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I learned the basics of the piano mostly from YouTube, intervals, various chords formulas including sevenths, diminished but I try to very closely follow the best practices. I learn inversions and hand positions through some more complex pieces (complex to my current level).

Everybody says it's super important to learn scales so I do. I printed Major and Minor harmonic scales sheets and to my surprise I already knew half of the Major scales through the pieces I learned (they had lots of arpeggios, for example RIOPY's "I Love you"). So now I put my efforts into the ones I don't know that well (stared with Major ones)

But should I learn minor? If I'm not mistaken the scales are identical with their relative minors, for example C is Amin, B is G#min.

Is there any particular reason for me to learning them?

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  • When you play the B♭ scale (B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G, A), your thumb starts on B♭. When you play Gmin (G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭, F), your thumb starts on G. Same notes? Yes. Same finger movements? Nope.
    – walen
    Aug 23, 2021 at 7:17
  • If anything I'd learn half the major and half the minor than all the major and none of the minor.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 24, 2021 at 0:30
  • @DKNguyen - ah, but which half?
    – Tim
    Aug 24, 2021 at 7:24
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    @Tim The evil half?
    – Clockwork
    Aug 24, 2021 at 9:22
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    @walen - interesting. ABRSM recommends Bb major starting with 2. I actually start with 3, then 1, so black keys are middle finger, just using the same fingering as I do for Gm. Starting on 1 (thumb) means the stretch from Eb to F is bigger than it needs to be (4>1).
    – Tim
    Aug 24, 2021 at 9:32

9 Answers 9

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Seems like you've made a good thorough start so why spoil it now? You already know that minor scales are the same notes as their relative majors. Or do you?

That's where it gets tricky! The natural minor scales have exactly the same notes as their relative majors, but there are more minors than natural.

The harmonic minors are the same as the natural minors, except the leading note is sharpened.

The melodic minors have the same lower 5 notes as the natural minor, but then have the rest of the scale just like the parallel major. Classical melodics ascend this way, but descend using the natural minor notes, jazz melodic uses the one set both ways, just to throw another spanner in the works!).

Then we have minor modes - all of which have m3 between tonic and 3rd note. So there's a bit more to it all than maybe you thought. But, why not get them all sorted, that way, you'll have a bigger, better inventory to pick from when playing.

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  • You made me realise the lessons I bought a few years ago were just very basics to start playing piano very fast. There's so many things I still don't understand. I better find something to complete my theory. Maybe that music theory website that was advertised here.
    – Clockwork
    Aug 23, 2021 at 6:12
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    And even if a natural minor scale contains exactly the same notes, you need a different mental and dynamic model for it. Aug 23, 2021 at 19:41
  • @DávidHorváth - And - different fingering - just like for the remaining modes in any key!
    – Tim
    Aug 24, 2021 at 7:23
  • Harmonic minors, in particular, train you for some tricky finger moments on the 6th and 7th, which can be physically distant piano keys. e.g. C harm. minor: drop from black key (Ab) to white key (B), then a thumb-under. Or E harm. minor: climb from whitekey (C) to black key (D#), then a thumb-under.
    – SebTHU
    Aug 24, 2021 at 9:37
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    @Clockwork "I better find something to complete my theory" I don't think anyone actually ever completes their theory. Aug 25, 2021 at 6:55
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Piano teachers and band teachers will drill you through minor scales even after you learn your major scales. This is because minor scales do not use the same notes as major scales given the same starting scale note. You need to, at the very least, learn a different muscle memory set for each minor scale, even if all you play are natural minor scales (or, synonymously, scales for Aeolian modes - note that they share all their notes but not starting notes with the major scales with starting notes a minor third up). Throw in melodic minor and harmonic minor scales, which do not share all their notes with any major scales at points, and now learning them separately is even more paramount. A high enough percentage of music is in minor keys for minor scales to be worth learning.

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    I've never understood why purely learning to play up and down scales (ref. muscle memory) is very much use as more than an exam passing skill. Even when there is a passage of say, 5 or 6 notes straight out of a scale, knowing the fingering for the complete scale may not help in a piece - which may well demand different fingering from that of the standard scale. What percentage would you guess pieces in minor keys represent? I guess overall ~10-15%
    – Tim
    Aug 22, 2021 at 15:17
  • @Tim - Maybe my experience is skewed by my habit of listening to rock, metal, and video game music in addition to classical music, but I'd estimate that at least 35% of music - or maybe even 50% of music - is in minor keys.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 22, 2021 at 15:25
  • 'Twould be an interesting fact to find out - probably genre-wise at least.
    – Tim
    Aug 22, 2021 at 16:45
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    There have been some studies on the use of major vs minor keys. In the Baroque era, there seems to be about a 50-50 split between major and minor keys (of course, tonality was just developing and composers were exploring.) In the Classical era, major keys were favored. In the Romantic era, the split approached 50-50 again.
    – ttw
    Aug 22, 2021 at 18:17
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    @DanBryant - point taken, although a lot of Blues uses major (dominant 7th) chords, and the melodies use minor pent notes. That doesn't mean the songs are in minor though. Being pedantic!
    – Tim
    Aug 24, 2021 at 7:20
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The question behind the question is "Why do we practice scales?" And there are a lot of reasons. I hope it's not disappointing, but you don't stop when you've "learned" a scale; they'll be an important part of your practice all your life. What you mean by "learn" is "I've mastered one of the standardized finger patterns for scales in certain keys," but scales will be something you practice long after you've memorized these patterns.

