A lot of musicians hate scales. They find them boring to practice and they often don’t see the point.
The bad news is that if you want to be a great player, scales simply have to be a part of your life because they’re useful for so many things.
The great news is that you don’t have to hate them!. When you understand why you’re practicing them and you have some more interesting ways to do it you’ll find that practicing scales doesn’t have to be the drudgery you always thought it was.
So read on to find out the things you ought to know about scales so you can love them like the world’s best musicians do!
What is a scale?
A scale is a set of musical notes ordered by pitch. When a scale starts at the lowest note and moves through to the highest (as in the first diagram below) it is an ascending scale. When it starts at the highest note and moves towards the lowest note (as in the second diagram) it is a descending scale.
How is a scale defined?
A scale is defined by the intervals between the notes in the scale. For example, every major scale has the exact same intervals between each note as every other major scale even though the notes change completely from one major scale to another.
Below you can see the C major and F major scales with the intervals marked between the notes to demonstrate this (M2 shows a major second and m2 shows a minor second).
Why are scales important for musicians?
Most music is written in a ‘key’. For example the key of C major. Each key corresponds with a given scale. As you may have guessed, the key of C major corresponds with the C major scale.
When we practice scales, we are actually developing our technical facility for all music written in the key that corresponds with that scale.
This is why scales are so useful for musicians: when we’re practicing scales we’re not just improving our ability to play that scale, we’re improving our ability to play any music written in the key that corresponds with that scale.
Which scales should I learn?
If practicing a scale improves your ability to play any music written in the key that corresponds with that scale, the most important scales to learn are the ones that correspond with keys you play often or would like to improve at.
For most musicians that makes the major scale and the minor scales (the natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor) absolutely essential.
There are a few others that are very common in certain popular styles that you may also wish to focus on.
For example, the pentatonic scale is very common in pop music, and the blues scale is the cornerstone of blues music.
How can I practice scales?
Now that you understand how scales fit into the grand scheme of things, you’re probably still wanting to know how you can practice them so you don’t get bored to death.
Luckily, there’s a multitude of ways you can spice things up.
- If you’re learning the key signatures of the major and minor scales, use the cycle of fifths to memorise them quickly and easily.
- Don’t just practice them up and down! It’s pretty rare that a piece of music simply runs up and down a scale so it should be rare that you practice them like this as well. Use scale patterns to get your fingers working in different ways.
- Use scale degrees to learn the major and minor scales inside out, and to start improving your ears alongside improving your fingers. Incorporating scale degrees into your practice is one of the most beneficial things you can do to as a musician to start improving faster than you have in the past!