How To Learn Piano Scales

How do we learn piano scales efficiently? Everyone knows they are essential. They represent the vocabulary that we need to tell our story. Can we add some fun in the mix though? Does it have to be boring? Will it take me a long time?

I won’t lie. Attempts to make learning scales more fun end up making things less efficient and so it takes longer to learn all scales. To me, efficiency is the most critical aspect of studying.

Efficiency is the key to make practising scales less annoying. Your exercises should be fast and effective so that you can make up on fun~ by having time left to do some fun stuff during your practice sessions.

In this post you will learn:

  • Why it is important to practice often rather than long.
  • Posture considerations to keep in mind.
  • What to practice and how to practice it.
  • How to set up a training plan that fits your personal needs.

If you are just looking for scales with fingerings to download and print, head to the end of this page. There’s downloads for major scales, minor natural, minor harmonic and minor melodic scales.

Let’s get cracking!

Posture Considerations

I explain about the correct posture for playing the piano in one of my previous blog posts about piano warm-up exercises.

Check out the sections:

  • It Starts With a Good Position
  • The Five Finger Walk

How To Learn

It can be discouraging to look at what you need to learn first. So I want to start by giving some guidance on how you should go about learning this. Without the overwhelm caused by the overdose of scales.

Rules Of Thumb

  1. Practice daily.
  2. Plan your scale practice upfront so that you can keep it short and efficient.
    Five minutes is a good minimum that yields excellent results.
  3. Play slow at first; Slow enough to play accurate and with confidence.

These rules all have the same goal: to trigger your muscle memory as efficiently as possible.

Short, Daily Practice Rulez!

In the past, I have written a guest blog about why daily practice works better than weekly sprint sessions. It has everything to do with the way our brain works. Without going too deep into it and with the risk of repeating what I wrote in that blog post, I will give you the abridged version.

When you do things for the first time, you will use your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is blazingly fast but easily distracted and requires a lot of energy. When the brain starts to notice that the prefrontal cortex is doing the same task regularly, it’s energy management starts looking for ways to distribute tasks to other parts of the brain that require less energy.

The brain does this by rewiring its neural network paths.

That is where the basal ganglia come into play. They take control of motor movement, habit learning, emotion… All the things that we love as musicians when we play our instrument; muscle memory and emotion.

But here’s the catch! The brain will never rewire for tasks that it doesn’t need to do regularly! And the more regular, the more the rewiring gets prioritised!

What’s more, most rewiring happens during rest, during sleep, while you are dreaming. Now if you think about it like that… Which of the following do you think will have the most effect?

  1. exercise – repeat – repeat – repeat – repeat – repeat – sleep – sleep – sleep – sleep – sleep – sleep
  2. exercise – sleep – repeat – sleep – repeat – sleep – repeat – sleep – repeat – sleep – repeat – sleep

As you can see, the first pattern represents practice once per week, repeating the same exercise over and over on that same day.

Rewiring of the neural network typically happens during the night directly after the activity. In those next nights, the brain does nothing for that activity. In reality, it rewires to forget it, because clearly, that task was not repetitive!

Sleep enough times, and you will have forgotten entirely about the activity, which means the next time you do the same exercise, guess what? It will be your prefrontal cortex handling the bulk of the computations. You would be back at square one!

Oh no! Here I go rambling on again. It isn’t hard to tell that I like this subject 🙂
I don’t think I need to clarify further why the second pattern beats the first! If you do, drop me a comment below, and we can discuss things there. I would love too!!

Plan Your Practice

You would be surprised how much you can fit into 5 minutes if you plan it right.

What you don’t want to do during those 5 minutes is think about what to practice next. I am sure that makes sense, hey? It is best to do that thinking upfront.

Don’t panic about having to make a planning though, because 5-minute planning is not complicated. Here are some examples:

These are just examples of 5-minute practice plans. They need to be adjusted according to your level and there are a lot of other exercises that you can add to this planning. I will get to those soon.

