Ultimate Guide on Piano Scales: Unlocking the Secrets of Music Theory
For many students, the word “scales” evokes feelings of dread and images of playing boring exercises endlessly up and down the piano. At the very least scales don’t sound enjoyable or exciting at all. While it’s true that practicing scales can be repetitive and less motivating than practicing a piece, it doesn’t have to feel completely boring and pointless.
There are several reasons why it is important to learn and practice scales. It helps solidify music theory as you repeatedly play the notes of whichever scale you are practicing and helps you become more familiar with various key signatures. Playing different scales also prepares you to play them in the repertoire since scales are patterns that often occur in real pieces. For each scale you learn, you learn the ‘geography’ of the key and what the fingering patterns within that key are. Perhaps just as importantly or more so, it helps develop good technique regarding finger coordination and evenness in tone.
So what exactly is a scale? A scale is essentially a set of ordered notes arranged in ascending or descending order. There are many, many possibilities for various combinations of notes within this definition, but this article will focus on the major and natural minor scales.
Scales Technique That You Must Know
You may think scales are easy to play, as you just need to play one note after another. But they are not so easy to play correctly with good technique. The ability to play ‘easy’ exercises very well with good technique is often what separates advanced pianists from pianists who are still developing. It is often harder to achieve an even tone when playing notes than pianists may think.
Your fingers are not all the same shape or strength, so some of them will naturally press the keys with more or less force than others. But as a pianist, you can control your fingers to play with the same pressure. This requires slow and intentional practice. Here are some tips for practicing scales.
- When playing slowly, make sure you have a goal to focus on like “no mistakes” or “stay relaxed” to help stay engaged and not ‘zone out’ which is easy to do when playing scales
- Focus on keeping most of your hand relaxed and only engaging the muscles of the finger you are using to play. This will help you reduce tension while playing, especially as you increase the tempo.
- Don’t skim over mistakes just because it is a scale. Having mistakes in your scale could make it easier to make mistakes in a song using that scale, so try your best to play each note correctly with correct fingering
- Don’t play too fast. As scales become easier it can be tempting to do a speed dash for fun, but doing this too many times will implement mistakes in your playing so don’t play faster than you can without mistakes
- Practice scales with a variety of rhythms to keep things interesting. Try different patterns of eighth notes and quarter notes, triplets, and/or emphasizing certain fingers (especially weaker ones such as the fourth and fifth fingers).
There are many different kinds of scales: major, minor, chromatic, pentatonic, blues, modes etc. The list could go on. But the most common are major and natural minor scales (there are three kinds of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic). We will look at how to play the basic major and minor scales.
Major scales follow the major scale ‘formula.’ Starting from the root note, the major scale follows a pattern: whole tone- whole tone- semitone- whole tone- whole tone- whole tone- semitone. Minor scales follow a different but specific pattern: whole tone- semitone- whole tone- whole tone- semitone- whole tone- whole tone.
All major and minor keys have a relative minor and major key, respectively, that share the same key signature. For example, the key of C Major has no sharps or flats. The key of A Minor also has no sharps or flats. The difference is that based on the root note, the scale formula changes, determining whether it is major or minor. When you start on C and ascend up the keys on all natural or white notes, you follow the major key pattern of tones. When you start on A and ascend up the keys on all natural or white notes, you follow the minor key pattern of tones. To find a relative minor scale of a major key, simply find the note a minor third below the root (a minor third below C is A) and to find the relative major key of a minor scale, find the note a minor third above the root.
The fingering for scales that start on white keys is much more straightforward than the fingering for scales that start on black keys, so we will go over them separately.
Scales that Start on White Notes
Following the major scale formula starting from C, all of the notes are natural, meaning they are all white keys with no accidentals. Here is a C scale written on a staff.
Here is the right-hand fingering for the C Major scale.
Once you get to your third finger on E, bring your thumb under your third finger to land on F. Then continue to G with your second finger, A with your third finger, etc. Make sure to practice this in one smooth motion. To go back down the scale, simply reverse this, bringing the third finger over the thumb on the way down to land on E and finish the scale.
