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Understanding piano scales: 6 tips to help you practice them

piano scales

Piano scales are an important part of developing your playing skills and understanding the building blocks of music. They help enormously to understand key signatures.

If you have ever wondered why pianists play them, how they work and what the benefits are then you are in the right place. With a simple formula you will learn to play major, minor and blues scales. If you incorporate a few minutes of learning and practicing scales into your daily schedule, you’ll soon see the advantages of making time for scales.

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What are piano scales?

All piano scales are commonly misunderstood, but they are actually quite simple. Scales are a group of notes, in alphabetical order, that are a specific distance apart from each other. We think of scales as having two parts, a root and a quality. 

In the F major scale, the Root is “F”, which is the note that we begin counting our scale from, it is our first letter in our musical alphabet in this scale. 

The quality of the F major scale is major. This means our pattern of whole steps and half steps will be the exact same as every other “Major Scale”. So, even though an F Major Scale and an A Major Scale have different Root Notes, their scale “Qualities” are the same. This is why we are going to teach you the piano scales for beginners. Starting with the pattern for all major scales, and then you will learn all of the scales simultaneously, instead of just one.

Why practice piano scales? 

Practicing scales on piano not only increases your awareness of key signatures, but also leads to finger endurance and muscle memory. 

When you learn piano scales, your speed will turn into confidence and ease in pieces of music you play. There are so many productive ways you can practice scales and arpeggios that will make playing them fun rather than a chore!  

In addition to practicing in the circle of fifths, here are some great ideas to incorporate into your daily practice.

Tips for how to learn piano scales

There are so many productive ways you can practice scales that will make playing them fun rather than a chore!  Here are some great ideas to incorporate into your daily practice:

  • Try playing in different octaves with both hands. 
  • Use an online metronome.  This is a traditional method of building even, speedy scales that still stays popular, because it works!  
  • Try a different key every week. This will help you learn your keys and key signatures.
  • Keep a practice diary to record all your practice sessions.  This way you can track your progress and see what works best for you.
  • Use different rhythms. Using a dotted note rhythm with a long note first is always a good start. Playing at different speeds and using different rhythms is great strengthening exercise for your fingers.  It’s a brain work-out too!
  • Combining piano chords and scales in various ways.
  • Practice more than one octave at a time.  Once you’ve got it flowing, you can advance to two octaves, then three and eventually, four.

Additionally, pianists in the r/piano forum on Reddit have some good insight on the benefits of practicing piano scales including:

  • Practice finger movements common in classical music
  • Familiarize with certain note groupings for quicker comprehension and performance
  • Develop a mental map of the keyboard for better navigation
  • Building good legato and staccato skills
  • Practicing rhythmic elements
  • Crescendo and decrescendo

💡 Click here to jump down to the piano scales generator

Whole-steps and half-steps – the building blocks of scales 

Before learning how to practice scales and build them, let’s remember the basic building blocks of whole steps and half steps. 

  • Half Step: This is the smallest distance on the piano. It occurs between any key and the immediate nearest key. This does not mean from white to black, or from white-to-white. It means the immediate nearest note, above or below. 
  • Whole Step:  A whole step is two half steps in either direction. You can remember this because two halves make a whole, two half-steps make a whole-step.

Different types of piano scales

The most common types of scale are major scales, minor scales and the blues scale.  Let’s look at each type. Remember what was written in the introduction. Scales have two parts, a Root and a Quality. Here we will focus on learning the different Qualities of Scales. First we look at Major. 

Understanding the major scales

Major scales are usually associated with upbeat and optimistic music. To build a piano major scale you follow this pattern of semitones and tones:

Root – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Half-Step – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Half-Step 

Major scales are incredibly common in music and they are the starting place for almost every pianist, leading to more complex scales like the altered scale as one progresses.

major scale piano

Understanding the minor scales

There are three main different types of minor scales: 

  • Natural 
  • Harmonic 
  • Melodic

While major scales sound generally happy, minor scales sound mysterious, sad, or exotic. They are often used to express more complex emotions. Pay attention to how the scale degrees are different from major scales. 

The natural minor scale

The construction of a natural minor scale looks like this:

Tonic – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone

natural minor scale

In the key of A minor, this scale is spelled A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A.

