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All You Need To Know About Scales When Playing The Piano

Updated: Apr 12, 2023



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



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.


Pointer #2: Practice Only Begins After You Get It Right


Practice only starts proper after getting several correct repetitions; if you are in the habit of approaching practice with a 'try-until-you-get-it' manner, and conclude your practice the moment you get one or two correct repetitions, you will not benefit from such practice.


Pointer #3: Practice With A Steady Pulse


When practicing your scales, play them with a steady pulse. A metronome will serve you well to this end.


Pointer #4: Adjust The Unit Of Repetition


Having the correct fingerings, a steady pulse, and consistency is a non-negotiable. However, if you are having trouble holding these three things together, don't just take a 'try it again' or 'try until you get it' approach. Adjust the unit of repetition to something smaller in order to balance these three things. Here's what I mean, if you can't play the whole scale correctly in a consistent manner, adjust the 'unit of repetition' (the thing that you repeat during your practice) from the entire scale to only playing a small number of notes from the scale, for example, the first 4 notes of the scale. Practice just the first 4 notes until you can balance all three aspects (fingering, steady pulse, consistency) every single time you play them. Only then do you add more notes to the unit of repetition, and it can be just one single note (eg practicing the first 5 notes, after you've mastered the first 4 notes). Be patient with your practice!


Pointer #5: Teach It Back. Verbally Only!


After having practiced a scale, ask yourself the following question: if you were to placed in the piano teacher's seat and had to teach back the scale to someone else the same scale verbally, would you be able to do it? Here's the catch: while you're doing this, it has to be purely verbally; you're not to place your hands on the keys or gesture in the air how you would play the scale, lest this exercise loses its purpose. The idea here is to strengthen your mindfulness of what you intend to play and the ability to visualize. Too many students rely on momentum to practice without developing any meaningful mindfulness of what they are playing and the actions they are taking at the piano; this is a classic example of the expression, 'the tail (hands) wagging the dog (mind)'. This leads to lack of consistency and a lesser ability to make connections between one piece of knowledge to another. A big part of the act of playing the piano begins from the mind, and as such, when doing this 'teach back' exercise, it should be done only verbally; the idea is to remove the physical component of practice and isolate just the mental aspect of practice.


Pointer #6: Switching Between Scales Without False Starts


After having practiced a couple scales, ask yourself the following question: are you able to switch back and forth between the scales that your know without 'false starts'? For example, if you have already practiced the scales of C and G major, try practice switching back and forth between them - one repetition of C, followed by one repetition of G, and back to C, and then G again, and so on. When doing this exercise, are you able to switch between keys without making any mistakes? Or do you find yourself constantly playing a few incorrect repetitions first before getting it right during the key changes? For example, you might find yourself playing the first couple of notes of the scale, and then realizing you made some kind of mistake, before starting from the beginning of the scale again - this is what I refer to as 'false starts'. These 'false starts' are the signs and symptoms of a lack of mindfulness as mentioned in the earlier point. If you find yourself habitually having 'false starts' when switching between the scales you have practiced, then it is an indication that you have to rework your scales with greater mindfulness.


Pointer #7: Knowing Your Scale Degrees At The Snap Of A Finger


For any number of scales that you may have learnt, ask yourself the following question: how quickly are you able to visualize your scales to answer questions like, 'What is 6th note of a F# harmonic minor scale?'. If answering a question like this invokes a need to play out the scale or even pretend to play out the scale without a keyboard, it is an indication that there can still be more to be done to internalize the scale, and that the scale is not 'mastered'.


Mindfulness Is Key


You might have noticed by now, that a big recurring theme of the last three pointers is mindfulness. Indeed, mindfulness is one of the biggest aspects of mastery, but it can be a little elusive of definition, hence the last three pointers has been given as a litmus test of sorts for mindfulness; it is not definitive, but gives a rough gauge of whether more can be done to master your scales.




All The Basic Scales You Need To Know


Below is a list of all the scales you need to know, and for simplicity, they are written in the key of C.


Major Scale

The major scale is the most basic of scales. It is constructed using the following intervallic structure


Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone


Knowing your major scales can be very useful as many teaching resources would define other scales, chords and harmonic techniques and/or analysis terms in relation to the major scale, using a numbering system (sometimes referred to as 'scale formulas'**).


