Seeing Major Scales Differently

The key to playing in keys!

Ah, the ubiquitous requirement of the major scale and all that comes with it; all those attached stigmas and the dread aroused by the mere mention of its need to be learnt.  Hours and hours, nay, months and months; heaven forbid, years and years of boredom, strict teachers demanding fingering which feels so unnatural to you that you want to take up playing air guitar, and the misunderstanding of its seemingly useless value to playing the piano at all.

If that all sounds too familiar, this post will prove to be some kind of revelation to you for not only is the major scale the absolute foundation to anything you do on the piano (other scales, chords, improvisation), it can also be used to improve your situational awareness and key confidence.


Further, and more importantly, it can be 'used and abused' as a tool for: improving finger dexterity, working on timing issues, creating tonal quality awareness, developing the internal piano (see my books for more on this), identifying weak fingers to focus on, discovering rhythms and last but by no means least, mastering all twelve keys so that you stop complaining about some keys being 'more difficult' to play in than others.

The lamest of all lame piano excuses.

Lame?

Allow me to elaborate before joyfully diving into the primary content.

You see, major scales contain seven notes.  From anywhere on the piano, if you count one note after the other (a half-step), in either direction, you will count twelve notes until you reach, on number thirteen, that same note you started on but in a different place.  This 'same note' interval (gap) but thirteen half-step notes higher or lower, is called an octave.  Going up and down in half-steps, in either direction for as long as you wish, is called a chromatic scale.  The twelve notes that you play on your chromatic journey may all be considered a 'root', or 'first degree' of a major scale.  The blackness or whiteness of that physical note is irrelevant; it is simply a root, and there are twelve of them - twelve starting points to create a major scale.

The major scale is created by using the following now-infamous template: whole whole half, whole whole whole half.  This means that once you have selected a root, you then count up whole-steps and half-steps according to this template.  What is a whole-step?  Two halves make a whole.

The point of my 'lame' comment is that, based on the aforementioned, there is absolutely no logic whatsoever in saying, thinking, suggesting or believing that one key (starting point) is 'more difficult' than another.  Granted, some are used much more than others, but the ones which are used less are no different that the common ones since they are made from the same WWH-WWWH template and contain seven notes.  F# is just as nice to play in as G.  Just because it has "five black notes" and G only has "one black note" is so irrelevant as to be a waste of my time even writing this sentence.  The notes could all be black! Or white! Or pink and yellow!  It is absolutely, utterly irrelevant.

Think about that.

Having made this point hopefully quite clear, I now welcome you in joining me for the primary focus of this article:  why major scales are not boring, should not be considered boring in practice and can actually make you an unbelievably brilliant, confident pianist, taking you to heights far beyond those who have played for years and years in a matter of weeks, simply by understanding the logic and processes I am now to offer you.

In my opening paragraphs, I presented the following matters for which the major scale may be used in a non-boring, totally productive way: "1) improving finger dexterity, 2) working on timing issues, 3) creating tonal quality awareness, 4) developing the internal piano, 5) identifying weak fingers to focus on, 6) discovering rhythms and 7) mastering all twelve keys".

Let's expand each one but before you begin, use a major scale that you have never played or explored before.  Choose a root, find its major scale, play it over and over, visualise it, internalise it, master it, then read on.

1) Improving finger dexterity.

By closing your eyes and playing any major scale slowly, with both hands, you will naturally develop finger dexterity; this is a simple fact, but just playing major scales for an octave or two is going to become incredibly boring.  Being bored hinders progress, so some kind of livening up or fun must be had.  For example, consider having a game with the metronome (if you don't have one atop your piano or on your keyboard, use this - now you have no excuse).  Begin at 100bpm, standard 4/4 time and play your chosen major scale in time with the metronome.  By starting slowly, you warm up the fingers, subconsciously learn to control your natural desire to rush and begin to feel each finger's movement.  It is important, at this early stage of your rapid progress, to acknowledge your fingers; they appreciate that very much.

