Learning to play the piano requires three main things: solfege, basic chords and piano scales! It also helps to find a good piano teacher to teach you how to play!

The beginner pianist who masters a progression of three or four magical whole chords – those that appear in most piano songs and are composed of the same chord groupings of c, a, g, and f – and who knows how to use this for improvisation has already acquired a solid base in playing the piano.

Whether you play on a piano or keyboard, it’s the repetition of scales that will allow a beginner pianist to unknot the fingers and advance his or her right hand-left hand coordination.

To begin to play the piano or advance to the next level in playing, a musician has to slowly repeat the notes in a chord on the keyboard played with the left hand, and little by little, with the right hand, harmonize the notes that “sound” good to the ear: this is how to create a melody in beginning piano! You can even do this with easy piano songs.

But you should memorize the patterns of these notes to avoid playing the wrong notes. That’s why it’s very important to learn solfege, or how to read sheet music, and that it’s necessary – even vital – to learn your piano scales by heart(After the scales we’ll go on to reading music: what is the different between quarter notes and half notes, etc.)

  • So what is a scale anyway?
  • How do you memorize piano scales?
  • How do you improvise with piano scales?

These are questions that Superprof is setting out to answer in this article. This way, you’ll master how to play your piano scales. You’ll be playing those arpeggios like Mozart in no time at all!

What is a piano scale?

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that Rome was not built in a day. So no student can dream of mastering the piano after just a few music classes. Music is no simple endeavor!

Like any other academic class you might take, you’ll have to work hard and practice if you really want to learn to play the piano. Start with easy piano songs and finding that middle C before advancing to harder piano music! To become more advanced, you must keep yourself motivated. Retaining a sense of discipline will force you to work on and practice basic things regularly and at a slow tempo.

playin piano beginner
In an octave, where are the keys and half keys?

In music theory, a scale is a series of musical tones – minor or major – going up or down in pitch in fixed steps. A scale that rises in pitch is an ascending scale and one that lessens in pitch is a descending scale.

This gets somewhat complicated as you learn how to play the piano:

If you take the C scale for instance, it includes seven notes, plus the higher octave: c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c. The C major scale includes six pitches or note intervals (the space between each piano key).

A pitch or key corresponds to the passage between two white keys on the piano keyboard, a half-pitch represents the movement from a white key to a black key, which will mean either a sharp or a flat. So the scale of C can also be understood as: pitch, pitch, half-pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, half-pitch.

Like a mathematical calculation, to play the piano you need to measure the distance between notes.

And this is easy on the piano, each time that you change from one piano key to the next, count a half-pitch or key higher or lower. At that’s why, on the keyboard, there is just a half-key between the E and the F, or between the B and the C.

Now, in harmony, the intervals in the scale of C major are:

  • The tonic (c, first degree),
  • The second (d, second degree),
  • The third (e, third degree),
  • The fourth (f, fourth degree),
  • The fifth (g, fifth degree),
  • The sixth (a, sixth degree),
  • The seventh (b, seventh degree),
  • The octave (c).

This is the harmonic degree of the harmonic major scale: the place of the note in its musical scale. 

Pop quiz!

  • What is the chord in the fifth degree of the C major scale?
  • What corresponds to the A chord in the scale of C major?

Thanks to these basic solfege tidbits, you can play all the major and minor scales on your piano keyboard.

What’s the difference between major scales and minor scales?

For the beginner pianist, this question might seem a bit difficult. But in reality, it’s just a question of different sonorities.

Certain scales are called major scales and others are minor scales – this just depends on the different note intervals, the way in which you divide the keys and half-keys in an octave.

teacher student relationship piano
To learn to play piano scales, it will help to have a keyboard in front of you!

To keep this simple, remember that a minor scale gives you a melancholic and nostalgic coloring to the piano piece and melody. A major scale will have the opposite effect, in its more joyous sounding ring. How is your ear training?

Everything you need to know about the major scales

The C-major scale is the first modern major scale, known in ancient times as the Ionian Mode.

To play a major scale on the piano, you just need to follow one fundamental rule. You must always respect the interval of the major mode following: key, key, half-key, key, key, key, half-key. So to play a scale of C major, you have to play: c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c.

