Top 10 Tips on
how to learn and practice
musical scales

because scales are NOT hard

by Samu Csernak

Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of info attached to scales?

Putting in a lot of effort but having enormous difficulty?

Do you just keep losing your motivation?

Let me give you ten tips on how to turn practice into a more effective and even fun activity!
‘Scales are the DNA of music and understanding them allows you to create life, but first you need to know them inside and out.’

In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by pitch. Scales in traditional Western music generally consist of seven notes and repeat at the octave. Scales are typically listed from low to high pitch. A single scale can be manifested at many different pitch levels.

If you want to become someone who can play an instrument and understand music - learn scales and basic theory. It will help you to communicate with other musicians.

Practice makes perfect, being a good musician takes discipline, passion, love, and more practice is always the key.

1. Tuning in

Practice itself is not enough, it is important to practice well, one of the essential conditions for this is our physical and mental attunement. This means that we have to get both our bodies and minds ready for it. Let’s move our whole body if we can (if there is time for it), or only our fingers if time is short (the body parts with which we are about to play music).

We could also do some neck circles to improve the brain’s blood flow.

After this we do breathing exercises - let’s not think of anything big, it is enough if we slow down our breathing a bit and start to pay attention inward and calm our minds.

Like this we can achieve a state, which does not allow any stray thoughts to divert us - we can stay focused all the way.

Even before starting, let’s think through what we are about to do. For example, as a pianist, today I will practice the major and minor scales up to two flats and two sharps with alternating hands, and then together up and down through two octaves, etc.

If we do this, then the practice will become smoother - we know what we are supposed to do, we won’t need to solve it while in the middle of it, instead we can keep an eye on ourselves, on the way of how we play.

We should breathe naturally during practice. Pay attention to the correct posture, stay firm, know what we are doing and for what reason - if we see that something is not working, then we should recognize that and shape the practice in a way so that the part we struggled with gets its own chapter, when we focus only on that.

If something really does not want to work out, then it might indicate that we were trying to take a way too big of a step. In such cases we have to move backwards a bit (as much as needed) and like this we’ll manage to find out what might have hindered our progress.

It might be worth viewing our progress from the point of view of an outsider. Getting stuck should not become a personal grievance. We should not stress about our own shortcomings, but rather find their reasons, so we can work on them.

We should always take small steps, should not want to play Für Elise right after two weeks. Small and traceable milestones are more visible and achievable, they provide us with a sense of success, give us strength and motivate us when it comes to regular practice. After finishing we should not jump up straightaway from our instrument, instead let’s smile since we have worked on ourselves today, and that is commendable.

2. Separating the theoretical and practical parts

The learning process can be dry and based on knowledge (lexical, rational learning), or creative (instrumental play).

We can achieve the biggest success if we handle these separately in time, meaning we should only deal with either one or the other. Of course, the best is if one is followed by the other, but the most important thing is that we don’t mix the two ways of learning. The human brain works differently in these two states, which means that these two situations require different states of mind. Similarly, when it comes to mixing and post-editing a song, cutting, editing, as well as creating effects/moods are different categories. One breaks the other and vice versa, therefore we can be more effective if we consciously divide the time for practice into these two categories.

At the beginning, we can go through the details that are characteristic of the scale. For example, the distance between notes, the list of notes that get modified due to the different accidentals, and the musical clef. If we are using sheet music, for example, an etude based on the scale, then the understanding of the musical expressions mentioned on the sheet could be an example too, or the order of the fingers of course, and looking for the notes of the scale. The second creative part is when we are already playing the scale and improvising and composing using its sounds.

3. Letter notation vs. Solmization

In the early stages of music learning, one of the key parts is naming the notes. If we learn their names then we will be able to read music, similarly to letters, words, sentences. The thing that can cause the ‘I don’t get it’ issue in our heads, that causes the fog, is the mixing of these two systems.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that on the instrument the sound C is the ‘do’, which of course is true, but the reality is much more complex.

The letter notations always mean a specific sound in an absolute system. C will always be C on your instrument (I will not get into instruments now that have different tunings, like the B♭ clarinet). The other names of the violin clef and the bass clef are also informative, they are the G-clef and the F-clef, in the sheet they provide us with the names and locations of these sounds.

