Most western music is built using scales and arpeggios. There are two basic pattern types: major and minor. By learning to play them, you improve your finger strength and develop an understanding of the different key signatures. You’ll find learning a song gets a lot quicker once you know scales and arpeggios, as these patterns often show up in songs.
What is the difference between a scale and an arpeggio?
In a nutshell, the difference between a scale and an arpeggio is that a scale moves from one note to the next while an arpeggio jumps over notes.
💡 In other words, you can think of scales as “running” up and down a ladder and arpeggios as “jumping”.
How major scales work on the Piano
Now we’ll take a look at how a major scale is built and played. We’ll start with the key of C major because it has no black notes and is therefore easiest to understand.
Think of a piano scale as a ladder with 7 notes, then add on the 8th which is the same as the note you began on – but an octave higher.
All major scales are built with the exact same distance between each note. It’s best to understand intervals of a whole tone and a halftone first, then you can quickly work out any scale in any key.
Take this Skoove lesson to understand whole tone and halftones. Learn to play the C major scale step by step with Skoove’s lesson and learn to play the song “Piano Man”.
To play a scale, you’re going to run up the ladder of notes using finger numbers 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To get from finger 3 on the note E to finger 1 (thumb) on the note F, you need to pass your thumb underneath your 3rd finger without twisting your wrist.
You can practice this movement on your piano or even just on a table-top. Hold finger 3 down firmly and swing your thumb underneath it. See how far your thumb moves? The thumb can move further to the side, higher and lower than any other finger. If you’ve never noticed this before, hold up your open hand and use your thumb to touch the far side of your hand. Now try swinging your little finger across to touch your thumb and you’ll see you can’t do it without closing your hand. The thumb is a powerful digit!
Play a scale using the thumb under motion, keeping your hand in relaxed and slightly lifted all the time.
Now walk back down the scale starting with finger 5 on the high C. When you reach your thumb, swing finger 3 over your thumb and place it on note E, then use fingers 2 and 1 to finish the scale. Some people play the top C twice, others just play it once and run down the scale again. It doesn’t really matter which way you do it, but you might find it’s easier to get the scale flowing if you only play the top note once, like this:
What you’ve just learned to play is a “1 octave scale of C major”. Play it several times, aiming for a smooth and steady flow of notes. Then learn to play the C scale in the left hand. The left hand is a mirror image of the right, so when you climb up the scale, you will swing the 3rd finger over and when you go back down you’ll pass your thumb under the third finger.
The next scale to try is G major. If you work out the pattern using the whole tone and semitone rule, you’ll see that you need to raise the note F to an F sharp.
Scales begin on the note of the name of the scale. So a “C scale” begins on the note “C” and an “A scale” begins on the note “A”, etc. It doesn’t really matter where you choose to start from on the piano keyboard, but usually somewhere around the middle of the keyboard sounds best. If you start of the lowest C on your keyboard it will likely sound rather threatening and dramatic (which is fine if you like that!).
You can develop your scale practice to cover two octaves, then three, then four.
How minor scales work on the piano
There are two main types of minor scale – harmonic and melodic. We are just going to talk about the harmonic scale as that is the most commonly used and the best one to start with.
The harmonic minor scale differs from the major scale by having flattened 3rd and 6th notes. Use the same fingers you used to play the major scale. Here is the C minor scale:
Once you’ve got it flowing in the right hand, learn it in the left hand.
How arpeggios work on the piano
Like scales, arpeggios can be either major or minor. In the case of arpeggios, the only difference between them being major or minor is that the second note of the arpeggio is flattened.
Arpeggios can be thought of as broken chords, or as scales with certain notes skipped out. Think of the scale you just learned with its 8 notes and skip the notes 2, 4, 6 and 7, and you have an arpeggio. In other words, you play notes 1, 3, 5 and 8 (8 is the same note as 1 but an octave higher).
The fingering for arpeggios is different from scales. Place your right hand thumb on note C, place finger 2 on the note E, finger 3 on the note G, then play the high C with finger 5. You should be stretching the octave with your hand if you can do it comfortably. If you can’t reach the top note in this resting position simply play through the notes, releasing each note as you play the next one, and move your hand up to play 5 on the high C. You should keep your hand very relaxed and not over-stretch. Again, the left hand is a mirror image. The fingering is 5, 3, 2, 1.
Read more: What is an arpeggio and how to play it?
Why should you learn and practice scales and arpeggios?
There are two really good reasons to learn and practice scales and arpeggios. One is to develop strong fingers and controlled, even playing. This evolves over time to controlled, even playing at high speeds. The other great thing is it helps to learn and understand different key signatures.
Once you’ve learned the G major scale, you’ll understand that G major has an F# in it. When you next see a piece of music with a key signature of one sharp (F#) you’ll know that piece of music uses the G major scale.
When you’ve learned the scale of E minor you’ll know that it shares the same key signature as G major and therefore, the piece of music could be in either G major or E minor. To work out whether it’s in G major or E minor, read the notes in the first measure of music. If they are the notes G, B and D then it’s in the key of G. If you see the notes E, G and B, it’s likely to be in E minor.
How are scales and arpeggios used within music?
Classical music and pop both use scales and arpeggios extensively. Sometimes it’s more obvious in one song than another. Here are some famous piano songs that clearly use scales and arpeggios:
Mozart Sonata in C major begins with broken C major chords and moves on to some fast scales in the right hand.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” uses arpeggios in the left hand, moving between several keys throughout the song. Learn to play “Hallelujah” with Skoove right now.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 3rd Movement is another great example of building a piece of music using arpeggios and scales. In the opening the right hand is nothing but arpeggios, although they are not climbing straight up but falling back one note after every three notes up.
Try playing the first part of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with this Skoove lesson. This uses broken chords in the right hand, the first step to playing full arpeggios.
How to incorporate practicing scales and arpeggios into your piano practice
It’s a good idea to begin every practice session with a couple of scales and arpeggios. It may seem boring at first, especially when you’re just playing one hand at a time, slowly. But once you get them hands together and get some speed up on them they are not only fun to play, but are quite impressive to watch.
You can mix up your scales practice by including some contrary motion scales within them and adding an arpeggio exercise onto the end of the scales.
Try this lesson, “Canon in D” which explains more about how to play arpeggios.
How fast should you play your piano scales and arpeggios?
There’s a lot to be said for slow, steady practice using a metronome, not only when you’re starting out but even for advanced players. With slow practice you can build relaxation into your playing which is vital to achieve evenly played scales at high speed.
It’s a good idea to gradually increase the speed of your scales over time. Use a metronome and up the speed by 10bpm each week. This is a good plan for most people. Eventually, you want to be able to play the scales very fast and fluently going from key to key.
How to make practicing scales more fun
You don’t have to do scales and arpeggios straight up and down the piano slowly all the time. You can play them with different rhythms or with chords accompanying one hand scales. Use a backing track – beats work well – to make it sound more musical. Play with a friend or have a scales competition with someone you know who is also learning.
Learning piano scales and arpeggios will improve your piano skill enormously over time and you’ll be glad you put in the time to practice them!
Author of this blog post:
Georgina St George has been playing piano most of her life. She has a thriving piano school on the south coast of England. She loves to infuse her students with her passion for music, composing and performing. Her music has been featured on over 100 TV shows and her musicals have been performed in New York and London’s West End.