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How to Make Practising Scales on the Piano Fun

Updated on December 6, 2012
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Is practising scales a pet hate?
Is practising scales a pet hate? | Source

If you play or are learning to play the piano or keyboard, there's a good chance you'll be required to practise playing scales. Not everybody's a fan of playing scales or of having to practise them, but they are important. Learning scales can help you by:

  • Enabling you to find your way around the keyboard easier
  • Helping you understand keys and key signatures
  • Giving you the means to play the majority of piano music from Bach to Bacharach and beyond

As well as the pieces you'll learn, piano lessons usually involve a collection of technical skills that you will be required to master. One of the technical skills involves learning the major and minor scales - not just because they'll make you a better player, but also because you'll find them in almost all of the music you work through.

So if scales are so important, but are also a bit of a drag to practise, how can you make the exercise more interesting, more rewarding and more challenging? Here are a few ideas that will help you to do just that.

Play Scales in Different Styles

First of all, try not to think of them as scales. Imagine they're simply pieces of music that need to be performed and use that as inspiration to play them in different ways.

  1. Play them legato and then staccato
  2. Play them legato on the way up, and staccato on the way down
  3. Play one hand legato and the other staccato
  4. Play them softly building to a crescendo on the way up, and then gradually getting softer again on the way down
  5. Play them hands together, one hand staccato and one hand legato, and then switch

Try including all of these techniques and one thing will be guaranteed: you'll learn your scales.

Play scales legato going up, staccato going down, and vice versa
Play scales legato going up, staccato going down, and vice versa | Source
Use dynamics to make practising more fun
Use dynamics to make practising more fun | Source
Play one hand legato, one hand staccato, and then swap
Play one hand legato, one hand staccato, and then swap | Source

Practise Playing Scales with a Beat

If your "piano" is actually an electronic keyboard, try playing along with one of the built-in rhythms. Experiment until you find one or two that you like. Practise like this a few times, and then change the rhythm, gradually speeding it up to really give yourself a challenge.

If you don't have access to these kinds of rhythms, you might consider getting your hands on a metronome. Newer versions of these can do some pretty amazing things besides supplying a steady tick-tick-tick noise in the background. You can also access free metronomes online - which a quick Google search will bring up - and there are a number of metronome apps to choose from as well.

Turn Scales into Tunes

Rather than just playing the scales over and over, up and down, why not inject a bit of excitement into them? There are a number of ways you can do this:

  1. Play the scales in a jazzy manner, even breaking them up if you have to
  2. Add some chords to accompany your scales
  3. Compose a simple counter-melody or accompaniment for the other hand to play along
  4. Play scales using the rhythm to a well-known tune or one that you particularly like, such as Jingle Bells or Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head.

And don't forget that the majority of the pieces you play will include scale passages, so it's possible that by adding these practice techniques you might even come up with some pieces of your own.

Jazz scales up with a funky rhythm
Jazz scales up with a funky rhythm | Source
Add chords for depth and variety
Add chords for depth and variety | Source
Create a simple counter-melody to make scales more tune-like
Create a simple counter-melody to make scales more tune-like | Source
RH Scale played to the rhythm of "Raindrops"
RH Scale played to the rhythm of "Raindrops" | Source
LH Scale played to the rhythm of Jingle Bells
LH Scale played to the rhythm of Jingle Bells | Source

Make Scales More Challenging

Another great way to add variety to your scales practice is through the use of accents. When you play a scale, think about accenting every other note. So for a C major scale, for instance, you might start by accenting the first note and then every other note, giving you this kind of format:

C D E F G A B C

Bold letters indicate notes that you play louder or add an accent to. Make sure the accent is clearly noticeable. Work in the opposite direction, accenting the "other" notes when you play the scale in a downward direction, like this:

C B A G F E D C

Next, try doing the same thing but this time accenting every third note. Then try accenting every fourth note. It doesn't really matter which notes you accent, but at least this way you have some sort of schedule or routine to follow. And when you practise in this way it takes some of the boredom out of the scales, because your mind is focusing on the accents rather than the fact that you're playing scales.

You might also try to combine some of the techniques mentioned above with this one. For instance, you could try accenting every other note and using a particular style of articulation - legato to staccato, say - as in the example below:

Scale using accents and articulation
Scale using accents and articulation | Source

Practise Scales One Hand at a Time

You might think it's important to be able to play your scales with both hands together. If you take music exams, you will have to do that. But you don't have to be able to do it immediately.

One way to make sure you give both hands equal time is to practise them in a specific fashion. For example, play the right hand first, then the left, and then switch hands so you start with the left and finish with the right. Here's an example to make it crystal clear:

Give each hand the same amount of practice time
Give each hand the same amount of practice time | Source

Practising scales helps prepare your mind and fingers for the scale passages you come across in the majority of music you play. They also help you achieve a good balance between the two hands. This is important as the music you play becomes more complicated and the melodies get spread over more and more of the keyboard, making it necessary for both hands to play melodies or share long, flowing passages. By practising hands separately in this way you'll ensure that the tone you produce is smooth and even, no matter which hand is playing.

Conclusion

Can practising scales ever really be fun?

It can if you approach it in the right way. As soon as you start trying to find challenging and creative ways to practise, your attention and focus moves away from the fact that what you're playing are just scales. You can get totally wrapped up in the process so that practising scales becomes something you actually look forward to. And once you've got the scales under your fingers and feel confident playing them, you'll likely be able to come up with even more exciting techniques to challenge yourself.

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    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thanks Michael Katz. You should be able to visit my profile page and send me information through the Fan Mail button. I'm not sure if you should include a full link, though, as that might be against the rules. Hope that helps...

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      Michael Katz 4 years ago

      So glad you included the word "fun" in the same sentence as "scales." I'd like to turn you on to a program that includes many backing tracks for practicing scales but I don't want to violate your "non-promoting" policy. The play-along tracks are in a variety of styles and tempos that help turn scale practice into a really fun, improvisational! effort. How can I contact you?

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thanks jamila sahar! You're right that technology can help a lot - especially with keyboards and digital pianos. Takes some of the drudgery out of practising :)

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 4 years ago

      Great Hub !!! I often use a lot of these same ideas with my students, and learned a few more, many thanks for sharing. Now, with the latest technology, I have the students devise different interesting beats with different sound effects and have them play the scales in various rhythms. Practicing everything in different rhythms is beneficial not only for scales but for working on difficult passages in repertoire as well. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.