help student get the true value of scales

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I love scales! Scales give us the key to unlocking the mysteries of music (pun intended). They are the backbone to creativity, they help us aurally decode the tonalities in the music we’re learning, and used properly, they allow us to improve our technique.

It’s just too bad that the bulk of piano students never learn to appreciate the value of scales. Many wonder what the point of learning scales is when so much attention is spent drilling fast, hands together, 4-octave runs, ad nauseam. And to what purpose exactly? It’s no wonder so many of us are turned off by scales.

So let’s update our student’s relationship with scales from the start, and get to the bottom of what they’re really meant for, and why.

Some Scalic Perspective

First off let’s just get some perspective on the scope of different scales out there. Most of our attention is spent understanding ONLY the western harmonic scale systems. The diatonic scales – the major scale, and the harmonic and melodic minor scales.

But let’s not forget all the other really amazing scale forms out there. Here are some others just to name a small few.

  • All the modes
  • Persian scale
  • Hirajoshi scale
  • Pentatonic scale
  • Whole tone scale
  • Octotonic scale
  • Hungarian scale
  • Blues or BeBop scales
  • Many variations of Jazz scales

In my opinion, focusing only on western harmonic scale forms is a very outdated approach to learning scales. Especially when so much of the music composed today uses alternate scales forms. Certainly, a lot of the music I compose uses non-traditional scale forms. I particularly love using modes and non-western scales.

There is so much value to be had from learning alternative scales forms. I really believe there should be greater attention spent on them. However, for this post, I’ll mainly be referring to the western harmonic scale forms, and how you can help your students ‘get the point’ of learning scales so they can get the most value out of them.

The Problem With How We Traditionally Learn Scales

Scales usually form part of the technical work component of piano lessons and exams. Students move through different scales learning the finger patterns, drilling them over and over in order to build up speed and the coordination of their hands together over a 2 or 4-octave range.

Problem is, there seems to be much more attention paid to building up speed rather than understanding key and tonality. The true value of scales, of connecting the dots in the music we’re learning to the larger harmonic context, is often completely lost.

Also, a preoccupation with drilling faster and faster playing without proper attention to listening to the sound simply promotes tensions and inaccuracy.

How to help students GET the true value of scales

#1. Learn How The Keys Are Related

My main starting point when teaching scales to students is through getting them to understand how scales are related to each other. I start by getting them to learn the concept of key groups based on the circle of 5ths.

What’s a key group?

The most basic key group is the major and relative minor relationship. For the beginning student, this is as simple as grouping the major pentascale with its related minor scale. Ie. Cmaj and Amin.

As students develop their understanding of keys this group can be expanded up to the 6 related keys.

  1. The Tonic Key – let’s say C major
  2. It’s Dominant key (G major)
  3. It’s Subdominant key (F major)
  4. Amin (relative minor of C major)
  5. Emin (relative minor of G major)
  6. Dmin (relative minor of F major)

These are the six related keys.

Use the circle of fifths for learning scales

The root note of each of these keys makes up the C major scale – C, D, E, F, G, A (minus the 7th scale degree, B)

This information gives us so much.

To start with, chords built upon these root notes are available for any chord progressions in the key of Cmaj. Improvising a Cmaj scale over anyone one of these chords will sound good. Modulating from the key of Cmaj to any of the other related keys in the group will also sound good.

Furthermore, a huge bulk of western classical repertoire consists of key relationships based around these 6 related keys, so understanding their relevance from the beginning is vital for unpacking the tonality in the music students will be learning.

Start students off by learning the scales of each of the keys within the group – Cmaj, Amin, Gmaj, Emin, Fmaj, Dmin. Then move on to another key group. It really doesn’t matter which, simply pick a tonic key on the circle of 5ths and it’s 5 other related keys and that’s your next key group.

For extra help with this SIGN UP below to receive my FREE Circle Of Fifths Printable and ‘fill in the blanks’ Worksheet.

#2. Practice Hearing Tonalities

I’m not saying drills are bad. Playing scales over and over to become familiar with them is absolutely necessary. But HOW we drill them is a super important distinction.

When we practice scales our focus should not be on developing speed but on listening to the tonality of the scale.

Students need to become ultra familiar with how it sounds so they can develop their internal tonal expectations.

When we sight read music, if we play through the scale before we start, we familiarise ourselves with the tonality we should expect when playing the music.

If a students tonal expectations have been well trained, when they play wrong notes they should instantly be aware of it.

#3. Develop Technique – Correctly!

Learning the fingering patterns of scales are important of course. When you come across scale passages in music it’s very useful to know how to play them efficiently.

But do we really need to learn them hands together? I challenge you to find any music that has hands together scale passages.

This preoccupation with developing hands together coordination at fast speeds seems utterly pointless to me. It certainly doesn’t help technique, in fact, it mostly hinders it. Arm tension, inaccuracy, and a lack of even tone usually result.

Instead, I usually ask my students to play scales hands separately with special attention paid to producing an independent finger action, and with a relaxed wrist moving behind each note, whilst listening very carefully for an even, legato tone.

Only once this is achieved should we gradually increase the speed.

I may be going out on a limb here but if it wasn’t for exam requirements I would not even bother with hands together. At least not until the student has developed their technique enough that they can avoid the problems of tension and inaccuracy as mentioned above.

#4. Boost Creativity

When we learn scales we learn the foundations for composing and improvising.

When you know your scales and the chords which can be built above each scale degree, you have at your fingertips a bank of chords available to play in any combination, under that scale (as briefly explained in point #1). With this knowledge, students can get started improvising right away.

As soon as beginner students learn their 1st C major pentascale they are ready to improvise and compose.

With every new scale learnt there is an enormous opportunity for students to be creative. This not only makes scales more fun for them, but it helps them GET the real-world practical uses of scales and harmony, well before they really understand what that means.

Action Steps

  • If you can, avoid the temptation to simply work on scales as an exercise in drilling speed and hand together coordination. Instead take the time to develop other skills (aural, technique, creativity) in the hands separate stage.
  • Ask students to REALLY listen attentively to scales – when learning a new scale test the student’s ability to work it out by ear first before demonstrating or using notation.
  • Find a way to incorporate improvisation or composition around any new scale learnt.
  • Get students to know the circle of fifths, inside and out, as soon as possible. This will be one of their most useful tools for both creativity and music theory. Use my fill in the blanks worksheet and printable (see below) to help them learn the logic and layout of the circle of fifths.
Circle of fifths printable
About the Author

A multi-passionate music professional, Geri has many strings to her bow. She’s taught piano, theory and composition for almost 20 years and is an experienced composer and orchestrator in the Australian Film and TV industry. When she’s not hanging out with her 3 kids and her musician partner she’s usually found collapsed on the couch watching some sort of epic SciFi/Fantasy show with her cat Saffy on her lap.

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