Why Bother with Scales?

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

Anthony Williams, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber Music, 2017)

Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …

In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:

  • What are the benefits of learning scales?
  • Is it important to use consistent fingering?
  • Why is cumulative learning better than exam cramming?
  • How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?

Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…

The benefit of learning scales

The majority of players and teachers agree that the following benefits can be gained from practising and learning scales:

  • Scales improve all aspects of physical technique, not only finger independence and dexterity, and provide the perfect context for developing evenness of touch, balance and tone.
  • Scales instil effective archetype fingering patterns for each and every major, minor, modal, blues and jazz key.
  • Scales help us develop a sense of key, a practical understanding of music theory, and some facility to transpose music.
  • Arpeggios and Broken Chords help the player learn about harmony and chord formations.
  • Scale and chord patterns appear throughout keyboard music in all genres, so familiarity with them considerably speeds up the learning of repertoire.
  • Scales similarly improve our ability to play new music at sight, making music aurally, physically and visually more predictable.
  • Scales also enhance our harmonic and structural understanding, for example our awareness of modulation.
  • Scales are the foundation for improvisation and composing.

With deeper, cumulative learning, scales can become an embedded language which facilitates the fluency of all our playing. Further, they provide a laboratory in which other techniques and aspects of musicianship can be learnt and developed, as we shall see later in this article.

As Paul Harris and Richard Crozier write in their essential book The Music Teacher’s Companion (ABRSM, 2000, page 53):

“Technique is an umbrella term comprising many areas of study; but in identifying all the component parts, it will be found that almost all of them can be dealt with by the study of scales and their related patterns.”

They go on to say,

“The prepared teacher will be ready to counter-attack the favourite moan of so many young players: ‘Why do I have to learn scales?’. It is important to spend time explaining and then constantly reminding your pupils of the reasons. They will eventually begin to see the huge benefits to be gained from regular and methodical scale study and, with some imaginative and relevant teaching strategies, they may even begin to enjoy their scale practice!”

P. Harris and R. Crozier, ibid.

I would say these are comments that equally (if not even more) apply to adult learners, and agree with Harris and Crozier that it is of fundamental importance for all teachers to understand the benefits of scales practice, and to be able to explain this with conviction to their students.

Consistency and fingering 

As a teacher, I regularly take on transfer students who have not previously learnt to play scales in a consistent, cumulative manner. Any scales work they have done has been shallow, exam focused, and fundamentally ineffective.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the application of consistent fingering. And, tellingly, in many cases these same students also need particular help working out fingering patterns in the pieces that they are playing. Often their sheet music is peppered with the fingerings written in to compensate for their weak foundational knowledge of effective fingering patterns.

This is not to say that there is only one “correct” way to finger scales, or indeed the passages we encounter in repertoire. On the contrary, there can be many effective alternatives.

The key here is to learn consistency, and so to develop a strong foundation of effective archetype fingering patterns, becoming fluent in utilising and adapting this deep “finger knowledge” when improvising or tackling repertoire.

Let me share with you this interesting quote from Ruth Gerald, who was the Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal College of Music. In her introduction to The Manual of Scales, Broken Chords and Arpeggios for Piano (ABRSM, 2001) she notes:

”When practising scales, broken chords and arpeggios, it is important that players use fingering patterns consistently and understand the fundamental principles behind their choice, which they can then apply when fingering pieces or sight-reading.”

How very sensible!

Cumulative learning

The requirements of an exam syllabus perhaps represent the biggest barrier to effective, purposeful scales learning.

Too often over the last 25 years I have taken on transfer students who have previously only been taught a limited selection of scales in the run-up to the graded exam. Between one grade and the next, they had forgotten most of the scales previously learnt, and sadly, their teachers were complicit in allowing this to happen.

Until recently, ABRSM Grade 5 included the scales and arpeggios in every major and minor key. This actually included the addition of just four new keys, but a perfectly reasonable assumption was made that Grade 5 candidates would have properly learnt the easier scales from earlier grades.

Where this proved not to be the case there was often a rude awakening, and these players found that they faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of re-learning all the scales previously practised but now forgotten.

Having considered the many and various benefits of learning scales, arpeggios and broken chords, we must equally understand that these benefits only manifest where they are cumulatively and deeply learnt, becoming a foundation of technique, creativity and understanding.

Scales and Creativity

How, then, does this deeper, cumulative learning happen?

In short, deeper learning involves fully engaging with, living with, internalising and memorising scales. It involves making connections between scales and other aspects of musical learning. Crucially, deeper learning must engage all three dimensions of playing, Musical Mind, Body and Soul:

Musical Soul:

  • Scales must be understood aurally, not merely learnt by rote. Explore scales and keys without notation, at least sometimes.
  • Scales can be used for creative experimentation. Explore different ways of playing scales – varying the dynamics, articulation, tempo and mood.
  • Try playing scales in swing and other rhythmic patterns.
  • Use scales as the basis for improvising and composing both in and between lessons.

Musical Body:

  • Use scales to address the technical issues met in other music.
  • For example, try varying the dynamics or articulation between hands, using this to reinforce the concept of voicing and develop the ability to bring out the melody in a piece.
  • Scales provide an ideal context for learning to connect with our breathing at the piano. Find out more.

Musical Mind:

  • Rather than superficially learning scale patterns, divorced from any musical context, notice where similar patterns appear in repertoire, and how they are altered to fit the needs of pieces.
  • Apply fingering principles absorbed from playing scales and arpeggios when learning new pieces, using them as a basis for working out effective fingering independently.
  • Notice when and how pieces change key, and the role that scales and arpeggios play.
  • Develop knowledge of the circle of fifths; this not only reinforces theory knowledge, but also enhances creativity when improvising and composing.

These are a few small ideas, and the creative teacher will be able to add innumerable teaching and learning strategies to the list.

Making Connections

Teachers will very often agree that graded exams shouldn’t be the sole focus of a student’s musical development, so it is odd that when it comes to scales, so many limit learning to syllabus content as they do, ignoring the powerful role that learning scales deeply and cumulatively can have.

Taken together, the ideas in this article all point to a wonderful outcome: scales learning can become connected to, and tremendously strengthen, all the other aspects of musical learning.

In covering these topics, I hope that I’ve not only offered just a few practical answers to the basic questions that so often arise when the topic of scales comes up, but also helped the reader understand and hopefully agree with Anthony Williams’ conclusion that,

“[Scales]… are the musical and physical grammar of tonal piano music, the quickest way of developing an awareness of melody, harmony and structure and the very best shortcut to fluent playing. Above all they are the ingredients for the most special moments of beauty, passion and lyricism in some of the greatest music ever written.”

Anthony Williams,ibid, (p.31)

In the sequel to this article, I consider exactly how playing scales and arpeggios trains us to play music with greater accuracy and technical proficiency…

Part Two:  Learning to Play with Precision

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.