The key to teaching scales...

When teaching scales, there are a number of questions we should ask ourselves as teachers:

Why should we learn scales?

When 'teaching' scales, many teachers forget to explain the origin of scales, where they derive from, and are in many cases simply being told to memorize a patterns of notes/keys. A more detailed understanding is presented here: What is a scale?

Of course with young children an explanation of the origin will prove too complicated but a more child-friendly approach should be used and expanded at a later point. For example, the 'tone, tone, semitone....etc.' approach can be converted to 'big step, big step, small step.....etc.'. This offers many avenues for playing games and making scale learning more enjoyable.

Finger Patterns

Once an understanding of tones/semitones has been put in place and the student is aware of the major scale makeup (ie.T,T,ST,T,T,T,ST) it is important to move onto finger patterns.

As 'C', 'G', 'D', 'A', and 'E' major all use the same finger patterns they are a good place to start:

Right Hand (RH): 12312345

Left Hand (LH): 54321321

A fluid movement is required ascending when moving between '3' and '1' in the RH, with the thumb moving underneath '2' and '3' as they play in preparation for it's new position. This should be a sideways movement and in no way involve the arm/elbow moving up/down. The same can be said in reverse when descending and in the LH changes.

When each scale is secure Hands Separately (HS) with an even legato touch, contrary motion seems a sensible next step. This way both hands use exactly the same fingers at the same time and operate in a mirror image motion, beginning on the same key. When this is secure, similar motion can be attempted.

Then scales with slightly different patterns should be approached beginning with 'B' and 'F' majors:

B Major - LH 43214321

F Major - RH 12341234

When secure a similar system can be adopted for use with major scales beginning on 'black keys'.

Approaching Minor Scales

Most examining bodies (ABRSM, RIAM etc) require candidates to perform a number of scales of different variety and tonal settings eg. major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, similar motion, contrary motion etc. This emphasises the importance of an understanding of tonality from the beginning and leads us nicely to understanding of minor scales.

If approached correctly students will understand the 'major/minor relation' from the very beginning and have a grounded understanding of how each key relates to the next.

I personally find the solution lies with the 'natural minor scale'. Unfortunately this version is omitted by most examining bodies so gets overlooked by most teachers.

Quite simply put, the natural minor scale uses the same keys/notes as the major but instead of running from 'do' to 'do' (solfège notation), it begins on the 6th degree 'la' and runs to 'la'. This gives the student a much more definite understanding of the relative relationship between major and minor scales.

For example:

Once this grounding has been firmly established with some of the easier key relationships (eg. C major/A Minor, G Major/ E minor etc.) it is then safer to approach the more commonly used formats of minor scale (harmonic, melodic). As the student now has a secure base to each scale it is much easier to modify them accordingly (eg. harmonic - 'raise the 7th', and melodic - 'raise 6th and 7th ascending and return to original descending').

Tonality/Key Centre

It is important for students to understand the 'key signature' of a scale and how this relates to 'tonality' from an early point. This can be shown to students simply through whichever pieces they are currently working on. For example a 'Rondo in G' will work alongside the scale of G major and can take in an understanding of 'E minor'.

This may seem an obvious point to many, but lots of teachers actually forget to explain the relationship between key signatures and the scale itself.

If this is explained early on in the student's development, the understanding of tonality and key patterns within each tonal setting will become more natural and the student can develop a deeper understanding of chords and harmonic structure.

I hope this has been a helpful introduction, and should you like further information or have any questions please feel free to get in touch. :)

I will also shortly be writing a blog on scales practice for more advanced students.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • YouTube Classic
  • Google+ Basic Square

Ryan McNeill School of Music

Tullamore, Co. Offaly


Phone: 085 7799 462 Email:


© 2014-21 Ryan McNeill School of Music.

All rights reserved