This scale uses the same fingering pattern as the C-major scale above. “Mad World” by Tears For Fears introduces the A minor scale. Learn the A-minor scale in the related Skoove lesson. Skoove will give you guidance and instant feedback on your playing.

The natural minor scale is also called the Aeolian mode. The semitones are between notes 2-3 and 5-6.

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The harmonic minor scale

The harmonic minor scale is notable for its raised 7th note which does not appear in the key signature. This raised 7th means there is an interval of 3 semitones between the 6th and 7th note. The harmonic minor scale is one of the most commonly used minor scales in western music. 

The construction looks like this:

Tonic – Tone – Semitone -Tone – Tone – Semitone – 3 semitones – Semitone

In the key of A minor, the scale is spelled A – B – C – D – E – F – G♯ – A. Notice the only difference between the harmonic minor scale and the natural minor scale is the raised 7th scale degree vs. the natural 7th scale degree in the natural minor.

The Harmonic Minor Scale 

The melodic minor scale

The melodic minor scale is a slightly different beast. In classical music theory, the scale is played one way ascending and a different way descending. In every other time of music, the scale is played the same way ascending and descending.

The melodic minor scale features a flat third scale degree and raised sixth and seventh scale degrees. In classical music theory, the melodic minor scale is played like this ascending and then played as the natural minor scale descending.

The construction is like this:

  • Ascending: Tonic – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
  • Descending: Tonic – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone

In jazz, rock, pop, and other types of music, the melodic minor is simply spelled the same way ascending as it is descending.

The C melodic minor scale is spelled C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B – C. You can see that it is basically a major scale with a flat third scale degree. Pretty cool!

The Melodic Minor Scale 

Practicing contrary motion in scales

Contrary – meaning opposite – and motion – meaning movement.  These are scales that move in opposite directions and are fun to play.  Certain keys are really challenging to play in this way, but give you the next level of skill if you practice them!

 

C major is the easiest one to play.  To play a contrary motion scale in C major, start with both your thumbs on middle C.  Your left hand is going to perform a descending scale while your right hand is going to perform an ascending scale, at the same time. The trick to this is that it is actually quite easy, when you realize your hands are using the exact same fingering, just moving apart and then toward each other. 

Only five notes: the major pentatonic scale

Another very commonly used scale in blues, jazz and even popular music is the pentatonic scale. It’s a shorter scale, consisting of 5 notes and it has a major and minor variation.  The major pentatonic is structured like this:

Root  – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – 3 Half-Steps – Whole-Step – 3 Half-Steps

The Major Pentatonic Scale 

The C major pentatonic scale is spelled C – D – E – G – A.

Play a minor blues with the minor pentatonic scale

The minor variation of the pentatonic scale is simply called the minor pentatonic scale. The minor pentatonic is structured like this:

Root – 3 Half-Steps – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – 3 Half-Steps – Whole-Steps

The Minor Pentatonic Scale 

The C minor pentatonic scale is spelled C – E♭ – F – G – B♭ – C.

How to play the whole tone scale

The whole tone scale sounds ethereal and romantic. Claude Debussy used this scale frequently in his music.  Listen to “La Mer” arranged for two pianos to get the sense of wonder that this scale conjures.

As the name implies, the whole tone scale is built in a series of whole steps like this:

Root – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Whole-Step – Whole-Step 

It is a six note scale. The C whole tone scale is spelled C – D – E – F♯ – G♯ – A♯ – C.

Piano scales generator

This piano scales generator from Pianoworld is a handy tool to learn scales. It is interactive and easy to use.

If you are reading this from a mobile device, rotate it to display the tool in full width.

 

1. Click on “Scale”
2. Choose the “Root” of the scale
2. Choose the “Type” (major, minor, etc.)
3. Click “Display”

* You can do the same with scales.
** You can invert chords and scales

Learn your scales!

Exploring new and interesting scale patterns can lead to some very interesting results. Maybe you will try a new scale and think of sadness, or sunlight, or outer space, or something crazy like the chromatic scale! You can even try combining your new scales with basic piano chords.

There is a reason why composers and pianists of all skill levels practice scales, because they are the key to learning about new major keys and new ways to express yourself. The best way to learn to express yourself with the piano is by taking online piano lessons, and using the piano learning app Skoove’s free trial!

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Author of this blog post:

Alvin Shipp

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.
Edited and fact-checked by Eddie Bond, multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor
Published by Lidya Hovan from the Skoove team

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