your thumb under your hand, placing it on G. Then walk the rest of the way down to C, ending with your pinky.
Just as with the 5-finger scale, it is best to learn major scales by practicing the hands alone first. Only once that has been mastered should you try to play with hands together. Practice slowly; focusing on accuracy of fingerings and hand position will help you learn scales properly.
It should also be noted; maintaining proper hand position throughout (wrist lifted with curved fingers) will make passing the thumb and crossing the third finger easier. Also, avoid moving your elbow when passing the thumb under. The arm should remain completely still.
After mastering the C major scale, move on to other scales that maintain the same fingering pattern. G major, D major, A major, and E major are the next most logical scales to learn. Though each of these scales includes the addition of one or more black keys, the fingering pattern (passing the thumb under and crossing the third finger) stays the same. To learn the remaining major scales, first, consult a scale fingering chart to ensure proper fingerings.
Why Practice Scales?
Scales are valuable tools for all musicians, beginner through professional. Practicing scales help piano players build technique. Scale practice increases coordination, dexterity, and flexibility. All things necessary for piano players to possess. In addition, practicing scales aides in developing a piano player’s ear.
Knowing what a scale sounds like will help when learning songs in the same key. You are more likely to identify wrong notes in a song if you are familiar with what the scale in that key should sound like. It is tough to know when something is wrong if you are unable to hear it.
Being comfortable playing scales will also open the door to opportunities in improvisation and music composition. Finally, the mindfulness of practicing scales will help with focus and concentration, which is valuable for any musician who desires improvement.
How to Practice Scales
The saying goes, “practice makes perfect,” but the reality of the situation is that perfect practice makes perfect. Merely going through the motions will yield little benefit. Instead, work towards intentional, mindful practice to fully reap the rewards of learning scales. Try these suggestions for piano scales practice:
Begin practicing hands alone; focus on correct notes, correct fingerings, and proper hand position. Play hands together only when you feel very comfortable with each hand alone.
Practice slowly! Do not play any faster than you can play correctly. Once you have mastered a tempo, gradually increase your speed.
Practice using a metronome. This will help you keep the tempo steady throughout, which is not only useful for learning scales but is also a valuable skill to have as a musician. When you can play the scale several times in a row with no mistakes, increase your tempo 4-8 bpm (beats per minute).
If playing with a metronome becomes too monotonous, try using backing tracks instead. There are many available on YouTube of varying styles and tempos. This will still encourage you to keep a steady tempo while making it more interesting at the same time.
Play the scale in contrary motion – with hands moving in opposite directions. Start with both thumbs. The right-hand plays the scale ascending while the left-hand plays descending. This may sound complicated, but it really is not! When playing scales in contrary motion, in most keys the thumbs will pass under at the same time, and the third fingers will cross over at the same time.
Change the rhythm of the scale. Instead of playing each note for the same amount of time, try making every other note long: long-short-long-short-etc. Then reverse it! Short-long-short-long-etc. This exercise will actually help you build strength and speed in your playing.
Vary the articulation. Articulation refers to how the note is played. Try playing the scale staccato, which means the notes are short and separated. Each finger quickly lifts off the key after it has been played. Then try playing slurred, which means the notes are smooth and connected. Do not release your finger from the key until immediately after the next note has been played.
Set aside time at the beginning of every practice session to work on scales. Play them in the same keys as the pieces you are working on, and incrementally continue to add additional scales to your practice. Just as athletes will consistently do stretching and strengthening exercises, musicians must do the same. Practicing scales is a great place to start!
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