For example, a textbook with a topic on scales might say, "The Minor Blues Scale is constructed with the following scale formula: 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7"


In this case, 'b3' would refer to a regular 3rd note in a major scale, but flattened (lowered by half a step). Hence, if you were trying to figure out what a 'b3' is in a C minor blues scale:

3 = 3rd note in C major scale = E

hence, b3 = Eb


However, had you not known your major scales, you would not be able to figure out what a regular 3rd note is, let alone a flattened 3rd note. Hence, it would serve you well to know your major scales.


** The term 'scale formulas' are used loosely to mean different things by different people. It would be good to know the differences. For some, 'scale formulas' refer to numeric descriptions of scales with reference to the major scale. For example, someone might say, "the scale formula for natural minor scale is 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7". For others, 'scale formulas' refer to intervallic structures. For example, someone might say, "the scale formula for harmonic minor is Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone"


Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is characterized by a raised 7th note. If described as a numeric scale formula, it would be as follows:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7


Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale has two forms: the ascending form and the descending form. For the ascending form (see scale above), the 6th and 7th scale degrees are raised. The numeric scale formula is as follows:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7


For the descending form (see scale above), the 6th and 7th scale degrees revert to their original form. The numeric scale formula is as follows:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7


Natural Minor Scale

Unlike the harmonic and melodic minor (ascending) scales, the natural minor scale does not have any alterations; in other words, the notes of the scale are purely determined by the key signature. It also happens to be the same scale as the descending form of the melodic minor scale. Hence, the natural minor scale also follows the same numeric formula:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7



Jazz Scales & Other Common Scales


Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale is made up five notes with the following numeric scale formula:


1, 2, 3, 5, 6


The major pentatonic scale is often taught as a beginner's jazz scale for improvisation over the blues. At the same time, it is a versatile scale that is often used in many other musical traditions, such as traditional Chinese music.


A little extra trivia about the major pentatonic scale: the notes of a major pentatonic scale can be reorganized into a stack of perfect fifth intervals starting from the key note. For example, the notes of a C major pentatonic are as follows:


C, D, E, G, A


We can reorganize the notes in the following order, such that it forms a stack of perfect fifth intervals starting from the note, C:


C, G, D, A, E


To put in other words, one might also say that the major pentatonic is constructed by a series of perfect fifth intervals.


Minor Pentatonic Scale


The minor pentatonic scale is made up five notes with the following numeric scale formula:


1, b3, 4, 5, b7


As with the major pentatonic scale, the minor pentatonic scale is also often taught as a beginner's jazz scale for improvisation over the blues. It should also be worth noting, that for every minor pentatonic scale, there is a major pentatonic scale made up of the same notes. For example, the above illustrated C minor pentatonic scale is made up of the same notes as the Eb major pentatonic scale. It is very much like how the key of C minor and Eb major are relative keys.


Major Blues Scale

The major blues scale is almost identical to the major pentatonic scale with the exception of one additional note: the #2 note. The numeric scale formula for the major blues scale is as follows:


1, 2, #2, 3, 5, 6


The #2 serves as a chromatic note between 2 and 3, and is referred to as the 'blue note', because it gives the scale an extra bluesy quality.


Minor Blues Scale

The minor blues scale is also almost identical to the minor pentatonic scale with the exception of one addition note: the #4. The numeric scale formula for the major blues scale is as follows:


1, b3, 4 ,#4, 5, b7


The #4 serves as a chromatic note between 4 and 5, and is referred to as the 'blue note' due to the extra bluesy quality it brings to the scale.


Altered Scale

The altered scale is often taught as a jazz scale for improvisation over dominant seventh chords. The numeric scale formula for the altered scale is as follows:


1, b9, #9, 3, #11, b13, b7


The altered scale gets its name from the fact that it uses all possible altered tension notes. It is also worth noting that for every altered scale, there is a melodic minor scale and a lydian dominant scale (discussed further below) that contains the exact same notes. For example, note the following relationship between the scales:


C altered scale = C# melodic minor scale = F# lydian dominant scale


Knowing these scale relationships can help de-mystify the improvisation process for jazz improvisers.


Lydian Dominant Scale

The lydian dominant scale has the following numeric scale formula:


1, 2, 3, #11, 5, 6, b7


The lydian dominant scale is often used on dominant seventh chords whose function is serving as a tritone substitution chord. It is worth noting that for every lydian dominant scale, there is a melodic minor scale and an altered scale that contains the exact same notes. Note the following scale relationships:


C lydian dominant scale = G melodic minor scale = F# altered scale


Diminished Scale (Half-Whole)

The diminished scale (half-whole) is made up of a series of alternating half step intervals and whole step intervals. For example, to construct a diminished scale (half-whole), one would follow theses steps:


Interval between 1st and 2nd note: half step

Interval between 2nd and 3rd note: whole step

Interval between 3rd and 4th note: half step

Interval between 4th and 5th note: whole step

Interval between 5th and 6th note: half step

Interval between 6th and 7th note: whole step

Interval between 7th and 8th note: half step


The half-whole diminished scale gets its name from the fact that it starts with a half step interval first in the alternating pattern between half steps and whole steps. Confused about the name? Read on. This will make more sense when compared to the next scale: the whole-half diminished scale.


