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Let's say you want to play a chord progression like 1-5-6-4 in all major and minor keys with inversions. To do this one should be able to spot the scale degrees in every scale quickly. How does one practice that? In C major I can do this pretty fast but shifting the tonal center on the keyboard (changing the key) really slows me down and I have to "compute" the scale degrees every time through counting, but doing it in C major is kind of automatic.

Is the answer: play all the scales over and over and over again? Like 123 1234 123 12345 with both hands? Or is there a "trick" or other techniques? And should you do it with sheets or without sheets?

Also: often it is said that most music consists of scales. How is this meant? That many melody line parts just follow the order of the scale degrees like 1234, or 5671, 6712?

Thank you very much and a happy new year

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Ultimately this kind of immediate knowledge just comes with time. The more exposure you have to the material, the more fluently the information will come to you.

But I would recommend three tactics here that could get you that exposure:

  1. Know your generic intervals. By this, I mean just the numbers of the intervals (and not qualities like "major," "augmented," etc.) without any concern for accidentals. Knowing scale-degree 6 of something requires you to quickly know that a sixth above D is some kind of B, etc.

  2. Know your key signatures inside and out. Knowing that E major has four sharps in it (and that those sharps are on F, C, G, and D) needs to be immediate.

  3. Lastly, I would recommend just testing yourself: what is scale-degree 6 of E major? Well, from Step 1 we know that a sixth above E is some kind of C, and from Step 2 we know that E major has a C-sharp in it, and thus this scale-degree 6 will be C-sharp.

But I'd especially recommend you do this last step backwards, as well: in what key is F-sharp scale-degree 7? 3? 6? Making these calculations in both directions will, in my opinion, really be what gets you where you want to be.

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A) without writing:

  • Play the cadence through the circle of fifths. Starting with C clock wise to F# and counterclockwise to Gb
  • Play any progression the same way.
  • Transpose songs and pieces e.g. a prelude by Bach through the circle of fifths.

B) same way like A) but with lead sheet of chord notation in staff system.

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Last part first. Music doesn't consist of scales. Scales are, simply put, sets of notes put into order. So a lot of music uses diatonic notes - those from a particular scale, (but not necessarily in that order...apologies to Eric Morecambe) - rather like all our words use letters from the alphabet, but not necessarily in alphabetical order.

First part - you can manage easily in key C due to a couple of factors. One being it's all white keys. Two being that's the set of notes you've played most. Everyone seems to have to start in key C, so it's the best known, and easiest to spot intervals in.

Given that, next move is to familiarise yourself with the diatonic notes of each key. Use their scales initially. I suggest you start with one sharp or one flat, and progress through. So the order will be G, D, A, E, B, F♯, or - F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭. Consult the circle of fifths for help.

When you're more conversant with the diatonic notes of other keys, your task will be so much easier, partly because you'll be aware of which actual notes constitute each key, as in the key signatures will help you remember which notes are sharp/flat.

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The target here is to be able to instantly see the "geometry" of the key, i.e. the notes of the basic scale of the key over the piano keyboard, so you don't have to "calculate". Like an imaginary reference grid overlaid on the keyboard.

At first, with total beginners, even C major which has only white keys has to be calculated, because you need to know which of the keys is C. Someone might have to resort to rules such as "C is located immediately on the left side of where you have the TWO black keys, and F is where you have the THREE black keys." But with a bit of practice it comes automatically.

The way I learned the keys was, I conquered them gradually, starting from C major / A minor (which I consider practically the same thing), and adding flats and sharps one at a time. I played songs by ear, first everything in C/Am, which made me familiar with the scale degrees and chords built on them, and special modification notes and chords such as E major, which has the G sharp. And that we can do something like B - E - Am, and during the B chord there's an additional sharp, D#. (And 30 years later I learned that this basic thing is called "secondary dominant".)

The first step away from C/Am was F/Dm. Everything is the same, except there's now one flat, because the key centers have been moved to F/D. Then I played all the songs I knew in F/Dm, until I felt comfortable with it.

The next step was to try G/Em which has one sharp. All the music and the phenomena are still exactly the same, except now the centers are G/E. Play all songs there, until comfortable.

Next, take the flat side again, but now in Bb/Gm, with two flats. Play everything in that key until it's comfortable and no need to "calculate". This was actually fairly easy, because there was only ONE added flat. So I hammered that one extra flat until it was flat.

Keep adding sharps and flats one at a time. If it takes a week to get comfortable, then that's it. If it takes a month then that's it. But eventually you'll get it done.

Every once in awhile I learned a new harmonic trick. For example, if the song is in Am, you can play a D major chord instead of the usual D minor. Ooh! Nice trick. Now, practice this trick in all keys you know.

The one thing I did not do was to try and force myself to proceed to too unfamiliar keys, until I got the previous easier phase done. Don't try to play the C minor level, until you have totally beaten the G minor boss. And don't try to play the G minor level, until you have beaten the D minor boss. Proceed along these levels, and sooner or later you're comfortable playing in all keys.

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