10 Reasons Why You Should Learn Your Scales To Play Classic Piano Songs
If you're like most people that learn from YouTube, looking to get a quick result, you may be tempted not to learn any scales. After-all, why do you need to learn scales if you're already playing the music you want to play?
Perhaps these 10 reasons might change your mind.
1. Scales are in the music
Look at any piece of music and guaranteed you will find scales written in it.
Why? Because they are easy to remember.
Take a listen to these two audio files each playing fifteen different notes and ask yourself which one you found the most memorable.
Could you remember Audio 1 more than Audio 2?
Both tracks played the same rhythm but Audio 2 was played with random notes and Audio 1 played over a C major scale.
Audio 1 is also easier to sing than Audio 2.
Here’s an excerpt, taken from Minuet in G by J.S. Bach
Looking at the music score you can see where the scales have been written in shown over and under each bracket. Do you think this music would be easy to remember?
Can you hear the scales going up and down? Catchy, isn’t it?
Rather than seeing every note individually, start looking for areas in the music that you’re playing right now that use scale passages. You’ll be surprised how many you’ll find. Ignore any bar lines and check to see if the scale continues onto the next line or page.
Just as it’s been mentioned in the blog post How To Play Fur Elise, technique plays an important role in making a musician into a better one. Since scales are everywhere in music, practising scales separately, away from the music, and fine-tuning them will help you play classic piano songs to a much higher standard.
Think of it this way, if ever you played tennis and wanted to perfect your serve, you’re not going to just practice it within the game, but away from it. Then, when you play the game with an opponent, you’ll have a better chance of beating him or her.
Scale Technique Practice Tip
Here’s a little technique to help you along the way.
Accent the first of every four quavers. If you find that you’re accenting other fingers, it helps to say 1 2 3 4 out loud, saying 1 louder than 2, 3 and 4.
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3. Key Signatures
Each scale has its Key Signature showing either sharps or flats at the start of the music, in the treble and bass clef.
The key signature at the beginning of the music will let you know which notes are to be played as sharps and which notes to be played as flats. Learning scales would help with understanding the key signature better and therefore help you to avoid hitting wrong notes.
We’ve established that scales are everywhere in music. Another one to look out for in classical piano music is Intervals.
An Interval is a distance between one note to another. Below are the intervals from the C major scale. These are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and an Octave.
The most popular intervals are the 3rd, 5th and Octave, with octaves being popular in the bass clef.
Here’s an excerpt from Schumann's Soldiers' March piano piece. Notice the 3rds, indicated by the arrows. Can you see any 5th's? Do you see any scales?
Have a look at your classic piano songs and see if you can recognise 3rds, 5ths and Octaves. The more you see the interval, the quicker your hand will move into the correct position.
Intervals are also good for ear training practice. By hearing the distance between each note this helps to learn how to play by ear.
5. Transpose the Music
Take a listen to this excerpt from Ludwig Van Beethovens piano classic Moonlight Sonata played in three different keys.
The first one was played in Dm. The second one was played in C#m and the third was played in F minor.
Beethoven could have written this beautiful piano music in any key he wanted. He had twelve minor keys to choose from. Why choose C# minor? Simply because it sounds perfect.
Take a listen to this next famous classical piano tune, Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman!, written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart around 1781-1782. The original key is in C major.
How does it compare when it's played in Db major? Or F# major?
Which one do you prefer?
Did you know that Mozart wrote twelve different variations on the main theme? Here's new student Nikolaus playing all twelve variations.
How about chords?
Let’s say your chords are C – Am – F - G. If you wanted to play in the key of D major, what chords would you use?
Let’s work it out in numbers.
C – Am – F – G is 1 – 6 – 4 – 5 in C major.
The D major scale is D – E – F# - G – A – B – C# - D. So, in D major this would be D – Bm – G – A.
Another example could be in Bb major. Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb. So, this would be Bb – Gm – Eb - F.
See how scales help?
Knowing how to transpose classical songs on the piano will help if you're a singer or just wanting to accompany someone else singing. If the music feels too high or too low to sing then understanding scales is very useful to be able to change key quickly.
Being able to transpose is also helpful when it comes to playing with other musicians. If you’re playing with a musician who plays a Bb clarinet, you would have to play in the key of C major, not in Bb, since the Bb clarinet is a transposing instrument, i.e., when the clarinet player plays a C note it will sound on the piano as a Bb note. So every note sounds two semitones lower. Knowing your scales would help you to understand this better.
Most classic piano music that accompanies a transposing instrument would already have this written out, but if for example, you wanted to play just chords over what their playing then you would have to work this out for yourself, or hit the transpose key down two semitones if you have an electronic piano or keyboard.
6. Play by ear
If you don’t already know C major scale, play these notes on the piano.
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.
See if you can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano starting on note C. All the notes in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will use just the notes from the C major scale.
Let’s try a little higher in D major. Play the tune again starting on note D. Don't look at the music below just yet.
Did you play any wrong notes? If you hit any wrong notes, it’s because you don’t know the scale of D major very well. Did you forget to play the F# indicated by the arrow? Here it is below. The key signature has an F# and C# in it.
You could, of course, play a tune by ear and hit the wrong notes that are in your head until you play the right ones. But learning all 12 major and 12 minor scales will speed up the process.
Learning your intervals will also help you to hear the music when transposing into another key.
- Learn how to Play by Ear: Playing By Ear: A Songwriter's Way
7. Learn how to create chords
How about adding some chords to the music? But first, you need to learn how to create them.
Most piano players can play a C major chord, but would you know how to play Bb major without making a mistake? Or would you have to figure it out by ear, after two or three tries? Or would you use the scale of Bb major to work it out?
If you wanted to learn all 12 major and all 12 minor chords this may take a while.
To create a major chord...
Simply take the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of any major scale and play them together.
Here are the C and Bb major scale, indicating the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes followed by their chords.
Minor chords can be created out of minor scales, but an easier way is to simply flatten the 3rd note, as shown below.
8. Compose your music
If you’re interested in writing your compositions, then scales are the first thing any composer would learn. Just ask Jennifer Higdon, She received a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto.
Another composer is Unsuk Chin, who was the winner of the 2017 Wihuri Sibelius Prize and the winner of the 2018 Kravis Prize, having her compositions performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra to name a few.
Scales are used in improvisation too. Bach, Mozart and Chopin were known to improvise on the spot. The famous classical player Gabriela Montero is known for improvising over famous composers music. The American classical pianist, composer and musicologist Robert Levin improvises cadenzas over Mozart and Beethoven's music.
When improvising, you must first understand what key you're in. Then you have to understand what scale to play over each chord. If you weren’t aware of the key that you're playing in then you really would be guessing as to what notes to hit. It will be a case of hit and miss every time.
- Learn how to improvise Jazz piano Jazz Piano Improvisation Series
10. Pick up another instrument
You may just want to pick up a guitar or another instrument. Knowing your scales on the piano will help you to work out many more classic piano songs. Once you’ve learnt the scales, then you can find the chords related to that scale easily and in turn, learn songs quicker.
A final thought...
So, next time you decide to skip on those scales you may want to think again. Scales are used in many ways in music, great for technique training and in all of your favourite piano classics!
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Interested in learning more?
- MASTER your TECHNIQUE with our new online course: Piano Playing Techniques
- Learn how to Play by Ear: Playing By Ear: A Songwriter's Way
- Learn how to improvise Jazz piano: Jazz Piano Improvisation Series
- "HOW TO PLAY" series with PIANIST magazine: How to Play: Contemporary Classical Piano