Piano Q&A: Your Scales Questions, Answered

In today’s Q&A episode of PianoTV, I’m digging into the archives again – questions you’ve asked in the past that I thought would be fun to answer today.

I get asked a lot of questions about scales, and found an old question that has a bunch of ‘em nested in one big question. Let’s get started!

Questions on scales

Scales can be daunting

Many older beginners are completely overwhelmed with scales – there are so many of them, and so many ways to play them. There are 12 major scales and 12 natural minor scales, but there are also 24 variations on those minor scales – and that’s not even including more unusual scales like pentatonic scales!

The many ways of playing these 48 scales include: 5 finger versions (hands together and separate), 1 octave, 2 octaves, 4 octaves, contrary motion and parallel motion, and so on. No wonder it all seems so daunting!

When should I start learning scales?

The first scales question: When should I start learning scales?

Right away! But for the first few months, I get my students to focus solely on 5-finger scales. And even then, we usually stick to the white key major/minor 5-finger scales. These can be played hands together right from the get-go.

In the first year of lessons, we’ll generally do all the 5-finger scales (including black key ones), as well as a few 1-octave major scales (hands separate). Usually we keep these 1-octave scales simple and stick to keys like C, G, F and D.

A year for just that might seem slow, but that’s the best way to really get them committed to memory in a stress-free way. A motivated adult beginner could do all of this in 6 months, but I wouldn’t rush the process.

After that, I tend to stick to the syllabus – whether you’re in the RCM or ABRSM camp, it’s a good idea to follow the scale requirements for each grade. So for example, ABRSM grade 1 requires you to be able to play 2 octave scales in simple keys (C, G, D, F major and A and D minor).

Each grade gets progressively more difficult, and each grade is meant to take around a year – but a motivated student could accelerate that to 6 months or so.

Any tricks/tips for memorizing scale patterns?

Are there any tricks or tips for memorizing scale patterns? This includes memorizing the finger number patterns, and also the key patterns/shapes of the scales.

My biggest tip here, which I already mentioned briefly, is not to do too much at once. Trying to learn all of the scales all at once will make it very difficult to memorize them. If you focus on a select few scales at a time, you shouldn’t have to struggle to memorize them – it should come easily and naturally.

Start slow

Start with several 5-finger scale patterns – four is a good number. Since there are only 5 notes to play, you should have no trouble at all memorizing four different patterns. C, G, D and A are good starter 5-finger scales.

Once you’re really comfortable with those, move on to the next four, and then the next four, until you’ve covered all 24 major/minor 5-finger scales. Again, I usually give my students a full year for this process. At that point, these scales are so ingrained they become second nature.

For longer scales, learn scales with similar finger patterns at the same time. For example, you might start with C, G and D major scales. All of these have exactly the same finger switching pattern, which will help burn it into your memory. If you’re trying to learn all of the major scales at once, it can be tough to remember, since some have very different patterns.

Memorizing the shape of scales

As for memorizing the shapes of scales, I find having a really strong understanding of music theory helps with this. If you know that the key of C has no sharps, the key of G has one sharp, and the key of D has two sharps, then it’s easy to remember where they go in the scale. But if a D scale is just a random set of notes to you, and you have no theoretical concept as to what sharps or flats might be there, it’s harder to remember.

What scales do I start with?

What scales do I start with?

As mentioned, start with 5 finger scales. Then simultaneously learn a few 1-octave scales (hands separate). This should carry you through the first 6 months to a year – no need to overdo it with scales. Spend most of your time on the music, not the scales!

After that, pick a syllabus and follow the scale recommendations for each level. There’s a reason these syllabi exist – hundreds of thousands of students use them, so you might as well, too.

Again, no need to rush through it. Spend 6 months to a year per level, and treat scales like a very small supplemental side project to your main work – learning piano pieces.

What speed should I be playing my scales at?

What speed should I be playing my scales at?

When learning 5-finger scales, play whatever speed you can be accurate at. There’s no need to try to play your scales crazy fast, especially if they’re sloppy. Start with slow and steady, and gradually boost it from there. Usually after 6 months to a year, a student can play 5-finger scales easily at 100 BPM, with the scale played in 8th notes.

Grade 1 ABRSM scales are expected to be played at 60 BPM in 8th notes. These are two-octave scales, but it’s a very slow and manageable pace. Scales aren’t expected to be played really fast until much further along your piano journey – we’re talking years.

It’s much more important to learn the patterns and get the fingering down than it is to play really fast. Besides, your technical skills aren’t going to be great when you’re a beginner – overdoing speed has a tendency to foster sloppy playing if it’s done too early.

How long should it take to learn each scale?

How long should it take to learn each scale?

Again, take a long time. Longer than you think you need. If you spend 6 months learning 24 5-finger scales, that’s just 4 scales per month. If you spend 6 months at a grade 1 level and there are only 6 scales, that’s 1 scale per month.

I’ve never found it necessary to learn scales faster than this. People have a tendency to think that scales are these all-important things, but I’ll say it again – learning your actual piano pieces is what’s important. In a 30-minute practice session, you shouldn’t need to spend more than 5 minutes on scales and other technical exercises.

Scales are useful and valuable to learn, but play the long game with them. Don’t worry about playing fast 4-octave hands together scales for at least 4 years – keep them on your long-term horizon.

xo,

Allysia

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