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Piano Practice Tips: Are Scales Truly Necessary?

Updated on December 4, 2010

Is there any point to practicing scales and arpeggios?

It is common knowledge that work on scales and other types of keyboard-spanning techniques comprise integral aspects of classical piano pedagogy. However, this type of practice has gained an unflattering image. Many people find practicing broken chords and scales to be excruciatingly dull, and consider such assignments to be the province only of old-fashioned instructors relying on antiquated techniques.

The downside of this type of emphasis on broken chords and scales is that it can sometimes cause students to drop out of piano lessons entirely. It is unlikely that anyone begins to study piano in hopes of mastering these types of exercises, as it is probably the case that their interest actually lies in playing full compositions.

We must ask, then, if such work is truly critical. Can students learn in the absence of these sorts of techniques which may prove so dull that they dampen the initial excitement about playing?  

Rethinking the use of scales

In my opinion, it is indeed possible to drastically reduce the reliance on performing scales just for their own sake. As an example, working on broken chords and scales for all major and minor keys is a waste of time for someone who has never attempted a composition with greater than a couple of sharps or flats.

My assertion is that we should only work on arpeggios and scales if they are relevant to the music we wish to produce. Chords and scales are the building blocks of music. Thus, it is wise to understand them in a practical, relevant way, to prevent being caught off guard when they appear in a piece of music. If approached correctly, it is possible to achieve great economy of time and effort by learning fingering through scales and chords.

It is a tough task in deed for piano instructors to persuade their students that this type of work really can be beneficial. Anyone who fails to grasp the point of working on scales is unlikely to make good use of those skills as a pianist.

Making sense of scales

Consider the following approach to scales: Start by examining a piece of music you really wish to play.  This may be a piece you have attempted before, but decided was too challenging, or it may be something to which you have always aspired.  See if the music contains broken chords or scales, and if so, determine their keys.  Begin to prepare for playing the full piece by working on the scales you identified, both as they appear within the piece itself, and also in the manner typically used in practice, shifting octaves along the way.

Incorporate emotion and technique as you work on broken chords and scales.  You should view them as short melodic pieces of their own, not merely mechanical exercises.  If you start to feel boredom setting in, leave them alone for a while and work on something else.

Do you find it useful to practice scales?

Let us know what you think in the comments section below. Perhaps you have your own way of making sense of scales, or perhaps you have abandoned them altogether and are making good progress with your piano playing anyway. We are looking forward to hearing your comments on this subject!

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      Ruth 

      3 years ago

      I'm learning piano and for the first time in my musical life (25-ish years), find scales both useful and interesting. My piano teacher started off by teaching me to play chords and I'm so glad he did. Music theory makes sense now, which it never did before. (I started out learning violin and viola and learned my scales by rote!)

    • profile image

      jacques 

      5 years ago

      in addition, playing scales REALLY helps with more complex classical pieces. Liszt is all scales and arpeggios, as is much of beethoven.

    • profile image

      ruel 

      7 years ago

      Yeah..It is really true..When my teacher plays another style which I think is critical, I almost quit in playing piano..But it gives me more knowledge or technique..Just practice because practice makes perfect.

    • profile image

      florent 

      7 years ago

      nice

    working

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