On the first day you could practice:

Scale: C Major
HandRangeArticulationDynamicsDirectionMetronome
Right1 octaveLegatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Right1 octaveStaccatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Right1 octaveLegatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Right1 octaveLegatoDecrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Right1 octaveStaccatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm

This will take about 5 minutes more or less.

For the next few days you could repeat this until it is going smooth.

Once it is smooth, you can practice the same routine but for the left hand:

Scale: C Major
HandRangeArticulationDynamicsDirectionMetronome
Left1 octaveLegatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Left1 octaveStaccatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Left1 octaveLegatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Left1 octaveLegatoDecrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Left1 octaveStaccatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm

Do this one for a couple of days and until this starts sounding smooth, and then maybe you can start bringing the hands together and practice both the left and the right hand simultaneous:

Scale: C Major
HandRangeArticulationDynamicsDirectionMetronome
Left + Right1 octaveLegatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Left + Right1 octaveStaccatoEvenUp and down60 bpm
Left + Right1 octaveLegatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Left + Right1 octaveLegatoDecrescendoUp and down60 bpm
Left + Right1 octaveStaccatoCrescendoUp and down60 bpm

Play As Slow As You Need

I want to emphasise this, as it is crucial: Play as slow as you need, to accurately hit the notes so that they sound smooth and consistent.

Why is this so important?

Remember that you are training your muscle memory. You need to use the right technique and play as accurately as you can muster.

When you go too fast at first, you will run into doubts; your fingers will not be able to keep up with your brain and you will inevitably play some mistakes. Our muscle memory will remember the mistakes and bad habits.

We all know how hard it is to unlearn bad habits!

First learn how to play your scales accurate and worry about speed in a later phase…

Once you are at the level that you can start to practice your speed, there is one thing that I must stress: Always end your training by playing the scale a few times at a tempo that you are comfortable with so that your brain remembers the accurate technique. Push yourself every day to play faster, but end the training at a comfortable speed.

I would also want to give you a hint and tell you that you don’t need to play your scales fast; There are exercises which are a lot more fun to build up speed and they don’t involve playing dry old scales.

Some Exercises And Variations

In all of these exercises, it is implied that you play all notes smooth and consistent. That means that all notes are played with equal length and an equal volume. Unless there is an explicit instruction to do otherwise.

1. Learn The Notes And Fingers

  1. Put your metronome on a slow speed; start with something like 40 bpm, less if you need, more if you can.
  2. Play just the first two notes of the scale using the correct fingers, one note per click of the metronome. Do this five times.
  3. Take a moment to look at what the next note is of the scale and what the correct finger is.
  4. Play the notes you already know and add the new note. Play one note per click of the metronome. Play the notes up and down five times.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you are playing the whole scale up and down over the range of 1 octave.

This exercise will have you playing 280 notes. So at 40 bpm, it will take 7 minutes to complete plus the time you take on each of the 3rd steps.

Do this for the right hand on the first day, your left hand on the second day. On the third day, you can try to do this exercise with both hands together. Notice how the thumb-under for each hand is different, that is the hardest part of the exercise. If you can’t get it right at the tempo you have currently, lower the tempo.

You could repeat this same exercise the next day with a higher metronome speed. At 56 bpm this exercise takes 5 minutes. However, there is no real need to do this very fast as once you know the notes and the fingers, you can start some new exercises.

2. Use Different Articulations

To help your brain to get used to a scale from different viewpoints and angles we will switch up the articulations. This will use your muscles in slight variations and will boost your technique.

All we do is switch between legato and staccato, and while that may seem trivial, you will notice that this feels totally different and will feel confusing at first.

  1. Put your metronome on a tempo that feels comfortable.
  2. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times, legato.
  3. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times, staccato.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 during 5 minutes or longer if you like.

Seems simple enough hey? You will be surprised how this switching can trip you up!