Diminished Scale (Whole-Half)

In contrast to the half-whole diminished scale, the whole-half diminished scale is also constructed with a series of alternating whole and half step intervals, but this time, the sequence starts with a whole step instead of a half step:


Interval between 1st and 2nd note: whole step

Interval between 2nd and 3rd note: half step

Interval between 3rd and 4th note: whole step

Interval between 4th and 5th note: half step

Interval between 5th and 6th note: whole step

Interval between 6th and 7th note: half step

Interval between 7th and 8th note: whole step


Both diminished scales are applied on diminished 7th chords and dominant seventh chords in improvisation. It is also worth noting that both diminished scales are what is known as 'symmetrical' scales. While the meaning of what that means is outside the scope of this article, the implication of the diminished scales being 'symmetrical' scales is that every diminished scale contains the same notes as 3 other diminished scales. For example, note the following scale relationships:


C diminished scale = Eb diminished scale = F# diminished scale = A diminished scale


This also means that unlike regular scales that can have 12 keys (eg, you can have major scales in 12 different keys), there are only 3 diminished scales:


C diminished scale (same as Eb, F#, and A diminished scale)

C# diminished scale (same as E, G, and Bb diminished scale)

D diminished scale (same as F, Ab, and B diminished scale)


Another interesting trivia about diminished scales is that each diminished scale is made up of two diminished seventh chords superimposed on top of each other. For example, a C whole-half diminished scale is made up of the chord tones of the two following chords:


C diminished seventh chord (chord tones are: C, Eb, F#, A)

D diminished seventh chord (chord tones: D, F, Ab, B)


Augmented Scale

The augmented scale is constructed by taking the notes of an augmented triad, and adding chromatic notes below the chord tones. For example, a C augmented triad is made up of the notes, C, E, and G#. Hence, to construct a C augmented scale, we would take these notes, and add the notes that are chromatically below them:


The note that is chromatically below C is B

The note that is chromatically below E is D#

The note that is chromatically below G# is G


We would end up with the following notes: C, D#, E, G, G#, B. This would be your C augmented scale.


Another way to think about the scale is that it is constructed by superimposing two augmented triads on top of one another. In the case of a C augmented scale, the two augmented triads are:


C augmented triad (chord tones are: C, E, G#)

B augmented chord (chord tones are: B, D#, G)


Like the diminished scale, the augmented scale is also a 'symmetrical' scale. Note the following scale relationships:


C augmented scale = E augmented scale = G# augmented scale


The implication of this would be that there are only 4 possible augmented scales, and they are:


C augmented scale (same as E and G# augmented scale)

C# augmented scale (same as F and A augmented scale)

D augmented scale (same as F# and Bb augmented scale)

Eb augmented scale (same as G and B augmented scale)


Whole Tone Scale

The whole tone scale is constructed with a series of whole step intervals. This means that the interval from one note in the scale to the next is always a whole step away. The whole tone scale has a dreamy and mysterious quality to it. Like the diminished and augmented scales, the whole tone scale is also a 'symmetrical' scale. The implication of this is that there are only 2 possible whole tone scales, and they are:


C whole tone scale (same as D, E, F#, G#, A# whole tone scales)

C# whole tone scale (same as Eb, F, G, A, B whole tone scales)


Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is constructed with a series of half step intervals. This means that the interval from one note in the scale to the next is always a half step away.


