Getting back to scales – are they a friend or foe?

If you are an adult player, attending a group on a regular basis, getting through the week and managing to even look at your instrument in its case outside of rehearsals can often be a miracle.  When you do have the chance to play, it is usually great to be able to do a quick warm up and rattle through some of the pieces you enjoy playing.  Scales (apart from C major and one or two others) seem like a dim and distant memory of something that you were once forced to endure for exams.

black-34518_640With this in mind, why should you practice scales again, and how can this be something more than simply going through the motions?  There are a number of good reasons for scale practice. and even though most people have heard them already, here are 5 possible reasons:

1)   intonation

2)   finger patterns

3)   flexibility

4)   learning key signatures

5)   they are the building blocks of music

The first scales that are usually focused on are the major and minor ones.  The best way of starting off practicing is by starting with just one-octave scales.  It is important to practice them as miniature pieces of music and approach them in the same way, and with the same level of focus and concentration, you would any piece of music.  Try to remember that the musical pieces you play are simply scales and arpeggios reorganised!

sign-34177_640Start off with C major as just one octave up and down, producing the richest and warmest sound you can.  Hold each note at a comfortable volume for full four beats (120bpm), tonguing each one.  Think about the start of the note, tone quality and how each note finishes.  Listen to the difference in pitch between each note and listen to any variations in pitch.  Does it go sharp or flat at any point?

Practice this with music initially (should you need to) and then memorise the scale as soon as you can.  Remember to listen out for the major scale pattern: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone and semitone.  Listen as carefully as you can to the relationship between each individual note and notice how it feels. (If you are not sure about what tones and semitones are, look out for a future blog covering basic theory!)

Next move on to the relative minor scale, A minor.  Learn this in harmonic and melodic form and practice in the same way as described above.  Keep everything to just one octave for now and focus completely on sound quality and production.

Next move on to G major and E minor, then F major and D minor, then D major and B minor, then Bb major and G minor and so on.  Follow the circle of 5ths /4ths   around until you reach the enharmonic of each scale.  This will then cover each major and minor scale adding a flat or a sharp each time.

This way of picking up scales once more is very useful as it underlines fundamental tonality and will help to gain a better awareness of how the scales/keys relate to each other.

sign-23998_640However, it is not time to stop just yet!  The same principle applies to arpeggios that belong to each scale.  An arpeggio always uses the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th notes of the scale.  There will be a major one and a minor one, and it is crucial to listen to how these sound and pick out how the minor arpeggio feels in comparison to the major arpeggio.

There is also the opportunity to work on chromatic scales for every note, scales in thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths as well as interrupted scales, two or three octave scales and full range scales.  As well as major and minor arpeggios there is also the dominant 7th, diminished 7th, added 6th and so on.

It is possible to buy books with all of these written down for you but this kind of misses the point if you rely on them too heavily.  For the best results from this type of practice, scales and arpeggios should really be learned from memory.  The Arban is possibly the best book for exercises based on these scales and arpeggios that has ever been written.  However, it is important to play this musically and think about the exercises as pieces of music.  Approached with an understanding and awareness of tonality and key this book is a sure fire way of improving technique dramatically.  But if it is approached with little focus on melody, tonality, key, intonation or musicality the book has no real purpose apart from the development of muscle memory.

Always try to think of a scale as a little piece of music – take care of it and it will pay dividends as you will soon notice how that tricky bit in a piece gradually becomes easier and easier…

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Getting back to scales – are they a friend or foe? — 1 Comment

  1. Hurrah!

    Just what I’ve been waiting for. How can you get to grade 7 on an instrument and yet when someone says to you ‘its in B major’ have absolutely no idea how many sharps that is?! Perhaps I’ve just forgotten them all.

    I think your site is absolutely fab by the way, keep up the good work


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