Learning technique for your instrument is often one of the most boring things you can practice. People tend to avoid practicing their technical exercises. For the most part, that may not be a terrible thing. There are usually better ways to spend your time practicing than working on unmusical technical exercises all day.
There are two important exceptions to that though. Those exceptions are scales and arpeggios
What Are Scales?
A scale is simply an ordered set of notes. Most often the first and last notes of a scale are the same and they span an octave. There are many different kinds of scales, but in this article we’ll discuss the most used scales. When the scale is ordered by notes of increasing pitch it is called an ascending scale. When it is ordered by decreasing pitch, it is called a descending scale.
Why Scales Are So Important
For almost all music, scales make up the foundation of the piece. Each piece is written in what’s called a “key”. The scale represents the foundation for which a piece of music is written. Most of the notes in a piece will be made up of the scale that represents the key the music is in. If you know, and are very familiar with all of the notes in the scale, you’ll have a good foundation for playing that piece of music.
It doesn’t stop there though. The foundation of learning about how music is created, what we call music theory, all begins with the scale. Learning all the scales will help you to be technically a better musician, but it will also allow you to understand the music you are playing much better. If I was learning a new instrument, one of the first things I would learn is my scales in every key.
To understand how scales are constructed, you first need to understand simple intervals. An interval is the distance between two notes. This can be most clearly understood on a piano. Going from one note to another is called a half step.
On the piano a half step is the smallest playable interval. A half step can be a white note to a black note or a white note to a white note. If you were to play every note on the piano, including black keys, you would be playing all intervals of half steps. A whole step is two half steps.
This is far from a comprehensive overview of intervals, but it will suffice for understanding the most basic of scales.
If you want to learn scales, it may feel a little overwhelming. There are a lot of them. To get started let’s look at where to focus your attention.
Starting with the chromatic scale is wise because it’s the easiest to understand. For just about all of the commonly played instruments, a chromatic scale can be played by playing every note the instrument can play. Technically, a chromatic scale is 12 notes that are each a half step apart. You can play the chromatic scale starting on any note.
The major scale contains 7 notes. Any note can start a major scale. To create an ascending major scale, you would need to follow this interval pattern: Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step. That’s all the information you need for finding every major scale there is.
Start on any note, then go up with the pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H. If you want to play a descending major scale, you would need to reverse the pattern.
You can find a list of all major scales here
Minor scales sound more sad and melancholy than major scales. Learning all major scales before your minor scales is the best idea. Once your major scales are learned you can modify them to make your minor scales. Minor scales are used often, but major scales me be used slightly more.
The minor scale is special in that there are a few different iterations of it that composers use. Let’s look over the major three.
The natural minor scale follows the pattern of Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step. Start on any note and go up in the pattern of W-H-W-W-H-W-W and you’ll be playing a natural minor scale. An example of a C natural minor scale can be found below:
You can find a list of all natural minor scales here
The harmonic minor scale is the same as the natural minor scale with one exception. The 7th note is raised by one half step. The harmonic scale evolved out of the common harmonies composers would use in pieces written in minor keys. You’ll often see the raised 7th note raised in minor pieces of music to reflect this harmony and scale.
An example of the C harmonic minor scale is found below.
The melodic minor scale is like a natural minor scale going up, but it has it’s 6th and 7th notes raised by a half step. It’s almost a major scale, but the third is lowered a half step. When the scale is descending it is just like a natural minor scale. It’s called a melodic minor scale because composers tend to use it more while writing melodies, at least that’s the idea.
Where To Start
The first scale you should become familiar with is the chromatic scale. It’s easy to understand and memorize, and there’s really only one version of it that you have to learn. After you feel comfortable with the chromatic scale you should learn all of your major scales.
There are 12 of them, so it may take you a little while to learn. It’s important that you learn them well. It’s not enough to just be able to play them once, ascending and descending. You need to become intimately familiar with them.
In order to say that you “learned” a scale, it should be memorized, and you should confidently be able to play it at a fairly fast tempo. Once you can do this, you should feel free to move on to the next scale.
After learning all of your major scales, you should work on the natural, harmonic, and finally the melodic minor scales, in that order. Like the major scales there are 12 of each form of minor scale, but they are all pretty similar. Once you have the foundation of the corresponding major key, learning the minor keys will not be as difficult.
Learn a Scale a Week
Take a week and become intimately familiar with the chromatic scale. Play it ascending and descending. Work on it in different rhythms and with different articulations. Play it slowly, and then play it fast as well. You should play it from the lowest octave on your instrument to the highest. If you’re a pianist, scales are typically practiced in four octaves. I would suggest spending no more than 15 minutes a day in this initial scale learning phase.
After you spent a week on the chromatic scale, move on to the major scales. Add one major scale every week. After your major scales you can start learning the minor equivalents. Although there are three different minor scales, since you already have the foundational major scale learned, learning all three during a one week period shouldn’t be too difficult.
If you practice in this way, you’ll know the chromatic scale, and all of the major scales on your instrument in 13 weeks or just over 3 months. Add another 3 months for the minor scales. If you’re consistent, you will have learned all of your important scales in just 6 months.
To understand arpeggios, you must first understand what a chord is. A chord is a set of notes, most often 3 or more notes, that are played simultaneously. The most common chords are the major and minor chords. These chords are built from the first, third, and fifth notes of their corresponding scale.
You play an arpeggio by playing the notes of a chord one after the other, instead of at the same time. You can use any chord to play an arpeggio.
Like scales, major arpeggios should be learned first. This should be followed by minor arpeggios. There are no different versions of minor arpeggios like there are minor scales. You can add more notes to these chords, but for triads (three not chords), a minor arpeggio is a minor arpeggio. Like scales, you should learn arpeggios through each octave on your instrument, piano arpeggios are usually played for only four octaves.
You can learn the arpeggios at the same time that you are learning your scales. Learning your major and minor arpeggios will give you a very strong harmonic foundation for understanding chords and chord progressions. Arpeggios are found often throughout music as well, so you’ll be able to apply what you learn often to the music you are working on.
Scales and arpeggios should be learned on just about every instrument. If you don’t already have all of your scales and arpeggios learned, spend 15 minutes a day and do it! There are other scales you can look into, and other larger arpeggios you can look into practicing as well. For now, don’t worry about anything past learning your major and minor scales and arpeggios. Learn them well. You’ll find a new freedom on your instrument that you didn’t have before.