Learning an instrument can be a challenging but also rewarding pastime. If you’re a student of piano, learning piano scales can help lay the foundation for developing your skills as well as give you a better understanding of music, since most songs are based around the movement of scales. Learning piano scales can even get you started composing your own songs!
Scales, chords, and related piano exercises are a fun and useful addition to your daily practice ritual. The primary scales are the 12 major and 36 minor scales (natural, harmonic, and melodic). Learning piano scales will help you develop finger awareness and muscle memory, keyboard familiarity, confidence, technique, and an understanding of music composition. With a thorough knowledge of the scales, developing a high level of proficiency on the piano will be much easier!
The Major Scales
The major scales are usually the first ones you’ll learn. To begin, work on a single octave, up and down the scale and focus on the fingering of each note first using your left hand, then the right. Once you’re comfortable, extend the range to include a second octave, and then practice using both hands simultaneously.
The major scales are all created using the same formula. It is:
WS = whole step HS = half step
WS – WS – HS - WS –WS – WS – HS
Starting on any note and using this formula will give you the major scale for that note. When practicing scales, use the Cycle of Fourths. This is a pattern of moving root notes the interval of a fourth to the next scale.
Begin playing the C major scale, move to F major, then Bb major through the cycle. Next, reverse the pattern and the cycle counterclockwise (C major, G major, D major, etc.) to master the Cycle of Fifths!
Fourths and fifths are strong intervals found throughout Western music. By working on these scales in patterns of fourths and fifths, you will begin to develop your ear and recognize the intervals in any music you are playing.
As you’re playing the major scales, listen to the notes. Because they are built using the same formula, they share the same sound relationship. This is the “intervallic” relationship of the major scales.
Mastering the major scales will then help you as you learn the minor scales. There are three variations: the natural, harmonic, and melodic. The natural minor is also called pure minor. The harmonic and melodic minor scales are variations built from the natural minor.
The relative minor scale is the minor scale sharing the same key signature as its related major scale. The relative minor is formed from the 6th degree of the major scale and shares that major’s key signature.
C MAJOR SCALE: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Counting the first C, the note A is the 6th degree of the C major scale. A minor is the relative minor for C major.
C MAJOR RELATIVE NATURAL MINOR SCALE – A MINOR: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
This is the formula to determine the natural minor scale for every major key. There are two variations on the natural minor scale, the first being harmonic minor. The harmonic minor scale is based on the natural minor with the 7th degree raised 1/2 step.
A HARMONIC MINOR: A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A
The third minor scale variation is called melodic minor. The melodic minor scale consists of the natural minor with the 6th and 7th degrees raised 1/2 step when playing up the scale; when descending the 6th and 7th degrees are lowered 1/2 step, so you play the natural minor scale descending.
A MELODIC MINOR ASCENDING: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A
A MELODIC MINOR DESCENDING: A-G-F-E-D-C-B-A
Learning piano scales is an important part of your practice. You will develop technique,and finger control by memorizing them. Slow methodical practice can help you to memorize these scales and develop muscle memory. Begin by working on and memorizing the major scales, then use the formula to figure out the related natural minor scales. It can also be helpful to get some manuscript paper and write them down. Keep the major and related minor scales together to reinforce their connection.
Of course, if you study privately, you can ask your piano teacher for help. They’ll be thrilled that you’re showing an interest in the building blocks of Western music! Your teacher can also offer you tips for learning piano scales, variations on practice patterns, and more based on what they’ve learned through their own studies. Now… get to work!
Photo by Bill Ward’s Brickpile