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All You Need To Know About Scales When Playing The Piano

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

Perhaps, to many piano students, the very mention of scales would bring to mind dreadful and tiresome experiences of practicing them. Are practicing scales really necessary? This article will help you understand all you need to know about scales, and there is a freebie pdf download right at the end, be sure to grab it!

Table Of Contents

  1. What Are Scales?

  2. Why You Should Practice Scales

  3. How To Practice Scales

  4. All The Basic Scales You Need To Know

  5. Major

  6. Harmonic Minor

  7. Melodic Minor

  8. Natural Minor

  9. Jazz Scales & Other Common Scales

  10. Major Pentatonic

  11. Minor Pentatonic

  12. Major Blues

  13. Minor Blues

  14. Altered Scale

  15. Lydian Dominant Scale

  16. Diminished Scale (Half-Whole)

  17. Diminished Scale (Whole-Half)

  18. Augmented Scale

  19. Whole Tone

  20. Chromatic Scale

  21. Modes

  22. Ionian

  23. Dorian

  24. Phrygian

  25. Lydian

  26. Mixolydian

  27. Aeolian

  28. Locrian

  29. Download Piano Scales Book in PDF

What Are Scales?

A surprising number of piano students are not able to answer this question in a meaningful way, nor make the connection between scales and the music that they play or listen to. Perhaps this is where the dread of practicing scales come from; after all, given time, anyone who does not have a clear idea of the purpose of doing something, will most certainly come to see it as a do-for-the-sake-of-doing-it chore. It would then be prudent to first think about the question: what are scales?

There's more than one way to answer this question, but let's approach this from a utilitarian standpoint. Imagine for a moment, that you were a composer of music who's brand new to the craft. Now, with all the 12 (chromatic) notes of music available to you to compose a piece of music, it can seem a little overwhelming with the amount of possibilities that having 12 notes presents. What do we do then?

Imagine, then, that if someone came along and told you, "Hey, if you made music only using C, D, Eb, G, it gives you a dark sound; it's most useful for composing music that sounds sad or anguished; or possibly something cool and hip given the right rhythms".

Now, that would've been useful because it narrowed down your choices from 12 notes to 4 specific notes, and there was also a particular mood associated with this set of 4 notes. You begin to wonder to yourself, "Are there more of these sets of notes? Perhaps one with brighter sounds and colors that I can use for a happier composition. Or perhaps one with a blues-ey sound to it so I can compose something cool with it?"

Ladies and gentleman, this is exactly what scales are: they are pools of notes that composers draw upon, to craft music compositions. Whether they contain 4 notes, 5 notes, 6 notes, or more, each scales has its own unique character and sound. Yes, for those who have been brought up on a musical diet of only 7-note scales such as major and minor scales, it may be hard to wrap one's head around the idea that there are such things as 4 or 5-note scales, or the fact that there's an entire world of scales beyond the major scale and 3 minor scales. But your journey into scales is just beginning at this point.

Why You Should Practice Scales

Now that we have established what scales are, it shouldn't be hard, then, to appreciate some very direct benefits of being familiar with your scales. Given that scales are the basic material that composers use to write music, mastering your scales should, in theory, puts you in a better position to quickly make sense of any new musical material that you are attempting to learn.

For example, mastering your scales translates to strengthening your key awareness - knowing what notes belong in a key, and what notes do not belong. This means that when learning a new piece of music from written notation, there would not be a need to continuously check every new note read against the key signature to see if the note needs to be sharpened or flattened - a poor habit of a good number of piano students. With a strong key awareness, you would simply know which ones need to be sharpened and flattened, unless you see an accidental that states otherwise.

Mastering your scales should also, in theory, build better intuition towards determining fingering choices for any given situation. This is especially so if it the passage that you are trying to learn uses scalar patterns or scale fragments. In these cases, having mastered your scales, your fingers should intuitively default to the fingering that has been practiced in your scales.

If you were a pop piano accompaniments with an interest in playing chords, mastering your scales translates into having a strong key awareness, and this directly pertains to the ability to transpose songs into different keys quickly, which is a useful skill for playing with different lead players or singers with differing keys. But even before transposition, mastering your scales also means that you will be better positioned to quickly construct chords that are unfamiliar to you.

For a newer student of the piano, practicing scales also provides an opportunity to strengthen the fingers and develop the most basic coordination skills between the hands.

Practicing your scales can also take on the role of shorter term goals or objectives in your practice routine. Think of practicing scales as practicing tiny pieces; practicing your scales provides the perfect bite-sized opportunity to develop mindfulness - the building one's mental muscle to pre-emptively think, hear and visualize ahead of time.

How To Practice Scales

You might have noticed that I used the term 'in theory' multiple times when discussing the benefits of practicing scales. Yes, this was deliberate. After all, for every benefit that one could potentially derive from practicing scales, there is always a way to miss the learning objective and the accompanying benefits when practicing scales. The question is then, how do you know if you're practicing them right? Here's a few pointers

Pointer #1: Always Practice With The Correct Fingerings

Practicing with correct fingerings is key to building speed and consistency. When practicing scales, it doesn't count as a correct repetition if the fingering is incorrect.