Understanding piano scales: major, minor and blues scales
Piano scales are a ‘key’ part of developing your playing skills. 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. Soon you will be experiencing the advantages of scales in your playing.
Piano scales support you with:
- Learning keyboard geography; knowing your way around the keyboard.
- Learning pieces faster by recognising and picking up patterns.
- Training your fingers so they can independently navigate the white and black notes.
- Developing a sense of key-tonality to bring a deeper awareness to your playing and music theory.
- Improvising and composing to release your creativity.
- Developing good handshape.
- Warming up with comforting predictability.
What are piano scales?
A scale is a collection of related notes. They are played from the key note, also called the ‘tonic’. If the notes in a piece can be found in C major scale, then the piece is said to be in the ‘key of C major’. Scales are usually played ascending (going up) then descending (going down). The main way piano scales differ from scales on other instruments is that you can play them with both your hands at the same time!
Talking about the C-major scale, here is a great lesson on Skoove to familiarize yourself with the C-major scale in the left hand. Enjoy your practice, Skoove waits until you have hit the right key and gives you feedback (read how plugging your keyboard lets Skoove give you more accurate feedback).
Different types of piano scales
The most common types of scale are major scales, minor scales and the blues scale. Before learning how to build these scales here is a reminder of tones and semitones.
Semitone: This is the smallest step on the piano. It occurs between neighbouring white and black notes, and between the neighbouring white keys, which are E&F and B&C.
Tone: A whole tone or tone spans 2 semitones. In making a whole tone you will always skip either a white or black key.
Learn more about tones and semitones with this video.
Major scales are usually associated with upbeat and optimistic music. To build a major scale you follow this pattern of semitones and tones.
Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
Minor scales have a different sound to major scales. They are often used to express more complex emotions. There are more types of minor scales than there are major scales. The pattern for the natural minor scale is this:
Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone
A natural minor scale
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 ‘aeolian’ scale. The semitones are between note 2-3 and 5-6.
Have a look at Fallin’ and the E-natural minor scale to learn more about this type of scale and experience the impact that the minor key has on the character of the music. It perfectly echoes the confused emotions:
“Sometimes I feel good
At times I feel used
Lovin’ you darlin’
Makes me so confused”
The pattern of tones and semitones is this:
Tone and a half – Tone – Semitone – Semitone – Tone and a half – Tone
By following this pattern, you can play the blue scale starting on any key.
Anyone can make up a scale, if you are feeling experimental, why not have a go? It is an interesting way to see the impact of a scale and key on the character of the music. Playing the major, minor and blues scales while considering the benefits above will maximise your learning potential. Enjoy exploring these musical patterns.
Author of this blog post
Roberta Wolff – Pianist, Teacher, Mentor
Visit Roberta’s website