Your Guide to Piano Scales
Piano scales are the basis of any good piano practice regime.
They allow your fingers to develop the muscle memory needed to be able to play up and down through the notes without having to think about it. And scales, or portions of them, appear in a huge number of classical piano pieces.
Read on as we take a look at different kinds of scales and how to play them on the piano.
What Are Scales?
Playing piano scales involves playing up or down through the notes of a specific key.
For example, to play the C major ascending scale you would play up through each note of the key of C major. Playing down through the same notes would be the C major descending scale. You can do this with either your right hand or your left hand. As you become more proficient, the challenge is to play with both hands at the same time, an octave apart.
The notes of each scale depend on whether the scale is major or minor. There are also three different versions of each minor scale, as we shall see later on.
How to Play Major Piano Scales
To play any major scale, you need to know the notes that are part of the specific key.
You can work these notes out yourself, as the gaps between the notes are the same for every major scale. The pattern is as follows: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Since each adjacent key on the piano is one-half note higher than the last, you can use this pattern to work out the notes of each major scale.
For C major, using this pattern gives the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. To play the descending C major scale, you would play the notes in reverse order: C, B, A, G, F, E, D, C.
Many of the major scales use the same fingering pattern, but because of the way that the sharps and flats are positioned, some scales are easier play with a different fingering.
The most common fingering for your right hand is 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 for ascending scales, and 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 for descending scales. Each number represents a finger, with 1 being your thumb and 5 your pinkie. To make the transition from your third finger to your thumb for the fourth note of the scale, you pass your thumb underneath your middle finger. Playing with the left hand the fingering is reversed: 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 ascending and 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 descending.
Keys that include lots of flats or sharps usually require different fingering, however. For F major, you still start with your thumb but use 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. The left-hand fingering remains the same. For B flat major you would start with your fourth finger and follow the pattern 4-1-2-3-1-2-3-4. The left-hand pattern is 3-2-1-4-3-2-1-3.
How to Play Natural Minor Piano Scales
Minor scales come in three different varieties; natural, melodic and harmonic. We will start with the natural minor scale.
Each major key has a corresponding minor key, called its relative minor. You can find the relative minor of any major scale by moving down by three half notes. So for C major, the relative minor would be A minor. For natural minor scales, the notes are the same as the C major scale but starting from A rather than C.
This gives the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. The pattern for natural minor scales is whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.
The most common fingering for natural minor scales is the same 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 pattern.
Once again, the scales with more flats and sharps in often require a different pattern. F minor should be played 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. B flat minor is 2-1-2-3-1-2-3-4 and E flat minor is 3-1-2-3-4-1-2-3.
How to Play Harmonic Minor Piano Scales
Harmonic minor scales are almost the same as natural minor scales, but with one difference.
For a harmonic minor, the seventh note of the scale is raised by half a note. This makes the pattern whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole-and-a-half, half. This means the A minor scale is now A, B, C, D, E, F, G sharp, A.
The harmonic minor scale is so called because it uses the notes that are most commonly found in chord progressions of minor keys.
Since the majority of the notes of the harmonic minor scale are the same as the natural minor, you should find that the fingerings remain the same.
Once again, keys with lots of flats or sharps require slightly different fingerings. B flat, E flat, and F harmonic minors are some of the most common scales that do not fit the usual pattern.
How to Play Melodic Minor Piano Scales
The final minor scale is called the melodic minor. It is so called because the pattern of notes is more likely to be found in musical melodies than the other two versions.
Where the harmonic minor raised the seventh note by one half, the melodic minor raises both the sixth and seventh notes. This makes the A melodic minor scale A-B-C-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A. The pattern for melodic minors is whole-half-whole-whole-whole-whole-half.
It is sometimes the case when learning and practicing scales that students are taught to play the melodic minor when ascending and the natural minor when descending.
Since there is only one note difference between the harmonic and melodic minor scales, the fingerings for each key are usually the same.
The common scales that require a different pattern of fingering include F melodic minor (1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4), B flat melodic minor (4-1-2-3-1-2-3-4) and E flat melodic minor (3-1-2-3-4-1-2-3).
What Are the Next Steps?
Once you’ve got to grip with piano scales, you’ll want to know what else you should learn.
We have a ton of great content on the site to help you develop your piano playing skills. From in-depth guides on specific chords and scales to information on how to read music, you’re sure to find something to help you improve your playing.
Whatever you decide to learn next, we wish you the best of luck with your piano playing journey.