You’ll need to transpose it for these other major scales:

  • Scale of D major: d-e-f#-g-a-b-c#-d,
  • Scale of E major: e-f#-g#-a-b-c#-d#-e,
  • Scale of F major: f-g-a-b-c-d-e-f.

And this continues as such for each tonic. To help you understand this better, we recommend getting a major scale chart.

Everything you need to know about the minor scales

The natural minor mode corresponds to the ancient mode of A, or Aeolian mode. It has a more somber feel.

The scale of A minor is different from the scale of C major. Little by little, a half-pitch is introduce between the seventh and the eighth note of the scale – the leading tone – in order to imitate the mode of C major, and this creates the minor harmonic scale!

For example, the note B is the leading tone – the note of the seventh degree – of the C major and C minor scales. Then, the progression to the sixth degree – the key of A flat – to the seventh degree – the key of B – gives a nostalgic ring to the C minor scale. Well we never said it was easy to learn to play piano!

And for each major scale, there is a corresponding minor scale.

Learn piano scales in these steps

It’s no secret: if you want to learn to play the piano and piano scales, you have to work, practice, and work some more.

child learning piano
Repeating your piano scales can be frustrating!

Who has never heard a neighbor or family member tirelessly repeat the same crescendos and falling patterns of notes? Well those, those are scales…

Here are several handy steps for you to play your scales correctly and keep making progress:

  1. Play 15 to 20 minutes of scales every day. This can’t be said enough: to learn your scales by heart, it’s better to work just 20 minutes a day rather than do everything in one big practice session, in one day only. There are so many – 15 major scales and 15 minor scales – that it’s better to “attack” them little by little, one by one. Our brain capacities will be stimulated and learn to memorize them this way. From day to day, you’ll create automatic habits allowing you to improve your piano playing! Also, it’s best to master each scale before progressing to the next one.
  2. Perfect your fingering. So that you don’t take on bad habits, from the time you are an absolute beginner on the piano, you should adopt the proper fingering and finger positioning. (And the proper posture for playing the piano too!) Put one finger on a key – this will be easy for the first scale of C major, but becomes somewhat trickier for the sharps and flats – to get through these piano exercises. This piano method will allow you to acquire dexterity in your left hand and right hand.
  3. Practice the scale of C major, then go on to all the other minor and major scales. It is the first and simplest one of all, and is only played on the white keys of the piano (c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c). Doing an ascending scale and a descending scale in C major will not only improve your musical ear, but also help you acquire speed and dexterity once you’ve mastered it.

Once you’ve mastered your scales, your playing will be more fluid when you play your favorite piano tunes – Bach’s Prelude, Beethoven’s Clair de Lune Sonata or Für Elise, or Mozart’s Turkish March, for example. No more “Mary had a little lamb” for you!

Now you know why your teacher has you play scales at the start of your piano lessons!

Here are some final tricks to help you progress:

  • Watch videos and take online piano lessons (just beware of free piano lessons!)
  • Use a metronome
  • Progressively increase your tempo
  • Play by heart without reading sheet music
  • Add chords with the left hand.

Why learning scales is necessary for becoming a pianist

Piano virtuosos and professional musicians didn’t get to where they are by accident. To become a good pianist, and be able to express yourself artistically on the piano, you must memorize your scales and have them always on the tip of your fingers!

To become a professional jazz pianist like McCoy Tyner, learning your piano scales is key!

Piano scales is directly linked to solfege. Why is that?

For improvisation. A good pianist who knows his or her minor scales and major scales will always know how to improvise on all types of songs, no matter the music genre (from classical piano to jazz piano). If you recognize the tonic of each chord you’ll know how to juggle with notes and play solos, a key skill of improvisation.

For musicians with a good musical ear and professional piano skills, it takes longer to read sheet music than understand it from listening. How are your sight-reading abilities? Can you play a song by ear?

A final reason for learning piano scales – we saved the best for last – is that it will allow you to try and excel at music composition: knowing scales, chords, music theory, music notation, and different degrees will allow you to create your own music! To get started:

  • Listen to the great composers
  • Revise your arpeggios
  • Research classes, lessons and methods for piano beginners

We hope you enjoyed the article and are ready to start practicing – now off to your next piano lesson!

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