How to teach scales effectively

As a young pianist I really struggled with scales. In fact, I only passed the scale element in my music exams in Grades 1 and 8 and it wasn’t until my diploma (involving learning over 400 scales) that I fully mastered some patterns!

Because of my own struggles, I have spent a huge amount of time developing a wide range of activities for teaching scales. My own students don’t struggle like I did. This also resulted in me writing The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook.

My weakness in learning scales has helped me to develop some helpful techniques when teaching them. I share some thoughts here to provide new suggestions because I know we are already well into the new term and trying to help our students master those repetitive patterns!

What are the steps to learning scales?

1. Firstly, what the notes are
2. Secondly, what fingering to use
3. And finally having the technical skills to make the scale sound musical and fluent.

Many students never get to the final stage because they simply don’t know the notes or can’t remember the fingering. Scales are so useful for helping understand key signatures and tonality whilst also enhancing technical skills, but they have to be remembered to benefit anyone.

What can help us teach scales?

A multi-sensory approach

No student is the same as any other, so a variety approaches will help students to master scales.

Is your student very visual, helped by seeing the patterns on the keyboard? Do they benefit from aural activities such as saying the fingering at the same time as playing the patterns? Does ‘walking’ the scale help? Knowing the pattern of tones and semi-tones of major and minor scales can mean a student is able to identify a scale from a given note. Walking the scale with large strides for tones and little steps for semitones (singing the note names at the same time) can inbed the patterns into the long term memory.

All the above activities are multi-sensory, employing lots of the senses at the same time to aid learning.

Memory hooks

Memory hooks (associations) help us remember – usually the more obscure they are, the more memorable!

For years, children have benefitted from mnemonics such as ‘Every Goal Beckham Does Fast’ (for the treble clef notes), ‘Quaver crisps’ to remember half-beat notes and ‘fish and chips’ for the sharps in D major. Do use memory hooks – the best are the ones that students come up with themselves that are whacky and memorable.

Break the learning down from the easy to the difficult

Some students benefit from very small steps (include as many as they need). Work from the easy (what a tone or semitone is) to the more difficult (the order of tones and semitones to form a scale).

Train the mind as well as the fingers

The tactile memory is not reliable if a mistake is made. The mind needs to help the fingers get back to where they need to be!

Use the circle of fifths in scale learning and key knowledge

The circle of fifths (COF) is a great tool to help learn all keys – good also for new AS students. It can help with scale learning too – identifying sharps and flats – whilst providing a practice tool (playing scales in the order they appear in the COF).

Activities for learning scales

Some of these may work well with one student and be ineffective with another, so be student led. Find the activities that work for each one.

Scale cards – have laminated coloured cards with all the different note names on without sharps or flats. Firstly, ask the student to put the letter names in the correct order for the scale. Then see if they can identify the sharps or flats in the scale – use a whiteboard pen to write the flat/sharp on the card. Ask the student to muddle up the cards and put them in the correct order again, saying the letter names. Finally, request they say the note names out loud in the correct order or even better, ask them to sing them. Do forwards then backwards.

You can do a similar activity for fingering. Ask the student to write the fingering under the note names and sing the fingering. Test the student’s learning – get them to play the scale on the piano.

Scale pictures – I once heard of a student who named the scales by animals. E flat major was the elephant scale. One of my own students remembered them by different dinners. He had pictures with a plate and items on. B flat major was eggs and beans.

Scale journeys – the two black notes and three black notes can be useful points of reference on a keyboard. For example, B major scale: from B the fingers jump (missing out the C) onto a small bridge (the two black notes); they take a small step off the small bridge (onto the E) then jump again (over F) on to a large bridge (three black notes) and take a small step off (onto B).

Fingering charts – a picture of a keyboard with the finger numbers on is an excellent visual prompt to aid correct fingering.

Using little animals or rubber tops – a number of my colleagues use characters or coloured rubbers tops to place on the keyboard to mark out the scale patterns. The student practises this in lessons until they are totally confident with the scale pattern.

Ten other ways to learn scales

  1. Chanting fingering.
  2. Focussing on fingering patterns.
  3. Playing notes in clusters by depressing each group of fingers at the same time.
  4. Playing with different rhythms and articulations – staccato, tongued, slurred and stressing different beats.
  5. Singing all the scales, arpeggios or broken chords.
  6. Recording more difficult sounding scales or arpeggios (melodic minors, dominant and diminished 7ths) on the student’s mobile phone, saying the fingering at the same time.
  7. Playing scales with a metronome – slow, steady then fast.
  8. Playing scales with their eyes closed so they can focus on the feel and sound.
  9. Improvising using a scale or arpeggio pattern, with the teacher accompanying.
  10. Breaking one scale into two halves.

Scales pot (repetition / over learning)

List all the scales and arpeggios to be learnt and put them into two pots: starting scales and super scales. All of them begin in the starting pot, then scales are transferred into the super scale pot once they have been learnt. Play super scales once through and starter scales three times. The scale pots also prevent students only playing scales in one particular order – this does happen!