Scales are one of the most important fundamentals of both theory and technique. In this article you will learn how to play scales on the piano focusing on the motivation to learn scales, how to form them and how to approach them as a beginner and advanced student.
Getting Motivated to Learn Scales
Scales are painful exercises unless you understand why you should learn them. In my opinion, learning scales should always be an enjoyable event (although it’s ok if that is not always the case). To improve your motivation, let’s explore the benefits of learning scales, and tips for staying motivated.
Benefits of Scales
Think of learning scales as a learning multiplier that helps you learn pieces faster. Let’s piece apart how a scale makes you learn pieces faster.
Identifying Key Signatures. The ability to instantaneously identify key signatures prevents you from always looking to the key signature. Instead your brain and fingers automatically sharp and flat the proper notes speeding up the time it takes to learn new pieces.
The picture below shows what it feels like to play in a key you are unfamiliar with. Your mind may need to check before each note to see if it is sharped or flatted.
But if you know the D major scale your mind (and fingers) will naturally sharp all C♯’s and F♯’s. You only need to look at the key signature once!
Identifying runs. Without identifying the run below as a scale, you need to figure out each note individually. It is like reading a word by sounding out each letter.
But if you know the notes of an E major scale, you can quickly identify the following run as an E major scale and your fingers will fall on the keys quickly.
Improving agility. Over time the goal in scales is evenness and speed. By learning your E major scale at high speeds and with evenness, you wouldn’t need to practice speed and evenness when working on the piece above Some professional musicians could sight-read the passage above so well you wouldn’t even know that’s what they were doing.
Improving expressiveness. Listen to Murray Perahia’s buttery runs in this Mozart piano concerto. Scales don’t have to be mechanical exercises. They can ebb and flow, crescendo-ing and peaking on high notes, and decrescendo-ing as they descend, just like Perahia plays them.
Improve your improvisation. Most melodies have at least some sections that are stepwise. By learning scales, you can improve the smoothness connecting from one important note to another. Plus, in jazz, often scales change multiple times through a piece depending on the underlying chords – so it really pays to know your scales if you pursue jazz improv.
Making Scale Practice Enjoyable
On this website learning in a joyful way is extremely important. I enjoy scales when I understand the benefits they bring, and I have a clear and achievable challenge. Some question to ask yourself while or after practicing scales:
- Do scales feel pointless to me? If so, review the benefits of practicing scales. Get creative and practice the scale in a way that caters to one of the benefits listed.
- Do scales feel too hard to master? If so, read on to the beginner or advanced strategies.
- Does it feel like I’m not progressing? If so, find new “micro” challenges. Tick up the metronome, shoot for buttery evenness, learn a new scale, try out and master a new scale practice exercise.
While there are many types of scales, most scales can be formed by a series of whole and half steps. A half step is the distance from one key to the very next key on a piano. A whole step is the distance from one note to a note two half steps away.
The formulas for major and minor scales are listed below where W = whole step and H = half step. For example to form a C major scale start on C then travel up a whole step to D, another whole step to E, a half step to F etc.
This is a brief explanation for forming scales, I go in much more depth on constructing all types of major and minor scales in my article on major and minor scales.
How to Practice Piano Scales for Beginners
Before playing a scale let’s do a quick posture check.
- feet are on the ground
- back is straight
- shoulders are relaxed
- elbows (tricky) are loose. Your elbows won’t come to rest directly below your shoulders but slightly forward, and with a bit of space away from the rib cage.
- wrist is straight and activated holding the weight of the arm.
- fingers are on the keys with slightly cupped hands.
With scales hand position is especially important, so let’s go in more depth.
Stand up and let your arms rest to your side. Your fingers should have a natural curve that’s roughly large enough to hold a grapefruit. Now sit down and place your relaxed fingers on the keyboard. The tips of your fingers will be less than perpendicular to the keyboard as shown below.
After watching through many videos on learning piano scales, my favorite for beginners was by Zach Evans. He gives a highly detailed step-by-step plan, and has a great exercise for practicing the thumb cross which is the most challenging part of the scale.
At 15:24 he explains his thumb cross exercise. In the right hand of an ascending C major scale, he recommends sliding the thumb under as soon as the second finger plays D and then fully under when the third finger plays E.
Afterwards he discusses more exercises such as the long short short short rhythmic exercise. On the three short notes the fingers get practice playing at high speeds without accumulating tension because the muscles rest on the long held note.
At 28:37 he discusses forming a practice routine that incorporates the exercises of the previous section. He encourages students to form a routine that works for them!
How to Practice for Advanced Students
Piano scales for beginner and advanced students are slightly different; I turn to Josh Wright who has some excellent videos on advanced piano technique. He gives a wrist exercise and discusses hand shifts and thumb crosses at high speeds.
At 4:51 he discusses the difference between moving the hand up the keyboard with a strong thumb cross under, vs shifting the entire hand. Chopin, according to his student Karol Mikuli, claimed that evenness in scales should come from a “constant sideways movement of the hands.” So at slower speeds there is a pronounced thumb cross-under, but at high speeds the shifting falls on the whole hand with a minimal cross under.
At 9:04 Josh recommends an exercise for precision in which each note is accented with a slight bounce in the wrist. This should only be done at slower tempos as it could create tension at higher speeds. At higher speeds, the slight wrist bounce is lessened and may happen primarily on the beat. It should add a sense of precision to your scale.
One exercise he doesn’t discuss in this video (but I have seen him talk about in detail in other videos), is to practice the scales with rhythms such as long short short short. This technique is great for developing speed without creating excess tension.
Once you get to super high speeds, it will take more and more different exercises to unveil and fix micro-inefficiencies in your playing. Adding more exercises is like adding new tools to your tool box; each one useful for resolving a unique problem.
My final piece of advice as you approach learning scales is to use exercises to solve problems, not to blindly fill up practice time. Mikuli, Chopin’s student, writes: “Untiringly [Chopin] taught that the appropriate exercises should not be merely mechanical but rather should enlist the whole will of the student; therefore he would never require a mindless twenty or forty-fold repetition (still today the extolled arcanum at so many schools), let alone a drill during which one could, according to Kalkbrenner’s advice, simultaneously occupy oneself with reading!” (reference: spot.colorado.edu).
Have fun with scales! And if you don’t, that’s ok, pause and see if you can figure out why.
Now you should understand why and how to practice scales for whatever level you are at. Scales are fundamental when learning piano, but often a source of tedium and stress. Now that you understand the benefits of learning scales, and have actionable steps to reach your goals, I hope you have the inspiration you need to start practicing!
From here you may enjoying diving into another fundamental – arpeggios.