The solmization notes exist in a relative system, understanding them through the scales is the easiest way. The consecutive notes of the scale will always be at the same distance from each other. For example, we can describe the notes of a major scale like this:

These are intervals, they are a series of distances between whole tones and semitones. No matter which letter notation we start on, if we keep this distance we will always end up with a major scale. The first note of a major scale is the ‘do’, therefore the ‘do’ can be any note, it is not set in stone that it can only be a C. This is the so-called relative solmization.

If we practice this together with singing then we will be able to use solmization for any melody after hearing it, ergo playing it on our instrument.

4. Choosing the right tempo

This is a topic that cannot be emphasized enough, let me share a warning example from my own life:

I have had tendinitis twice during my career, both times as a result of incorrect practice - I was practicing a Chopin impromptu much faster than I should have. I knew in my head what I was meant to play, my hands started to do their jobs, and I liked so much what I heard that I forgot to pay attention to the small signs of my body, my forearm kept tightening until it completely inflamed. That night I didn’t know yet that this will be a lesson for life, my left hand was totally ruined afterwards, even after years I could feel that I might fall back any second. If something similar happens to someone, they shouldn’t forget that they’ll need to rest it for 1-2 weeks, and definitely should avoid any kind of movement that could put a strain on the inflamed body part again. The easiest way is to just avoid such situations from the start! As an adult, I would tell my child-self to stop rushing things, practice a lot but everything in its own tempo and time. Start slowly and then become faster.

I would also like to point out another mistake that occurs often. After learning a song, once it can be played properly on our instrument, we tend to play it much faster than needed because we like so much what we hear. Let’s ask ourselves if the tempo we are playing really suits the song. The song should define the tempo - and not how prepared we are when it comes to the technique. The right tempo choice is something in which we can sing the melody in a nice understandable way.

When it comes to practice, the best tempo is the one that is even slower than what you have first imagined. In my opinion, start with a tempo that lets you go through the part without stopping and you are able to think through every movement before it even happens. Playing too fast occurs when you enjoy playing, which is great but the question is though, are others enjoying it as well? Our final goal is to transform practice into the joy of making music.

5. Dividing the scale into parts

We can help ourselves if we won’t try to play the scales on 2-3 octaves right away. Let’s divide the octave into 2-3 parts and practice only those. For example, a major scale could be 3+5 notes, so if it is in C major, then C, D, E, and F, G, A, B and C. In solmization do, re, mi, then fa, sol, la, ti, and do. Let’s practice the parts of the scale separately, up and down, then connect the parts. Pay attention that the shift is smooth enough, and later expand to more octaves. Another useful practice can be when we build up the scale from note to note from the base note, always adding one more to it.

Let’s pay attention to the newly added note’s function, with what kind of mood and shade does it color the scale? We can later use this knowledge for improvisation and composition. We can make the learning process more colorful if the next note we are adding to the scale is not necessarily next in line. For example, in case of the already mentioned C major - after C D E we could use a B. Let’s be creative and don’t forget, even if what we do seems to be nitpicking, nobody can practice for us, we are the ones who have to put in the work. If we feel as if we were getting tired, or are losing interest, then we should not let this ‘I don’t want this, I don’t know this’ feeling to overcome us. Let’s get up from the instrument, take a break for a few minutes and then continue to practice when we are more refreshed.

6. Rhythmization

For a long time, I had issues with having the scales sound smoothly. My fingers simply refused to move in a way I wanted to hear the music. There were slow, sullen notes that simply did not make the right sound because of my weak tilt and hands. Back then my piano teacher showed me a very useful exercise that can fix this issue. We should practice the scale using different rhythms, i.e. with extended rhythm, sharp rhythm, or with staccato. If you had the feeling before that what you are doing is chopping wood, then at this stage, you’ll really think it - but once you are done and manage to play the scales that used to be ‘bumpy’ before, you’ll experience miracles. As if raindrops were rolling on the glass of a baroque window - our fingers become confident. If you are a pianist then you should practice with your hands separately, they will learn from each other even if one of them is resting at the time. If we want to add some jazz pulsation into our play then it is worth applying the scales in triola rhythm and emphasizing every second note.

Using this analogy we can come up with our own patterns, these can make practice more fun and can provide us with skills that we can really enjoy using later during practice, rehearsals, and concerts.