Doing this ten times (up and down one or two octaves is considered 'one'), increase the speed by increments of 20bpm (10 is a little slow and boring, I admit).  What you will find is that, as your fingers warm up, you will not be so inclined to rush and your conscious thoughts of your fingers will become less and less.  Excellent.  Too much conscious thought in playing kills performance.

After fifteen minutes, you will almost be in a state of meditation.  You will be playing on autopilot.  This is what Liszt referred to as 'transcendental playing'.  He used to read books (Shakespeare, for example) whilst 'using and abusing' his scales.  Before performances, he would also maintain his power by using and abusing scales, because they are so, so beneficial.  Far from being boring and monotonous, I assure!

Once you have reached a speed which you consider very comfortable (180bpm will probably become very easy), return to a much slower speed of preference (it may now be higher than 100bpm since your fingers are much warmer and you're in a somewhat heightened state of playing).  This time, consider repetitive patterns using notes from your selected major scale.  Stay in the same major scale for this exercise so you don't lose this flow.  Your mind will appreciate your consistency.

You may choose to play the notes from the major scale as follows:  1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 7, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10... do you see?  In other words, go up four notes, then down two, then up four, then down two... Coming back, do the same:  descend four, ascend two, descend four, ascend two, ...

Such 'games' remove the boredom of major scales and bring them to life.  You are also subconsciously training your fingers to be independent as a group of ten notes, rather than five fingers on two hands because each individual finger is playing what is required without much conscious thought at all (perhaps none!).  This is your pinnacle target.

Try your own games following this template.

2)  Working on timing issues

Some people don't have a very good natural sense of rhythm.  Using the metronome and the major scale ideas above, timing can be solved.  For this to occur, the perhaps surprising solution is by not playing or listening first of all; these are of course involved but come later.

Timing, or a sense of rhythm as it can be called, is an internal feeling in your bones; it simply cannot be written in words.  Yet, this perhaps futile paragraph can still be saved by directing you with suggestions and trusting you will first execute them and then acknowledge the results of that execution.

Everyone can feel and count a second pretty accurately.  If the interval is not accurate, you will still count with the same timing between each number - this is what is important.  By counting steadily to ten in your mind, with your eyes closed (to reduce conscious distractions), and then counting back to zero, and then back up to ten, about ten times or so (or, for about two minutes, you get the idea), you will begin to feel a regular pace inside you.  Once you do, tap your foot.

Now, think of your favourite songs.  Absolutely focus (and this is difficult since the mind wants to rush and jump ahead) on the song from beginning to end.  The fact that you can actually do this (even if you have to quietly sing it to yourself, should there be words), then so be it.  The point is that this exercise will prove to you that a sense of rhythm indeed does exist within you, yet it is being hidden by your conscious mind's destructive, negativity, reminding you that don't have a sense of rhythm.

After a while of performing these exercises, you should then head on over to the piano, turn off the metronome and play your chosen major scale at your own fixed tempo (speed).  You will be surprised at how better you have become at playing in time.

3)  Creating Tonal Quality awareness

Every degree of the major scale has a tonal quality when played against the root.  Every interval (from one degree to another, not necessarily the root) has a tonal quality.  Every combination of at least three notes (in other words, a chord, which is always built from notes of the major scale) has a tonal quality.

TQ is vital to the pianist because everybody, whether they are a musician or not, responds to chord types, intervals and note values.  For example, if you play the root and the seventh (the seventh of the major scale, the logically named 'major seventh'), you will hear a longing, somewhat sadly romantic sound.  A third (major third, the third of the major scale) sounds happy.  The options are numbered minor 2nd to major seventh.

What you can acquire from the major scale is how these sound, immediately, and the ability to be able to play any interval automatically without any conscious thought and with absolute consistency.

