7 Tips for learning scales

Learning scales is easy...or at least it can be... if you follow the tips on this page. It may seem as if there are a lot to do to start with, but once you read through you will see that they are all easy to apply . It probably takes less time to apply them than read the webpage as well!

Scale Tip 1: When learning scales, learn the theory

If you don't know already click here to learn a little about how scales are formed. Knowing this allows you to work out the notes quickly if you have a moment of blankness in an exam and also means your brain has a pattern on which to base learning scales. Once you know the pattern, your brain takes over and uses it subconsciously when you are practicing scales to help memorise them quickly and easily.

Scale Tip 2: Listen before you play

When learning scales listen to a recording of the scales before you play them. Listen to yourself carefully as you play. Check you sound the same as the recording. If the recording is slow enough, and your instrument is in tune with it, play along with the recording. This helps you hear any mistakes early on and correct them. Hearing the recording before you play also give your brain a chance to hear the end product and know what it is aiming for. As a side benefit, doing this also improves your ability to play by ear over time!

Scale Tip 3: Get the fingering right

When you are learning scales get the fingering right - first time and every time. If you are a pianist practice separate hands for longer than you think you need to and make 100% sure the fingering is right. You can make it easier to put pieces hands together by playing some scales in contrary motion first. If you are a string, wind or brass player and the scale uses a particular fingering or position on the neck or fingerboard - get it right from the first time. Your brain learns patterns. It is much harder to unlearn and relearn something than to spend a little extra time getting it right in the first place. Trust me, I know!! I tried every trick in the book when learning scales, including cramming them before each exam. In fact, I didn't really know my scales properly until I took Grade VII. That was the first time I really worked at them. The result? Grade VIII scales were a breeze! If only I'd believed my teacher about that from the start I could have saved myself hours and hours and hours of wasted practice time!

Scale Tip 4: If you are a pianist practice separate hands... for longer than you think you need to

Practicing separate hands on the piano helps your brain learn the patterns quicker and more efficiently. It's like learning to pat your head and rub your tummy (or visa versa). The main reason people find this difficult is because they don't practice the movements separately. If they practiced separate hands and put them together slowly they would be able to achieve this very quickly with no difficulty! When you think you've got it keep practicing separate hands! What seems like extra time is actually saving you a huge amount of time later when you do put your hands together.

Scale Tip 5: Practice an octave and a note in one direction

Pick one of the middle octaves of the scale. Using the score, practice playing a single octave plus one extra note ascending. Slowly, thinking carefully about each note before you play it. See the example below. Note for keyboard players: Do these exercises separate hands until you are confident the notes are very secure. See tip 4 above.

learning scales

Do this 7 times.

Practice playing a single octave plus the extra note descending. Again slowly and thinking about each note before you play it. See the the example below

tips for learning scales

Do this 7 times.

Do the same with a different scale

Go back to your original and play ascending and descending an octave and one note as shown below

practice scales

Do this 5 times with both scales.

Tip 6: Memorize scales as soon as possible

Remember to review regularly as you add new scales to your repertoire.

When learning scales get used to playing scales from memory as soon as possible. Turn the music over on the stand. If you hesitate, check back. Continue thinking carefully about which notes are coming next. 

Tip 7: Don't ramp up if you can't double up

Don't ramp scale speed up gradually. Practice slowly until you feel ready to double the speed. If you can double up, don't speed up! When you are ready to play scales fast make sure the notes are still accurate and even more importantly your fingers remain relaxed at all times - whatever instrument you play

Click here for more tips on practicing scales

Click here for my review of the Scalebox App which will help you practice scales for your ABRSM exams.

Expert Practice Secrets

practice makes perfect by simon horsey

Frustrated with your practice? Read Practice Makes Perfect and hack the 10,000 hour rule. Cut your practice time by up to 25%! Make faster progress, learn pieces and scales faster, memorize more easily, and much more. "If you play an instrument you need this book!"

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