7. Chords built from the sounds of the scale

Not only for the keyboard instruments is it important to know the triads and tetrads created from the notes of the scales. At first - and maybe even later this might look too complicated and you could end up asking if you really need this. Let’s not forget however, players at all levels, not only beginners should learn anything and everything they can about music that their experience level reasonably permits. Here is a really simple example again with the C major scale:

Triad built on C is C E G, so C major chord.
Triad built on D is D F A, so D minor chord and so on…

Tetrad built on C is C E G B, so C major 7th chord.
Tetrad built on D is D F A C’, so D minor 7th chord and so on…

We should practice the scales by playing the notes of these triads and tetrads. For example:  With this method we can become more confident technically and mentally, our solos won’t be just scales being played up and down, the result will be a whole level jump.

8. Let’s sing!

(if we can allow ourselves to)

Our fingers practice the scales, our minds learn the theory and our hearts will be able to sing more beautiful melodies using this knowledge. Let’s not forget that our own voice is always available, if we sing the name of the notes while playing the scale then certain functions of the notes on the scale will imprint in us on a deeper level. When we play it should not be our fingers and the learned pearling that control the melody. The melody first should be born in our heads, and the learned technical knowledge should make it possible to play it. This results in an easy-to-remember, more melodic playing method which affects more people by its nature. It helps us to create pauses during our solos since we will be already thinking in a singing structure, i.e. theme, theme variation, new theme, return to original theme. Question-answer-question-answer.

Singing gives direct access to music without the technical difficulties of an instrument. Singing and active participation are therefore the fastest ways to learn and internalize music and to develop musicianship skills. They are also the proof of the accurate internalization of the rhythm and melody.

9. Let’s improvise

with the sounds of the scale

For many people, even the thought of improvisation is alien and scary, even though according to Kodály every child would do it if we’d let them. Similarly to public speaking we won’t be able to do this at first, we will have to practice a lot and get used to improvisation itself and to induce and maintain the associated mental state. Our heads should be cleared, free from distracting thoughts, i.e. thoughts like ‘Oh my goodness, am I going to play the right notes?’ - prevents the creative process from being fulfilled. It doesn’t help either if we keep thinking through what chores we have left for the day. We need to be present and let things happen, honestly, avoiding every kind of judgment. If a random note appears in a well-started solo, it can summon that critical-self who stops the flow in the moment. Let’s not forget that there are no wrong notes even if they seem to be, the right one is always only a semitone away.

Improvisation is a game, we should decide at the beginning that we will do it and give it a spiritual background, look for the feeling that will nourish and keep our focus on playing together.

First, we should improvise with a few notes only, with basic rhythms, let’s not try to become Keith Jarrett on the spot, progress according to our own levels. We should pay attention to keeping a pause between melodies, so it will be more understandable for us and our audience what we are playing, not to mention that during these pauses we have the chance to think about what to play next. Bill Evans said once that: "...it’s better to do something simple which is real...".

A simple honest solo is worth more than a dry emotionless but technically advanced performance. Put the person into it, put ourselves into it, without anything unnecessary. Be water.

10. Compose your own etude for practice

Don’t turn into programmed machines, let’s find the creator within ourselves so we can become not only better musicians but also more whole humans. The work we invest into creating our own compositions deepens the knowledge in use. As a pianist, I used to play a lot of etudes from Czerny. The general opinion is that his etudes are dry, emotion-free creations. When Chopin met Czerny he said after their conversation that a talk with Czerny had more emotion in it than his whole musical oeuvre. This does not detract from the importance of his etudes, since learning each exercise results in a more stable play-mode. The point is not for us to write the 9th symphony, let’s compose simple finger exercises. Watch out for the weak moments throughout practicing the scale, the bits that are harder for us and let’s write an etude that makes us exercise those critical parts. Later we can organize these, creating our own bundle. We can get back to these even many years later.

The above-mentioned examples help a lot when it comes to learning the scales and improving our musical skills. However, the most important thing is that the initial difficulties are not hindering our progress. Even one bad experience can take away our motivation for a lifetime and stop us from learning music on a deeper level.

Remember, fun stuff is what keeps people interested. Keeping beginners interested is what turns beginners into intermediate and advanced players.

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Can’t wait to see you all exploring it!

Samu Csernak is a nominated composer who has written acoustic and electronic music for film and theatre since 2002. As a musician, he meditates with his piano. Samu is also an application developer and the co-founder of Semse World.