Your recommended game is to first have internalised the twelve major scales (less than two days) and then, of course using two hands with your eyes closed, alternate between each interval, starting with 1 and 2, then 1 and 3, then 1 and 4, but moving up chromatically through the keys, alternating at least twenty times in each key before moving up.  You can either go all the way up from 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc and then back down again before going up to the next key, or you can choose an interval and alternate on that about twenty times before moving up and alternating on the same interval in the next key along.

This will enforce the intervals as well as give you a very strong dose of key comfort.

4)  Developing the internal piano

My favourite subject and one seriously ignored by many piano teachers and students alike.

The internal piano is my way of saying that it is possible to practise your scales without actually being at your physical piano because, believe it or not, and real research is available online on this topic (motor imagery), the mind does not know the difference between fantasy and reality.  The same areas of the brain activate when the participant both does the activity and merely thinks about it; only the muscle signals to move are halted.  This, is absolutely fascinating.

What is also means is that you can memorise scales and practise fingering whilst driving your car (no more dangerous than listening to the radio or talking on your hands-free kit), laying in bed, sitting in a doctor's waiting room or having a baby (ah, maybe I retract this one, but at least in the recovery room later in the day)!  Once you arrive at the piano, since you were playing your internal piano for hours during days away from the piano due to lack of time at home, you have not missed too much... just warm those fingers back up.

Many, many pianist stories are available online (of course, I cite Liszt) in which they internalise or even write pieces using their highly-developed internal piano and then perform it pretty perfectly once at a physical piano.

This should give you much to ponder over.

5)  Identifying weak fingers to focus on

This need not be a long point so it shall suffice to say simply that, having executed the above points 1-4, you will perhaps have been receptive to a weak finger or two somewhere.  For most, this is the left hand ring finger.  Whatever the case, as you must know by now, the body follows the mind; your repetition of the positive ideal that this particular finger is not weak will result in more productive reinforcement of this finger.  Do your major scale work beginning, ending or focusing on this particular finger as much as possible but do not single it out too much; 75% should be focused on this finger for a while until you return to normal, then return back to the finger at 50%, then normal, then 25%, then normal forever.  What you will find is that this finger will have improved greatly in strength and independence.

6)  Discovering rhythms

By sing the major scale, you can modify the rhythm of your fingers playing the notes and thus enhance your ability to play in different styles.  Rather than trying to learn a song and being very limited to its chord progression, melody line and duration, by playing major scales, you have endless freedom and play to do what you want for as long as you want.  After a while of this, you will be at much ease when it comes to playing the song you would have practised with before reading this article!

Metronomes have different rhythms (indicated by the bell sound for beat 1) and backing tracks exist on YouTube for a myriad of styles.  By simply using the notes of the major scale, you note only learn the rhythm, but have yet another opportunity to close your eyes, play with both hands and reach a point of conscious thoughtlessness; the transcendental state.  This takes time (some days practice, and at least twenty minutes of warming up) but once achieved, your playing will never be the same.

7)  Mastering all twelve keys.

As far as I am concerned, you cannot call yourself a pianist if you are unfamiliar with all twelve keys.  Almost every song ever written passes through different keys so you can't really escape them.  Maybe your favourite Chopin ├ętude, Beethoven sonata or Liszt rhapsody was written in a key with which you are not familiar.  How disappointing for you.

As I said in the beginning, the major scale is one template which has twelve starting points.  Black and white notes are meaningless since they are only number values and nothing else.  The moment you start to treat all major scales the same is the same moment you will find yourself playing with greater confidence, greater ease, less conscious thought and more fluently and contentedly.

The ability to play all twelve major scales also means you have developed a very useful finger memory which will come in useful in every piece you ever play or write.  By having spent so much time feeling at home in and getting acquainted with each major scale, you will never be lost on the piano.  All seven intervals will be known instantly, your fingers will feel so comfortable on the piano that no piece will seem impossible.

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All in all, don't undervalue the major scale.  Always practise with your eyes closed and use both hands simultaneously.  If you spend 2-3 months progressing in this way, you will be set for a life of excellent piano playing.

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