Don’t Just Learn Your Scales

Now before sending me e-mails, posting on my Facebook wall, or commenting below, please let me emphasize the word “just” in the sentence above. Don’t JUST learn your scales. Even the most die-hard, old-school piano teacher would agree that learning scales, in and of itself, is worthless, unless you do something with them.

So how does scale practice become relevant? First, don’t just learn how to play the scale. Rather, also learn the key signature connected with that scale. The G major scale looks like a straight line with a bump at the top when you play it on a keyboard percussion instrument, but in a piece of music, it looks like a single sharp … F-sharp to be specific. The B-flat scale may be the first one that many band students learn, but if you don’t know that the key signature for B-flat major has two flats, B-flat and E-flat, all you have learned is a muscle memory pattern. Having judged numerous regional and all-state percussion auditions, it still shocks me that students play all the required scales beautifully, but completely neglect connecting a piece of music with one of those scales when they start to sightread.

Learning scales should also be a study in scale degrees and how they function. Go ahead, play a major scale and stop on the seventh note. Annoying, isn’t it?!? The seventh note of a major scale is called the leading tone. Why? Because it leads to the tonic note, the root of the scale. Not every note in the scale has that pronounced of a function, but each scale degree has a tendency or characteristic that can be observed if you simply choose to listen to it.

For the record, so far I’ve been talking about major scales, but those certainly shouldn’t be the only ones you learn. Learn modes … minor, dorian, mixolydian. Learn that the G minor, C dorian, and F mixolydian scales share the same key signature as B-flat major, and therefore the same set of notes, so you can use a slight variation on that muscle memory pattern in improvisation. Take time to learn weird scales. Chromatic, whole-tone, octatonic (half-whole and whole-half), blues, bebop … there are plenty of options and if you run out, make up some of your own! One of my percussion ensemble compositions, “Venn Diagram,” uses a synthetic seven note scale with half steps on either side of the midpoint pitch. Try this one … see how many different ways you can divide the octave evenly. I’ll get you started: twelve even pieces is the chromatic scale, six even pieces would be the …, four even pieces …, etc.

Let me reiterate my original statement – don’t just learn your scales. Instead, learn the music that is built from those scales and use scales to really learn your instrument.