Modes


To understand what modes are, think of them as a procedure of generating more scale possibilities from a single parent scale; and for most purposes, this parent scale would be the major scale. The idea behind modes is to generate more scale possibilities by moving the key centre to the different scale degrees of the major scale. For example, if we were to take a C major scale, and took the 2nd scale degree as the key centre, we would get a mode/scale that we refer to as D dorian. This scale would be made up of the following notes:


D, E, F, G, A, B, C


If we continue this train of thought, and moved the key centre down each scale degree, we get the following scales/modes:


Taking the 2nd scale degree as key centre, we get D Dorian (D, E, F, G, A, B, C)

Taking the 3rd scale degree as key centre, we get E Phrygian (E, F, G, A, B, C, D)

Taking the 4th scale degree as key centre, we get F Lydian (F, G, A, B, C, D, E)

Taking the 5th scale degree as key centre, we get G Mixolydian (G, A, B, C, D, E, F)

Taking the 6th scale degree as key centre, we get A Aeolian (A, B, C, D, E, F, G)

Taking the 7th scale degree as key centre, we get B Locrian (B, C, D, E, F, G, A)


You will notice that every one of these scales/modes contains the exact same notes as a C major scale, which begs the question for almost everyone learning about modes for the first time: "why not just call all of them C major instead of giving it 6 other names?". The answer is key centre. In a C major scale, the key centre is the note, C, whereas in D dorian, the key centre is the note, D; in E Phrygian, the key centre is the note, E, and so on.


If you're still having trouble wrapping your mind around that, then perhaps transposing all those modes back to a key centre of C might give a better perspective how modes generates more scale possibilities. After all, it doesn't make much sense to compare scales of differing key centres. By transposing all of the above mentioned modes back to C, we get the following scales:


C Dorian = C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb

C Phrygian = C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb

C Lydian = C, D, E, F#, G, A, B

C Mixolydian = C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb

C Aeolian = C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb

C Locrian = C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb


We can now compare apples to apples given that they share the same key centre of C, and it should be easier to appreciate how modes generate more scale possibilities.


You might notice that I have used the terms scales and modes interchangeably. It would be worth noting that you will find a difference of opinion amongst different groups of people on whether these terms should be used interchangeably. On technicality, there is a difference. But given that we've established earlier on, that scales are pools of notes from which composers (or improvisers) craft their compositions (or improvisations) from, distinguishing between modes and scales is not a useful technicality worth pursuing. After all, modes are also pools of notes from which composers/improvisers craft their compositions/improvisations from. With that, let us now go into the details of all the modes


Ionian

You will notice that amongst the modes mentioned before, the Ionian mode is not one of them. The Ionian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the first degree of the parent major scale. This works out to be exactly the same scale as a C major scale, and with the same key centre. Hence, there is virtually no difference between a C Ionian and C major scale at all. However, it is still worth knowing as there will be music resources using the lingo, "C Ionian".


Dorian

The Dorian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 2nd degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C dorian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 2nd scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be Bb major. Hence, the C dorian mode would be made up of the same notes as a Bb major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of Bb.


The numeric scale formula for the dorian scale is as follows:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7


The dorian mode has a similar sound to a minor scale, but what gives the dorian mode its unique sound is the major 6th scale degree. One of the most popular songs that are derived from the dorian scale is "Scarborough Fair".


Phrygian

The Phrygian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 3rd degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C Phrygian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 3rd scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be Ab major. Hence, the C Phrygian mode would be made up of the same notes as a Ab major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of Ab.


The numeric scale formula for the phrygian scale is as follows:


1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7


The Phrygian mode is almost identical to a natural minor scale, with the exception of the b2 scale degree, which gives it an even darker sound than your typical minor scales.



Lydian

The Lydian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 4th degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C Lydian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 4th scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be G major. Hence, the C Lydian mode would be made up of the same notes as a G major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of G.


The numeric scale formula for the lydian scale is as follows:


1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7


The Lydian scale is almost identical to a major scale with the exception of the #4 scale degree which gives the mode a dreamy quality.


Mixolydian

The Mixolydian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 5th degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C Mixolydian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 5th scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be F major. Hence, the C Mixolydian mode would be made up of the same notes as a F major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of F.


The numeric scale formula for the mixolydian scale is as follows:


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7



Aeolian

The Aeolain mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 6th degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C Aeolian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 6th scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be Eb major. Hence, the C Aeolian mode would be made up of the same notes as a Eb major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of Eb.


The numeric scale formula for the aeolian scale is as follows:


1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7


The Aeolian mode is the exact same scale as the natural minor scale


Locrian

The Locrian mode is the name given to the mode when the key centre is on the 7th degree of the parent major scale. Hence, if we were trying to work backwards to figure out the parent major scale of say, C Locrian, we would take the note C, and ask ourselves, "If C were to be the 7th scale degree of a major scale, what would that major scale be?". And the answer would be Db major. Hence, the C Locrian mode would be made up of the same notes as a Db major scale, with the only difference being that the key centre is now on C instead of Db.


The numeric scale formula for the locrian scale is as follows:


1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7



PDF Download: Major & Minor Scales In All 12 Keys



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