Scales and arpeggios do seem to get a bad name for themselves and are often the unlovable part of practising.
Many people learn scales and arpeggios in music lessons without really ever understanding the purpose and benefits. If I look back at when I was studying music as a child, I was told that I had to learn certain scales and arpeggios to pass the ABRSM graded music exams. I was never really told the reason behind it; just that I had to learn them! There were so many!
So why are scales and arpeggios so important to learn?
When a composer is writing a piece of music they will always pick a specific key for the first section of music. This is often referred to as the tonic. From the key signature selected, the notes of the scale will be used to create the melodic line. In a majority of melodies there will be both scalic and arpeggio movement.
If we examine the piece When the Saints Go Marching In, the key (tonic) of the music is G major (1 sharp in the key signature). If we look in more detail at bar 5 and 6 the notes are D, B, G, B – all notes from the G major arpeggio. If we look at bars 7 – 9 the notes move up and down by step – A, B, A, G. So even in this very simple 5 note piece, there are examples of scalic and arpeggio movement. Imagine how much easier it would be to learn if you just practice the G major scale and arpeggio.
When composers wanted to create longer works they would link sections of music together through key relationships. For example, If I was creating a piece that was ternary structure (ABA), the first section could be in the tonic key of G major and then for the B section I could modulate to a related key. This was often the relative minor (E minor) or the dominant (D major). For the final A section I would go back to G major and play the first melody again. Ternary structure has been around for hundreds of years and I am sure you will have played pieces in ternary form without even realising.
When we understand how important keys are to creating melodies and harmonies, then it becomes more obvious why scales are so important to learn – they are going to be in every piece you play!
So how can we make learning scales a little easier? Here are my 5 top tips:
- If you can say it you can play it!
When you learn a new scale or arpeggio make sure you say it out loud first before playing it on the instrument. This gives the brain a chance to process the notes of the new scale and learn the appropriate key signature first before adding in the instrumental technique.
So for Ab major say out loud – Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab G F Eb Db C Bb Ab.
It’s equally important to be able to say it in both directions – ascending and descending. Lots of musicians struggle with descending. We are always just so glad to safely reach the top of the scale that the concentration goes and we stumble back down and make errors.
2. Practice your scales equally in both directions
This leads me on to the need to practice scales in both directions. The majority of the time the errors occur in the descending section and this is because we can lose concentration or we just haven’t practised this part enough.
Again – if you can say it out loud it will help with playing it.
Ab major descending first – Ab G F Eb Db C Bb Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
3. Say the notes in your head
When you are playing your scales and arpeggios are you guessing where you are in the pattern or are you saying the letter names in your head as you play each note? Try practising saying the letters out loud and then saying them in your head as you play each note of the scale or arpeggio. It will help you stay focused on where you are in the scale and not lose concentration.
4. Practice the hard ones!
I know it is obvious, but truthfully we all like practising the scales and arpeggios that are easy to play and sound good. We can rattle up and down those at super speeds and feel awesome. However, the harder ones may have different fingering patterns; this is the case for the scales starting on the black keys on the piano. Or the scales that take us up to awkward fingerings on the flute or clarinet and sound a bit squeaky are the ones we want to avoid.
The only way to get better at those more challenging scales and arpeggios is to not avoid them. Start with one of the hard scales as part of your practice routine and when you feel good about it then treat yourself to a scale you can play easily. This is a healthier approach than leaving the hard ones to the end, making mistakes, getting frustrated, wanting to throw the instrument across the room and giving up LOL. Honestly, we have all been there!
5. Variation is key
Scales can get boring at times but are an essential part of your practice routine to improve your tone, technique and great melody playing. So consider spicing up your scales by varying:
- the tempo
- the dynamics
- rhythm patterns (double notes on each, triplets, etc).
- Swing the rhythm
- Buy some technique and study books that are generally created to help with good scale playing
- Play each scale in the order of the keys on the piano – moving up chromatically.
- Play each scale in the order of circle of 5ths
- Play the minor scales in the same way. Play both the melodic and harmonic minor, especially if you are taking graded music exams.
- Sing the scales with different sounds – letter names, numbers, vowels, consonants, nonsense words
- Write the scales out using letter names and notating accurately on a stave.
- Improvise short melodies with the scale and arpeggio you are learning. That’s what composers do each time they create a new piece!
- Put your favourite song on the sound system and jam along. See if you can work out the tonic key aurally and then try to work out the melody using the notes of the scale and arpeggio.
- Study your music – look at the key signature, practice the appropriate scale and arpeggio and then look for everywhere it appears. Your sight-reading will improve so much!