I remember discovering a really good use for piano scales as a child. I treated them as a challenging game! And it helped me feel that I wasn’t just filling out the imprisoned time of an hour’s practice before I could go and play. Scales became the game of ‘3 times correct in a row’. I know, that probably doesn’t sound as riveting as the latest video game, but it worked for me.
We didn’t have a clock in the music room where the piano was, so I used to do a bit of piano practice, then go and check the clock in the next room. Strangely enough, the minutes only turned slowly during the times when I was doing my piano practice. Every time I went to see how much time I’d done, the clock had only added a few more minutes. Then I discovered this scale game. I would choose a scale and play it until I had played it correctly 3 times. Then the fun started. I would aim to play it 3 times correctly in a row! I was pretty hard on myself—even if it was just a little mistake on the third time through, I’d have to start from the beginning again. By the time I worked out that if I played it slowly and evenly I’d get it correct more quickly, I’d used a good portion of my practice time and the clock had picked up speed too. I didn’t even need to check on it that often. I’d then get into my other pieces and there was a real sense that I was achieving something.
There were probably times I spent ‘too much’ time on scales, but surprisingly my music teacher mother never complained :). From my viewpoint as a child, the benefit of practicing scales was that they helped me keep peace with my mother by filling out my practice hour, but I also found our later that there was the added bonus of getting a good result in the scales section of my piano exams. What I didn’t realise then was all the other ways this scale practice would propel me in my music learning.
In no particular order, here are just some of the benefits of learning scales well:
Good finger position
Correctly learned scales help your hands settle into an even weight and good shape with properly curved fingers. They also help reduce extraneous finger movement.
With good finger position and regular practice you develop a fluency of movement at the piano that will be noticable in the way you play pieces. I can always tell when someone has a good regimen of scale practice because there is an evenness of rhythm in the way they play anything at the piano, regardless of their level of ability.
Warming up fingers
Scales at the beginning of a practice or lesson are good for getting the finger joints warmed up to whatever you may need them to be learning. Warm hands will generally work better.
Quickly identifying keys
Knowing all the major and minor scales will give you an understanding of key structures in musical theory and the form of music. You will be better prepared to understand what key changes are happening in the pieces you learn.
Transitioning beginners out of 5 finger positions
Beginner musicians usually start off with learning some kind of 5 finger position. Learning a one octave scale gets them moving beyond the idea that everything always stays in a particular position.
Help with composing
I have always had a fascination with various musical patterns and have found that good scale and arpeggio skills helped me with all sorts of creative ideas. From an early age, arpeggios showed me the basic 3 note chord structure. Playing them in different orders can sound like a musical composition in itself. I am certain that many of my creations were founded in scale knowledge, even when half the time I didn’t realise it consciously.
Help with aural learning
Scales certainly help with aural learning too. For example, you can pick whether a melody has a melodic minor or harmonic minor pattern if you know these scales from practically playing them. Some people get to recognise pitches aurally from the knowledge of scales through the repetition of playing them through the years.
Scales have had a lot of bad press over the years, so I do hope I’ve helped to increase your appreciation for them in some way. Let me know what your take is on them, whether positive or negative. Maybe you could add a benefit I’ve missed, or a scale story or of your own you could share in the comments below.