What’s the point of scales?

Many piano students view scales as tedious, mindless exercises, a painful part of practice time, with no value or relevance to “real” piano playing. In fact, scales are incredibly important and useful, and students need to understand this from the very start of their study of scales and other technical exercises (broken chords and arpeggios).

I can remember most of the scales I learnt during the course of my piano studies as a child and a teenager. By the time I took Grade 8 in my early teens, it felt like I had learnt 100s of scales – parallel motion, contrary motion, octaves, thirds, sixths, chromatic, chromatic thirds! I would rattle through them every day as a separate part of my practising regime, but my teacher never really explained to me why they were relevant to the pieces I was learning.

Some of the exam boards expect candidates to learn far too many scales, in my opinion (and a view also shared by Dame Fanny Waterman, renowned teacher and founder of the Leeds Piano Competition), and it was for this reason that I switched my students from the ABRSM exam syllabus to Trinity Guildhall. Overly onerous requirements to learn scales mean that students may not be able to spend the appropriate amount of time studying their pieces and practising key aspects of technique.

Plenty of pianists regard scales as warming up exercises – the pianistic equivalent of a jog around the sports field prior to a training session or a match – but there are more valuable warming up exercises, which can be done away from the piano (see my article on this subject here).

So why should we learn scales?

  • Scales teach an understanding of and familiarity with key signatures and the underlying harmonic structure of the music. By studying the scales and arpeggios associated with a piece of music we are studying, we gain a deeper knowledge of the building blocks of the music, a deeper harmonic awareness and improved sight-reading skills.
  • Scales teach us the fingerings associated with particular tonalites (e.g. D-flat Major, f-sharp minor) and how these feel under the fingers on the keyboard.
  • Scales teach an understanding and awareness of the techniques of lateral (“sideways”) movement around the keyboard, including finger action, passing the thumb under the hand and bringing the hand over the thumb, and evenness of touch.

When my students start work on new repertoire, I ask them to highlight fragments of scales or arpeggios within the piece to help them understand that learning scales really does have a relevance: learn to play scales evenly and with a beautiful quality of sound and you can tackle sparkling passages in Mozart, the most dramatic arpeggiated sections in Beethoven (for example, the final movement of the Piano Sonata Op 27, No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’), Chopin’s fiorituras et al with ease and confidence.

In exam reports, examiners regularly highlight not only accuracy of scales but also evenness and quality of tone. We are told that Chopin made his pupils practice scales “with a full tone, as legato as possible, very slowly at first and only gradually advancing in a quicker tempo and with metronomic even-ness”. So follow Chopin’s example and aim for a beautiful sound and absolute evenness of rhythm in your scales (there is no need to use a metronome to achieve this: my childhood piano teacher simply asked me to count in 4s – 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4 – out loud as I played my scales). Listen as you play (a rule of thumb for all piano playing, whether technical exercises or pieces) and be self-critical: if the scale sounds ugly and/or uneven, try to understand why and correct it.

To play scales well, the fingers and hand need to be supported by the rest of the arm, while the arm itself must feel very free (another technique favoured by Chopin), soft and relaxed. My teacher uses the analogy of a skipping rope: the arm hangs freely from the shoulder at one end, and from the finger on the key at the other end. In between these two points, the arm can swing with the flowing, harmonious, wave-like movements of a skipping rope.

To make practising scales more interesting and enjoyable, students can experiment with different ways of playing them, such as dynamic variations, using C major fingering for all keys, including black-note scales (useful for Debussy!), RH staccato LH legato and vice versa, etc. But always bear in mind these words of wisdom from Dame Fanny Waterman:

“Scales aren’t metronomic, one accent per four notes. No! Scales are bridging passages, and they have their own beauty. They either have diminuendos, or crescendos, or diminuendos and crescendos at close quarters. But you have to get a wonderful evenness of sound. When you think of quick passages, they are slow tunes played fast. So every note in a scale passage is meaningful. It’s not a matter of accenting the first of every four.”

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5 thoughts on “What’s the point of scales?

  1. At last, a genuinely informative and helpful essay. I shall definitely pay more attention and seek to apply these principles. Thank you!

    Like

  2. I had a double bass teacher when I was young who was very hot on scales. He taught me the importance of not just practising them the way syllibi tell you to, but in all sorts of musical ways, according to what you wanted to develop. Looking back nearly 40 years I put down much of my facility (such as it is) on the bass to his scale-fixation! He must have been good as I never remember thinking his demands were boring. I think you are right about Boards and the number of scales they expect for exams – but I do think one wants by Grade 7/8 to aim to be able to play all the majors and minors for the fun of it (yes, the fun) even if one is not being examined.

    All this has got me feeling like playing a few scales. I’m off…

    Like

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