If you still struggle playing with both hands simultaneously you can do this for the right hand first, your left hand on the next day. Try using both hands together on the third consecutive day.

3. Use Different Dynamics

Another angle for your brain and to hone your muscle control is to apply dynamics to your scales.

Switch between crescendo and decrescendo. Crescendo is when you start laying soft and then gradually louder with every subsequent note. Decrescendo is the other way around where you start loud and then gradually softer with every subsequent note.

  1. Put your metronome on a tempo that feels comfortable.
  2. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times. Crescendo going up and decrescendo going down.
  3. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times. Decrescendo going up and crescendo going down.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 during 5 minutes or longer if you like.

Tricky isn’t it? Keep it up, you will have some real technique improvements faster than you expect.

The same suggestion here if you struggle to play both hands at the same time. Right hand first, left hand the day after and both together on the third day.

You can come up with some exercises of your own if you start combining dynamics and articulation! 🙂

4. Use Different Rhythmic Patterns

The time has come to throw some rhythm in the mix. It is all about muscle control, finger independence and storing everything in your muscle memory.

Again we must play the rhythmic patterns as accurate as humanly possible. So when you choose a tempo on the metronome, make sure you set it to something comfortable to you. Keep in mind that you will be playing 8th notes, triplets or even 16th notes if you are really up for a challenge.

There’s loads of patterns you could choose from, here are some examples to get you started:

  1. Put your metronome on a tempo that feels comfortable.
  2. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times using rhythm pattern 1.
  3. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times using rhythm pattern 2.
  4. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times using rhythm pattern 3.
  5. Play the two-octave scale up and down five times using rhythm pattern 4.
  6. Repeat steps 2, 3, 4 and 5 until 5 minutes have past or longer if you like.

The same thing applies here, if you struggle at playing both hands simultaneously. One day right hand, second day left hand, third day both hands.

Combine all things in exercises of your own. Mash up rhythmic patterns with articulations and dynamics in any combination you want and write them up in your exercise plan for the day.

What To Learn

It is imperative to learn your scales using the correct fingers. It will save you the burden of having to unlearn using the wrong fingers. I can assure you it is a lot harder to unlearn bad habits then it is to pick up new ones that are hopefully not as bad. 🙂

The most important scales to learn in today’s western culture are the major scales. If you are unfamiliar with the essence of those, go check out my post and read all about the Major Scale.

There are in principle 12 major keys that you need to learn. Each of those has a key signature and you can go learn about key signatures in this blog post.

It is imperative that you focus on getting the major scales behind you. Once those have become a second nature, you can start working on the minor scales, modes, diminished scales, whole-tone scales, and a whole array of other scales out there.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the shear amount of scales that exist. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time!

Major Scale Fingerings

When you practise scales, you are exercising Base Technique.

What I mean is that playing scales will stimulate your motoric skills that use a lot of muscle memory. It will affect your speed of playing and how clean you hit the right notes every time.

It will affect your left and right-hand independence. Because even though the left and right hand are playing the same notes, they will be using different fingers. That is tricky because the moments at which you use the thumb-tuck will be different for each hand.

I can’t stress enough: It is, therefore, vital that you practise scales using the correct fingers from the start!

There are quite a few major scales that use a similar fingering; I will list all of them in the order that you should rehearse for the quickest results.

Major Scales – Group 1

Group 1 contains 6 Major Scales that all have virtually the same fingering. It is to your benefit to practise these first in the order presented.

Once you know the first scale, C Major, pretty well, it becomes easy to learn the next scale, G Major. It uses the same fingering, and it is just a matter of getting used to the one black key that is added to the scale, the F#.

That principle continues when you get to learn the next scale after that and so on. Each following scale introduces a single black key but uses the very same fingering. You may be interested to know that the order is derived from the circle of fifths.

I am presenting the fingering over two octaves so that you get to learn the transition from one octave to the next. That way it is easy for you to play three or four octaves if you want to.

