How To Practice Piano Scales 

Written by: Leslie Carmichael

It took me a long time to learn to like scales. In the beginning, practicing scales seemed so boring and hard. But over time, I learned to enjoy the process and especially the skills I gained from learning them.

In this article, we’ll talk about how to practice piano scales. First, there are a few techniques that make it easier to learn how to play scales. Then, we’ll show you where to find the proper fingering for scales and help you know how to practice them. But first, let’s just take a quick look at what a scale is and why you would want to learn them. 

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What is a scale? 

A piano scale is a collection of notes in the same key in progressive order. Of course, there are many different scales, but most scales in the music we listen to are either major or minor. 

Why should you learn scales on the piano? 

Scales are the building blocks of music. If you understand scales, it will help you to understand why music is written the way it is and help you develop piano technique, speed, and endurance. 

For example, if you are learning a piece of music in the key of A, practicing the A scale will help you understand the piece more easily and help you know how to finger the passages correctly. In addition, you’ll find portions of the scale written right into the music, so knowing the scale will help you when practicing that piece of music. 

You can find the fingering charts for the major and minor scales here. This is a great way to get started learning and practicing your scales. 

How to Practice Piano Scales 

As a beginner, I learned a few five-finger scales. These are fairly simple to learn by putting your right-hand thumb on middle C and your left-hand thumb on the G below. First, play both C’s together, then both Ds, Es, F,s, and G, and then go back down. These are a great way to get started, but there is much more to playing scales than the five-finger version. 

Getting Started with Piano Scales 

The best advice I ever received about learning piano scales was to go slow! My college professor admonished me for trying to learn too much too fast. He said that in his experience, everyone wants to get fast, really fast! But if you practice too hard and too fast before you are ready, you could end up hurting yourself. So take it easy and just go slow – the scales will always be there for you to learn! 

All of the piano professors had the same advice; they said always learn two-octave scales first. Then, when you have mastered those, you can move on to bigger scales. Here’s how. 

  1. Get comfortable at the piano. You need good posture, with your back straight, leaning slightly forward, hands relaxed on the keys. There should be no tension in your arms, shoulders, or neck. If you feel tight, take a breath and try to relax. Make sure you have a quality piano bench to maintain good posture. It really helps!
  2. Warm-up with something fun and easy. Play anything that feels easy and good to you just to get yourself ready to go. 
  3. Start simple. Start learning an easy scale first. For example, you might want to start with C Major and its relative minor, A, because there are no sharps or flats to worry about. 
  4. Look at the fingering chart and notice where your thumb goes under so you can be prepared for smooth transitions. Here’s a great demonstration of how to tuck your thumb!
  5. Practice hands separately, slowly. Start with the right hand. If you have a metronome, you might try setting it at a quarter note is 60 beats per minute. Then play the scale deliberately in quarter notes. Once you can play it without mistakes, try speeding it up, little by little, until you can play it a quarter note at 80 or 100 beats per minute. Once you have mastered that, then you can learn the left hand. Don’t use the piano or keyboard pedals while learning scales. You want to make them as crisp and clean as possible. 
  6. Try hands together, slowly. When playing the scale with both hands, you’ll notice that your thumbs reach under or turn over on different notes and at other times. This trips up many students! The best way to overcome this is to play slowly, one note at a time. You might try playing whole notes at 60 beats per minute so you can really think about what note is coming next. As you master that tempo, you can begin to speed it up. 
  7. Practice the scale with different rhythms. For example, try playing the scale in eighth notes, dotted eighth and sixteenth note pairs, and even in triplets. Changing the rhythm will help cement the scale in your head and under your fingers. 
  8. Increase the tempo until you can play the scale at a quarter = 120 BMP. 
  9. Use the same technique to learn the relative minor. Once you have this mastered, you can move on to the next part. 
  10. Play the relative minor in your left hand and the major scale in your right hand. Then switch. By this point, you will have a good mastery of the scale, and you should be able to play it well. When you can play it quickly, and without mistakes, you can move on to another major and minor scale combination. 

How to Practice without a Piano 

You can practice scales even if you don’t have an acoustic piano. There are a few options you can use. 

  • Digital piano or keyboard. You can try practicing with a digital piano or keyboard if you don't have an acoustic piano. If you have a small keyboard, you might not be able to learn two full octaves, but that’s ok. If you can only practice one octave at a time or one hand at a time, that’s ok. It is still beneficial to your playing ability. 
  • Paper keyboard. You can print one if you don’t have a piano or a keyboard. Here is a printable piano octave– just print out as many as you need so you can practice on the paper keys. Although it isn’t the same as practicing on a keyboard, it will at least help you get the mechanics down. 
  • Mental practice. If you don’t have access to a piano or a printer, you can try your hand at mental practice. Although this isn’t a real substitute for physical practice, studies show that mentally practicing both music and sports can help you improve your performance and your concentration.

Final Thoughts on How to Learn Piano Scales 

Although learning piano scales can seem daunting, it is worth the effort for the confidence, skills, and musical knowledge you gain. The key to learning scales effectively is to go slow. Take your time, learning one scale at a time, one hand at a time. Once you have mastered this, play hands together. When you can speed up your scale without a mistake, move on to the next one. Soon, you’ll be playing all of the major and minor scales with ease.

Written By:
If anyone knows a thing or two about pianos, it's Leslie. Having played piano for the past 25 years and teaching for the past 15 years, she has vast experience compared to most. She loves to share her honest opinions about the brands and manufacturers in the industry. In her free time, Leslie loves to play with her dogs and go on hikes.

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