Piano Scale Mnemonics

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Recommending a no-fuss scale book used to be a simple matter: just get a copy of the ABRSM Grade 5 book as was, and all the keys were there, clearly presented in order. But following ABRSM’s 2021 piano scales revision this is no longer the case, their new graded scale books offering a shockingly slight smattering of just a few scales, as limiting as they are limited.

Good teachers everywhere are inevitably (if sadly) left looking for more helpful alternatives, and thankfully a number of well-known writers are presently forming an orderly queue to occupy the educational high ground that the exam board have so perplexingly ceded.

Paul Harris’s revised Improve Your Scales books look to a composite of all the exam boards for common sense, while Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer series from Faber Music will soon add an all-purpose scales book specially devised to fill the gap. I will be reviewing both these resources in the coming months.

Meanwhile, here’s a new book from Catherine McMillan, whose unique take on learning scales will particularly appeal to children, and whose stunningly presented Piano Scale Mnemonics book is now a studio essential.

The Publication

Piano Scale Mnemonics is published by Catsam Publishing and printed by Halstan, who also produce OUP’s Piano Time method books. As soon as the review copy arrived, I was struck by the similarity:

Produced with the same high grade cover, luxury smooth paper and in full colour throughout, those who use Piano Time will feel at home immediately, which is no bad thing. Piano Time has in my view perhaps the best presentation among the popular children’s method series, a perfect balance of clarity, vivid illustrations, but with pages which aren’t too busy and cluttered. And the same strengths are to the fore here.

The Contents page reveals that the book includes all the major and minor keys, presented in four groups:

  • White Key Majors (People)
  • Black Key Majors (Insects)
  • White Key Minors (Animals)
  • Black Key Minors (Food & Drink)

Regarding the curious subheadings, the author explains in her coherently written and colourful three page How to use this book introduction:

All the keys in one place…

After this introduction, we arrive at the core scales content, and for me a big selling point of the book is that every key is included, and in most of the basic scale formats.

Each key is stunningly presented across a two-page spread:

A major appears first, and it soon becomes clear that the major, and later on the minor “white key” scales arrive alphabetically. The “black key” scales, meanwhile follow the circle of fourths (from B flat round to F sharp). While I don’t find this entirely logical, it is nevertheless easy enough to find any scale.

Teachers will thus want to dip into the book on an ad hoc basis rather than in sequential order, but chapters will inevitably also be revisited from one level to the next, given that for each major key the following are included:

  • Contrary Motion scale, 2 octaves
  • Chromatic Scale starting on the key note, 1 octave
  • Arpeggio, root position, 2 octaves
  • Broken Chord, 4-note patterns
  • Major Scale, 2 octaves

In all cases these are presented hands together, but the notation can equally be used for hands separate practice and learning.

At the foot of each two page spread, the student is treated to a lightbulb moment. These include technical tips as well as adding memorable pattern recognition to support effective learning.

In the second half of the book we arrive at the 12 minor keys.

Here, the harmonic minor scale is presented on the right page of the two-page spread, while the melodic pattern is shown next to it on the left page:

Cleverly, the inclusion of the melodic minor scale is made possible because there is no need to repeat the chromatic scale patterns already presented.

Admittedly, it’s a little disappointing that space doesn’t allow for the inclusion of the Natural Minor scales, which I find useful when introducing and explaining minor keys and their relationship to the majors.

In addition to all the above, Broken Chords are included in the 3 note pattern that appears in early grades in the keys of C, F and G major and A, D and E minors. This is made possible by squeezing an extra line of notation onto the left pages in each case.

To further satisfy a completist provision for those taking Trinity or ABRSM grade exams, the chromatic scale appears in contrary motion starting on D, A flat, and on C/E and F#/A#, again leading to a slightly less spacious presentation.

Last point before looking at the most striking headline feature: in terms of those pesky enharmonic alternatives, the book provides F sharp major (not G flat) and E flat minor (not D sharp).

Completing the book, there is a helpful two-page article explaining the Circle of Fifths, a page (without notation) explaining the formation and fingering of Diminished 7th arpeggio patterns, and a final reminder of the many mnemonics that appear throughout the book…

Ah yes, the mnemonics…

I’ve saved the book’s primary raison d’être for last:

Each scale appears with additional learning support in the form of a keyboard picture, memory mnemonic and lavish, thematically related illustration.

As you will note from the two sample pages above, the keyboard picture visually identifies which piano keys are played without over-labouring the point as some other “picture” guides to scale playing do, and is most welcome.

The use of mnemonics in learning has become an oddly contentious issue of late. Those keen to sell methods which don’t include them are quick to point out that mnemonics add an extra layer of processing, but academic research suggests mnemonics can be highly effective (there’s some interesting links here), albeit with some variance between different age groups. As always, one size clearly does not fit all!

Personally I make limited use of mnemonics with some but not all students. I like a method book to include them for the benefit of those who find them helpful (but will often ignore that page). I believe that it serves teachers well to have easy access to as many effective learning strategies as possible, and not be dogmatically locked into one approach.

In the Piano Scale Mnemonics book, mnemonics are obviously the “headline feature”. There is a mnemonic for each of the 24 keys, as well as extras to help learn the Circle of Fifths.

A crucial learning help here is that each of the mnemonics begins with the pitch name of the tonic itself, followed by the altered notes in the order in which they occur in the scale. For example, the mnemonic for A major, which includes F#, C# and G# in the key signature, is sequenced in the linear pattern Astronomers Can Find Galaxies.

I have to admit that I am skeptical that learning so many mnemonics will have long-term value for the majority of students, though it may for some. But where I think Piano Scale Mnemonics really hits gold is for short-term learning and engagement. Using the mnemonic when introducing a new key may very well help students initially get to grips with the scale pattern.

Significantly elevating this potential, the illustrations of each mnemonic throughout are truly brilliant (and done by the author herself, who proves to be multitalented indeed). They will undoubtedly capture the imagination of children in particular. Following their themes of people, insects, animals, food and drink, they are also entertaining, adding fun to an area of learning that can easily become dry and seemingly irrelevant.

In short, the enjoyment of this approach is in my view more likely to leave children wanting to learn more, rather than fewer scales!

Closing Thoughts…

Catherine McMillan’s answer is clearly a resounding YES!

And with Piano Scales Mnemonics she has concocted a resource which will serve young learners especially well, not only delivering a comprehensive all-in-one publication of all the scales, arpeggios and broken chords needed by the intermediate student, but doing so in the most colourful and “moreish” way possible.

Now then, a little bird has informed me that Colourful Drinks Fill Glass Bottles (think about it!), so I’m off to pour myself a nightcap…

Before doing the same, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Piano Scales Mnemonics and see what you think!

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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.