Possibly the biggest point of contention for any piano player’s practice routine is scales. Whilst they are essential to learn and can open up an entire world of musical creativity and possibility, for many pianists they are also one of the less exciting parts of learning, often feeling repetitive or tedious when really you’d like to just get on with playing your favourite songs.
However, many pianists do understand the importance of learning scales and practising them as they are ultimately crucial in helping enhance your musical understanding and fingering skills in order to play the pieces that you would ultimately like to learn.
Today we are aiming to break down ways to spice up your scale practice to make your piano warm ups and theory lessons less of a chore and one of the more fun parts of your practising schedule.
We’re confident that after reading this article, you could easily invest an hour or two in learning scales without even realising how much fun you’re having!
Why Do We Need To Learn Scales?
You may have been told by your teacher that you need to learn your scales, but never really told what a scale is or why they matter.
Learning the scales is probably the best way to enhance your musical understanding and grant immense benefits to your piano playing. A scale consists of notes that are there in a key signature in an alphabetical order, for example the C major scale or D minor scale.
These notes start from tonic to the next tonic and are comprised of notes that complement one another. Understanding each scale and where the flats or sharps are located helps to play music in many ways. Not only do they help enhance your theoretical knowledge but also improve your coordination on the keys, fingering speeds and understanding them properly will also allow you to be able to improvise to your heart's content.
How Many Scales Do You Know?
The very first place to start if you are finding your piano scales tedious is to learn a new one! There are 12 major scales and 12 natural minor scales that can be played on a standard 88-key piano.
Each major and minor scale has its own unique sequence of intervals between each note in the scale, so if you don’t know all of the 24 main scales, that’s a great place to begin. From there you can even continue to learn the alternative and broken scales and arpeggios for each scale if you so please.
If you are at the point where you have learned the scales that you require and are finding them tedious, then introducing contrary motion is a fantastic way to begin shaking things up. This will test your brain as many often spend their time only running straight up and straight down the scales.
Contrary motion helps solidify your knowledge of the scale as it does not begin at either the lowest or highest points. In order to do contrary motion, take a scale, for example the C Major scale and start with both thumbs on middle c (or the midpoint of your chosen scale). From here, we will use the right hand to play the major scale travelling up and then use the left hand to play down at the same time.
This is a fantastic exercise if you are worried that you only know your scales through muscle memory as by changing direction or starting from a new point in the scale, you will be forced to think about what you are playing a little further. Likewise, by having each hand play something different, you are activating both sides of the brain and improving your overall hand eye coordination.
Of course, you can do this with any scale so don’t forget about doing it with the minors too!
This is a fantastic one to also help with your understanding of expression and introduces a new challenge to the scale. This is especially good for new learners as it will help introduce yet another key concept of piano playing and help you realise how much dynamics can impact a piece.
In order to develop your dynamic understanding within scales, start by playing pianissimo (very softly) with a crescendo (very loudly) and the top of the scale and a descendo as you go back down. This will not only make the scale that little bit more engaging, but will force you to focus on one of the more nuanced skills within piano playing.
If you are looking for an extra challenge, you can even combine this with contrary motion to give you three aspects of your playing to focus on.
This is perhaps the easiest to introduce and something that many pianists learn accidentally as they practice. But by introducing tempo and speed to your scales, you can breathe a new life into your scale practices.
For example, by playing the scale as quickly as possible without any mistakes will help improve your intricate fingering, whilst playing incredibly slowly will allow you to focus on articulation and touch, or why not combine the two in a combination of sudden accelerando and ritardando as you move through the scale.
Once comfortable here, try combining this with dynamics and of course contrary motion, now we’re into some really complex scaling!
If you’re still finding this easy, then there’s one final thing that you can do to spice up your scales and by this point, you are essentially doing your own versions of mini composing. This process involves practising your scales in different rhythmic alterations and combinations. Finding it easy to keep the scale in the same beats? Why not throw in some sporadic quarters, eights, triplets or even sixteenths in order to really shake things up.
Then guess what we’re going to do? Combine that with your contrary motion, introduce some dynamic absurdities and then begin messing around with tempo too! By this point your brain should be in complete overload with how much complexity you have placed into something as simple as a scale.
One fun exercise you can do to make this really exciting is create a number of flashcards and create your own wacky scaling practices.
For example create cards in 5 different piles with:
Scale names: C major, B minor, F Major etc.
Contrary motions on where to begin: First, Middle, 3rd, 5th notes etc.
Dynamics: Fortissimo, Pianissimo, Soft to loud, loud to soft, soft loud soft etc.
Tempo: Fast, Slow, Slow to fast, fast to slow, fast slow fast, slow fast slow
Rhythmic alterations: Quarters, eights, sixteenths, tones, semitones etc.
Pretty soon you’ll have literally an infinite level of combinations and complexities to add to your scaling. Which you can then make as easy or hard as you’d like.
For example if you draw a flashcard from each pile, you might draw:
C minor scale, to be started on the 5th note in the scale, played in fortissimo, at a fast tempo in quarters.
If that sounds like a lot (it is!) then strip things out until you’re comfortable with it, for example, c minor at a fast tempo in fortissimo.
Shuffle your cards and repeat the process!
We hope this guide has helped offer some fun insight into how to make your scales more exciting and interesting to play, of course there are even more musical terms that you can throw in here, from playing staccato and legato to even playing with your eyes closed! For more tips and tricks to advancing your playing, read our progressing players guides here, or if you are interested in upgrading your current instrument, or purchasing your first piano, contact our experts today!