The numbers represent fingers with 1 being the thumb all the way up to 5 being the pinky.

C Major
CDEFGABCDEFGABC
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321
G Major
GABCDEF#GABCDEF#G
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321
D Major
DEF#GABC#DEF#GABC#D
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321
A Major
ABC#DEF#G#ABC#DEF#G#A
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321
E Major
EF#G#ABC#D#EF#G#ABC#D#E
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321
B Major
BC#D#EF#G#A#GC#D#EF#G#A#B
RH123123412312345
LH543213214321321

Major Scales – Group 2

Did you get through the first group of scales? Great stuff!! Congratulations!

Group 2 has the next six major scales. They all have different fingerings in the right hand. That will be confusing; You can be sure about that!

Don’t worry! Group 1 has prepared you by getting used to the different timings of the thumb tuck. That is most probably the hardest part about playing scales with two hands simultaneous.

Yes, each scale in group 2 has a different fingering for the right hand; none are the same! But you will find out quickly that your hands and muscles by now have become used to the motions and starting to play these scales slowly will be more comfortable.

Another piece of good news is that the left hand in this group does have the same fingerings most of the time, the two exceptions are F Major and Gb Major.

The order in which to study these has the same principle, we will introduce one new black key with every new scale you learn.

F Major
FGABbCDEFGABbCDEF
RH123412312341234
LH543213214321321
Bb Major
BbCDEbFGABbCDEbFGABb
RH412312341231234
LH321432132143213
Eb Major
EbFGAbBbCDEbFGAbBbCDEb
RH412312341231234
LH321432132143213
Ab Major
AbBbCDbEbFGAbBbCDbEbFGAb
RH341231234123123
LH321432132143213
Db Major
DbEbFGbAbBbCDbEbFGbAbBbCDb
RH231234123123412
LH321432132143213
Gb Major
GbAbBbCbDbEbFGbAbBbCbDbEbFGb
RH234123123412312
LH432132143213214

Download The Major Scale Fingerings

To make it easy for you to practice at your piano, here is a PDF that you can print out.

Minor Scale Fingerings

Just a quick reminder to make sure you first learn your major scales thoroughly before trying your hand on the Minor Scales.

The minor scales come in three flavours: Natural, harmonic and melodic.

Explaining why this is and where it comes from, is outside of the scope of this topic. You don’t really need to know the details in order to practice the scales, but if you are curious to know, have a look at my post about the functional harmony in minor scales.

Keep in mind though, that functional harmony is an advanced topic. If that post goes over your head just close the page and continue here instead.

Download The Natural Minor Scale Fingerings

Download The Harmonic Minor Scale Fingerings

Download The Melodic Minor Scale Fingerings

The Journey Leads To Mastery

It is quite a journey indeed. It will take some time to get all 12 major scales committed to the muscle memory… But you will not regret it once you did it! Some people say it prepares you for 80% of all the technique you need to play any song, both classical and modern.

The next steps will depend on where you want to go.

For jazz pianists it is probably best to learn to play all of the modes in each major key and learn how to link them together. Maybe with a little bit of chords in the left hand to get you on the right path to improvise.

Classical pianists may want to go with the minor scale training and may want to focus more on sight reading. Knowing your scales very well will also help you on reading better because you will spend less time trying to figure out which notes are affected by the key signature.

Either way, thank you for reading my blog and hope to see you in the next one!

Keep walking the Piano Walk!

4 thoughts on “How To Learn Piano Scales”

  1. Wow – this is comprehensive post with clear steps. Learning an instrument can be a challenging but also rewarding pastime. For 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!

    Reply
  2. Hello!

    I’m a organist in our church and this article is so interesting and helpful to pursue my piano skills and develop my fingerings. I’ll also share this free exercises to my daughter who’s now in basics for piano and also through my musician friends. Well i’ll keep this site on my bookmark for more Piano reference .

    All the best!
    Fred

    Reply

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