In today’s video, we’re going to jump over to the piano and have a bit of playtime. We’ll be talking about pretty basic piano finger exercises that are easy to learn but sometimes difficult to execute.
I had a request to talk about piano finger exercises for beginners, so I wanted to share the main thing I teach my beginning students: pentascales, or 5-finger scales.
I love teaching these because not only are they a great warm-up, they’re easier than full scales and you learn some music theory while you’re at it – without even really trying to.
This video is also going to be a launching pad for the next video, which is chord-related. If you have a good understanding of the different pentascales, figuring out chords becomes a lot easier as well. Just a heads up!
The pentascale formula
Today we’re going to do pentascales in every single major key – so since there are 12 keys on the piano, we’re going to do 12 pentascales.
First, let’s figure out the formula for this 5-note scale.
The easiest way to figure out the formula is to write down numbers 1-5 (since there are 5 notes in the scale), and then figure out where the half steps and whole steps are.
1 2 3 4 5
Really quick refresher – a half step is the smallest distance between two notes. So a C to a C# is a half step, an E to an F is a half step, and so on.
A whole step is two half steps. So a whole step would be C to D, or E to F#, and so on.
So we’ve got our numbers 1-5 written out. In a major pentascale, there’s only one half step, and it happens between the 3rd and 4th note.
So let’s use our old, faithful key of C as an example. I’m going to write down all 5 letters:
1 2 3 4 5
C D E F G
So everything should be a whole step, except for E and F, the 3rd and 4th notes. Which they are! This pentascale doesn’t need to have any sharps or flats added to it – it’s perfect the way it is.
Let’s do another one. Db major!
I’m going to write down the numbers 1-5:
1 2 3 4 5
And the 5 letters of Db (I won’t be adding any sharps or flats just yet – simply writing down the letter names):
1 2 3 4 5
Db E F G A
Okay, so let’s go through this. We need a whole tone between 1 and 2. But Db to E is actually bigger than a whole tone. To correct that, we need to lower E to Eb.
Next, Eb to F (2 to 3) needs to be a whole tone. Good news – it is!
Now we come to the part of the pentascale that needs to be a half step. If we think about a keyboard, F to G is actually a whole step. So we need to adjust that to make it a half step, and we can do this by lowering the G to a Gb.
Now our last two notes (4 to 5) need to be a whole step. But Gb to A is, again, bigger than a whole step. So we need to lower the A to an Ab.
Let’s review those 5 notes:
Db Eb F Gb Ab
And there you have it – a Db major pentascale.
Learning the different pentascales
Depending on how developed your ear is, it can actually be easier to figure out the notes of the 12 pentascales by ear. Once you have an idea of the sound, and you’ve played C and Db, figuring out the next one – D – can just be some trial and error.
But if you can’t figure them out by ear, don’t fret – that’s what the formula is for.
And as a last-case scenario, I suppose you could Google the pentascales. But you’ll remember them better if you figure them out yourself!
Pentascales as piano finger exercises
So here’s where pentascales become piano finger exercises. First, every single pentascale is going to be played with fingers 1-5. So whether you’re starting on C or Ab or whatever, we’ll use the same finger pattern – 12345 (or 54321 in the left hand).
Start hands separate, and slowly. Once you can do them all slowly, start speeding them up. Do the same thing in the left hand.
Once you feel like you can play hands separate at a fast speed without your fingers mushing the keys (make sure each finger can move precisely when you want it to), start over again, but hands together.
The goal is to be able to roll through all the pentascales at a quick tempo, hands together, with technical precision.
Benefits of pentascales
It really only takes a minute, but it’s a good little warm-up, especially for beginners. And it’s really helpful for music theory as well, since you’ll start to internalize different flats and sharps in different keys. This will then help when you move on to full scales and chord theory.
Pentascales don’t usually take too long to memorize and master, either. If you’re an absolute beginner and you spend a few minutes a day on them, it’ll take you less than a month to have them all memorized.
What I also like about pentascales is that they force you to work the weaker fingers, which are usually fingers 4 and 5. Full scales are great, but you actually don’t use finger 5 with them much (usually just once per scale). So if you’re doing a 4-octave scale and playing 29 notes, you use finger 5 once. Whereas with a pentascale, you’re playing 5 notes and using finger 5 once.
To some of you this will seem like a very simple exercise, but I urge you to give it a whirl – I think you’ll learn something!