This fingering is for a one-octave scale. If you want to play two or more octaves, it is very simple. Instead of landing on your fifth finger at the end of the first octave, bring your thumb under your fourth finger to land on the next note and begin the next octave of the scale. To come down the scale, bring your third finger over your thumb on the way down.
Here is the left-hand fingering for the C Major scale.
Once you get to your first finger on G, bring your third finger over your thumb to continue the scale on A, then your second finger on B, etc. Coming back down is again the reverse, just bring the thumb under the third finger to continue down on G.
To play more than one octave in the left hand, when you get to the end of the scale bring your fourth finger over your thumb to play D and continue the pattern up as many octaves as you would like to practice. To come down the scale after an octave, cross your thumb under your fourth finger to land on C instead of playing it with your fifth finger then continue down the pattern.
The C Minor scale fingering for the left hand and right hand is the same that of C Major.
Fortunately, the fingering for most major and minor scales that start on a white key in the right hand is 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 and the left-hand fingering is 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1. All of the major and minor white key scales follow this fingering EXCEPT F Major and F Minor which have a slightly different fingering in the right hand and B Major and B Minor which have a slightly different fingering in the left hand.
This is the only white-key major scale with a different RH fingering. The reason for this is that the B-flat falls on the fourth note of the scale, where the RH thumb would land using the regular fingering. Using the thumb on a black note when playing scales should be avoided because it would twist the hand into an awkward position. To avoid this, an alternate fingering 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 is used.
Here is the right-hand fingering for F Major (the same fingering is used for F Minor).
With this fingering, the fourth finger plays the B-flat instead of the thumb, making it much more comfortable for the shape of the hand.
There is the same issue with F Minor, as the RH thumb would again land on the B-flat if it crossed over the third finger, so it follows the same 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 pattern.
Here is the left-hand fingering for B Minor (the same fingering is used for B Major).
There is the same issue of the left-hand thumb landing on a black key and using it as a turnaround note in the B Major and B Minor scales. In both scales, the thumb would land on F-sharp if it used the regular pattern, so for these scales use 4-3-2-1-4-3-2-1 which avoids putting the thumb on F-sharp and instead crosses over with the fourth finger.
The rest of the white key scales follow the standard scale fingering.
Scales that Start on Black Keys
Scales that start on the black notes often have less straightforward fingering, but there are still patterns to notice.
- Most of the fingering patterns start and end with the same finger
- The ending finger for one octave will often set you up to easily continue another octave
- The black key groups are often played with the same fingers. The two-key black key groups are often played 2-3 in the RH and 3-2 in the LH, while three-key black key groups are often played 2-3-4 in the RH and 4-3-2 in the LH
Because the black keys are also accidentals of the white keys surrounding them, each one can have two names. For example, the black key between C and D is both C-sharp and D-flat. For this reason, all of the black key scales could technically have two names (Db Major and C# Major). However, since each key can only have sharps or flats, certain keys (such as C# Major which has 7 sharps) are often impractical to work with, so they are usually written as the simpler enharmonic equivalent (Db Major instead of C# Major).
The LH fingering for this scale can end on the second or fourth finger. If you want to start and end on the same finger and always be prepared to go another octave, you may want to end on the fourth finger even if you are ending the scale. On the other hand, it seems a bit awkward to end it on this finger so you may decide to end on the second finger as you turn around to go back down the scale. This is fine as long as you are also comfortable using the fourth finger to continue another octave if necessary.
Notice that this fingering does not start and end on the same finger, so you will have to play the G-sharp with your fourth finger and cross under with your thumb to play another octave.
Like the major scale, you have the option to end on your second or fourth finger depending on your goal.
Now you know all of the basic major and minor scales. As you practice them, instead of focusing on how unentertaining they are to play, think about engaging your mind to train your fingers to perform as well as they possibly can. Implement small goals such as playing a scale a specific number of times without mistakes with one or both hands. If you want more ideas on how to make scales practice more interesting, the practice book Scales Bootcamp by Philip Johnston has many, many small challenges to help you stay engaged and improve your scales. You can find this book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.com/Scales-Bootcamp-fastest-clearest-scales/dp/0958190542.