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First of all I want to point out that I practice scales a lot and even enjoy it. I just don't know why they are so important, as this site says for example:

"Proper fingering of the scales on the piano is very important to development of your skills and advancement as a pianist."

When you are playing a piece you are not doing anything remotely like playing a scale.

Maybe practicing scales is important to memorize them, and the proper fingering is important to improve dexterity. Is there a better answer?

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1  
I beg to differ with "you are not doing something remotely like a scale." Many songs have scales in them, and many things are similar. –  Matthew Read May 10 '11 at 20:42
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in fact, I would say the majority of melodic fragments are either scale fragments or arpeggio fragments. –  James Tauber May 13 '11 at 7:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Memorizing your scales accomplishes at least these four things:

  1. Trains your fingers to play common patterns found in music. There are a lot of scales in music. They're just so satisfying, why not write them?

  2. They can be a controlled environment for practicing other techniques, such as playing fast, playing in octaves, and playing fast in octaves.

  3. It trains your ear to hear the qualities of a key and the different scale degrees within that key. When learning a new piece, practice scales for the keys within that piece. You'll catch your own mistakes more often since you'll be accustomed to tonal qualities of the keys in that piece.

  4. It also trains you to play smoothly in time. Practice speed, but maintaining a steady tempo with a variety of articulations. You could also use them to experiment with rubato (credit to Matthew Read in the comments).

[EDIT]

Adding another good point from the comments:

In addition to @bearcdp's well written answer, I'd like to point out that almost every piano-teaching book I've read, strongly emphasizes the importance of playing a song/riff in all of the 12 keys!. This is annoying in the beginning, but it helps you to get equally familiar with all the different keys (and not just C major and A minor). – @Saebekassebil

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@bearcdp: great answer, I just don't get the end of point 1, "why not write them?" ? –  iddober May 11 '11 at 18:24
    
@idober: The third movement of Mozart's flute concerto in G has scales everywhere. D and G are the ones I remember for sure. I think there's a harmonic minor in there too, but I can't say for sure. –  Michael May 11 '11 at 18:45
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I use scales for practicing styles too. You haven't lived until you swing a F# major scale! –  Michael May 11 '11 at 18:47
    
@idober That sentence is a little weird. I mean "why not write them" to be from the composer's perspective. Scales feel satisfying to play in a piece (speaking for myself at least), so composers can take an opportunity to indulge the performer by throwing in a scale at appropriate moments. Oh and @Michael, +1 for F# major, gliding over black keys is so satisfying. –  bearcdp May 11 '11 at 21:15
    
@bearcdp: Not to forget the two white keys, B and E# ;) –  Saebekassebil Sep 18 '12 at 15:32

It also teaches the muscles. Muscle memory is an integral part of learning to play an instrument. The novel thing about your muscles is that you can teach them and they can learn but they have no intelligence and will learn bad things if taught badly. You have to approach teaching them like you would teaching a child that is both deaf and blind.

So the scales impart the knowledge in your hands so that when you want to play the music you are able to recall where the notes should be.

It is almost like a golfer practicing his swing. The way in which there muscles are taught is very much the same.

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I think the main advantage comes that when you have fingerings cold for whole scales, you are quite less likely to "paint yourself into a corner" with the fingerings when sightreading. For example, if you play an upward scale part with the right hand and utilize the pinky, then you tend to have a problem if the melody goes on. Practising scales will train you for fingering sequences that are not as "natural" all the time but where you don't run out of fingers.

It's like practising to eat everything with fork and knife instead of specific eating tools for each different food texture. Though I actually prefer chopsticks for everything.

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Practicing things like scales allows you to augment your playing skill with muscle memory.

This is especially evident and useful when embellishing or improvising. I fool around with keyboards a bit, but I know My c and F blues scales well. I can improvise pretty convincingly in related keys, and without thinking about the particular notes or which keys I am hitting.

Being practiced in scales, which is als being practiced in intervals, is like knowing how all the words you read are supposed to sound, rather than having to sound them out.

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Good analogy. "Being practiced in scales ... is like knowing how all the words you read are supposed to sound, rather than having to sound them out." –  Widor May 16 '13 at 13:12

There are a ton of scales in classical music. They tend to be hidden, though, with only a few notes at a time. Take, for example, Mozart's Rondo alla Turca: It's main theme has a snippet of a scale, and its middle section is almost entirely made up of scales. The 3rd movement of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata has brief runs to build up tension. Bach's inventions all have scales in the music. Just because they just don't go on for octaves and octaves doesn't keep them from being scales.

As far as fingering, it just makes scales really easy to play. The fingerings are optimized so that you can go really really fast without tripping over your fingers. There is a small aspect of training dexterity--being able to perform cross-overs smoothly is extremely important--but it's secondary to the goal of allowing you to recognize patterns in music.

Of course, everything bearcdp said counts, especially hearing the qualities of the scale degrees in the key. Knowing your scales and the sounds of each degree makes learning every style of western music infinitely easier.

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