In my recent article Why Bother with Scales? I considered the many benefits that arise from regularly playing and teaching scales and arpeggios.
In this shorter post I’m going to hone in on one especially important advantage which is sometimes overlooked entirely:
Regular scale and arpeggio practice trains the brain and the fingers to develop precision in judging and playing all intervals up to a fourth, using any standard combination of shapes and fingerings, and in all the standard keys.
This significant benefit is certainly not to be sniffed at, and fosters a technical ability that is otherwise unlikely to develop during the formative stages of learning the piano.
Let’s consider how this works…
Major and minor scales comprise a series of intervals we call tones and semitones, and which are also known in music theory as major 2nd and minor 2nd intervals. The so-called harmonic minor scales also include the interval of the augmented 2nd. Scales thus basically cover all the intervals of a second that will be encountered elsewhere.
Not only that, but they include these intervals as they appear in every musical key, major and minor, and using every combination of black and white piano keys.
These intervals are also practised using all the fingers of each hand in a variety of combinations and positions. When practised hands together in similar motion they train us to play the same interval using different finger combinations in each hand (a truly vital skill), while practice in contrary motion trains us to play varied intervals of a second in each hand, again using a full range of finger combinations and piano shapes.
Playing scales in all the standard keys thus trains the brain to accurately judge these intervals, and the fingers to find them with precision.
And if scales are practised creatively, including a range of dynamics, articulations, colours and varied balance between the hands, this further adds to the enormous benefits that will come from daily practice. Using different rhythms (for example, dotted and reverse-dotted timings) is also hugely beneficial.
As the player returns to these scale patterns from one practice session to the next, and over several years, it is inevitable that both brain and fingers benefit from the training this gives.
The reason that some scales are harder to play than others is that some intervals of a second, depending on the finger pattern involved, are more difficult to play with precision; this further underlines why it is so important to practice them.
The primary benefit here is the acquisition of precision. And there isn’t an obvious alternative route for developing this high level of precision in our playing.
Sure, some of the studies by Hanon, Czerny, Schmitt and others are useful for developing precision playing intervals of a second, but they need transposing across a range of keys for the full benefit, and don’t necessarily offer all of the many other benefits that come from scales playing.
Other studies, such as A Dozen a Day and the short studies that appear in some exam syllabi, though perhaps useful for developing other techniques, do not instil precision playing intervals of a second in the same way or to the same extent that regular scales practice does.
While scales incorporate all intervals of a second, providing a gymnasium of opportunity for developing precision playing them, so arpeggios and broken chords offer the identical benefits for intervals of a third and fourth.
Here’s how these intervals all appear in a major arpeggio pattern:
In minor arpeggios the same intervals appear, but the major and minor thirds swap places.
Other arpeggios include diminished sevenths, in which all the intervals are minor 3rds, and dominant sevenths, which include major and minor thirds as well as a major second. The augmented or tritone arpeggio is useful for developing precision playing all major thirds, but is somewhat neglected.
Playing arpeggios and broken chord patterns in all the standard keys trains the brain to accurately judge these intervals, and the fingers to find them with precision.
Most players find arpeggios more difficult to play with precision than scales, at least to start with. This is because these intervals are wider than the intervals of the second which make up scales. The fact that arpeggios are more tricky at first actually underlines exactly why they (like scales) are so important:
Precision does not develop without training.
Teachers who tend to include the scales and arpeggios set for particular grade exams take note here: syllabi tend not include sufficient arpeggio and broken chord patterns to fully realise the benefits of this training.
It can be really useful to expand the use of arpeggios and broken chords to suit the needs of students, so that they no longer find precision difficult.
Can’t we just Play?
Scales, arpeggios and broken chords provide the laboratory in which the pianist develops precision, evenness and easy playing all intervals of the second, third and perfect fourth. These are the intervals which occur most prominently in the melodies and harmony of Western Music.
Larger intervals and jumps must be practised using different exercises – for example, drawn from the pieces in which they appear. But the player who can play the most common intervals with precision in every pattern has a huge advantage at the piano/
Sporting analogies often don’t work when talking about piano playing, but in the case of developing physical precision they are quite apt.
Practising scales and arpeggios can perhaps be seen as the pianistic equivalent of the tennis player practising her serve, the snooker player lining up shots, or the footballer working on taking penalty shots.
As a teenager, David Beckham apparently practised penalty shots for up to four hours every day (and he still missed a few!)
Sure, we all want to get on with playing the game. But we play so much better if we are willing to make the effort required to develop precision.