So why practice scales (and arpeggios)? The usual explanation is one you already noticed: because you find them in "real music." For an example from my instrument, violin, Carl Flesch's scale book includes sections in octave double stops, and includes arpeggios of various chords. So if I've practiced a G diminished arpeggio in octaves, then when I hit this bit of the Mendelssohn violin concerto... enter image description here ... then I know just what to do.

There's already been some speculation in the comments that scales and arpeggios don't make up that much of the music we play; I'd counterargue that they do, especially when we count arpeggios (and chromatic scale). In particular, we're all supposed to know scales so well that we can rip straight through them much faster than other passagework. From later in the same concerto, I'd better be used to where I shift in a B major scale...

enter image description here

But if the argument is "hey look, that's just a couple of measures out of an entire concerto; why waste time studying scales and just learn the 'real' pieces," then I'd point out that the scales and arpeggios are the parts that I can "take with me" to some other piece, and the thematic material is unique to each piece.

But besides the "because you'll use them" argument, scales make a convenient "abstract" way to practice lots of techniques. We don't have to think hard to remember which note comes after which in a scale; they're familiar and simple. So they make a good medium in which to practice, say, getting louder or softer, or playing longer or shorter notes, slurring pairs of notes or three notes, and even rhythm patterns. They make great warm up material, in which you can get both your brain and your fingers "up to speed" with something familiar.

So to your actual question, "why learn the minor scales if I've already learned the major fingerings and they contain the natural minor"... well, as you can guess, my answer is that it isn't even about "learn," it's about "live with." But even if the immediate goal is to master certain finger patterns, consider this: If you start a C major scale with your 1st finger (thumb), then the A is probably 3rd finger. But the standard fingering of an A minor scale would start on 1st finger. So if the immediate goal is to memorize fingering patterns, then the minor scales would have their own.

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    Said it many times - learn the fingering for a scale, and just maybe you'll find it fits in a part-scale run in a piece. More likely, you'll play that using different fingers, so whilst it helps to know the pattern of notes, I argue that knowing the one fingering for the scale those notes come from isn't particuarly future-proofing.
    – Tim
    Aug 23, 2021 at 8:04
  • I’m not a pianist, but I’ve got to imagine but at some point they are encouraged to learn various different patterns, for example starting the scale on any finger. Violinists certainly choose their own fingerings; the scale book by Carl Flesch is published with both his fingerings and alternate ones suggested by one of his students. Sometimes both men provided two options! Aug 23, 2021 at 11:26
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    The formal learning of scales - often for regurgitation at exam time - is generally done using one and only one finger pattern - usually the one indicated in the scale books or the teacher's favourite, sometimes worked out by the student (my preferred method), so scales tend to be learned in isolation on piano. 'Twas always thus!Later on, after playing for some time, one does meet fragments from scales in runs, but my point is that they may well not align themselves with the fingering learned initially for those scales.Violin, and (guitar) are rather different regarding approach to fingerings.
    – Tim
    Aug 23, 2021 at 11:41
  • Coming from classical piano background it was interesting to find that on guitar practicing scales can actually be useful. With piano I always felt it's a mandatory evil, for the exact reasons Tim has explained here.
    – ojs
    Aug 24, 2021 at 8:34
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Scale and chord patterns in minor keys are as important as majors. One reason is that there are passages in minor keys even in major key works (and vice versa).

The fingering of scale passages in minor keys is just enough different from that of major scales to make them worthwhile to study.

One point is that minor keys have two "mutable" notes; scale steps 6 and 7 occur as two-note pairs (for simplicity, the "natural" minor uses the lower versions of both. Thus the natural minor scale is identical to the major scale a minor third above. A minor has the same notes as C major. However, many pieces use the mutated version of scale steps 6 and 7 (in various ways), often simultaneously. The fingerings may have to be adjusted on a piano (and definitely on stringed or wind instruments.)

As a long footnote (pedal point?), pieces are (mostly) written in "keys" rather than "scales" which are arrangements of notes in ascending order. (A piece in A minor may contain the exact same notes as another piece in C major but these will sound quite different.)

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If you believe in the benefit to practicing major scales, then just know that all that benefit extends to learning other scales and modes. Here's a few I can think of

  1. practicing playing different fingering patterns quickly is good for dexterity

  2. having the "shape" of a scale under your fingers helps play any melodic lines with that scale

  3. knowing the scale helps inform theory knowledge (which chords and notes have which function)

  4. knowing the scale also helps inform how and when to play outside of it

After major scales, minor scales are the next most common and important scales in Western music, so they are the clear next step. Even though the natural minor scales are just modes of their relative major scale, they are also important to learn and internalize on their own, as well as in relation to their parallel major (same goes for every other mode). However, the harmonic minor scale is extremely important, and melodic minor is a close runner-up.

It's up to you if this is worth it, but if you've put in the work so far, you might as well at least finish out the set. If you stop there (after 48), you'll be on par with many pianists in terms of scales, and you can only improve by continuing to learn and practice new scales.

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  • I make it 36, where am I missing the extra 12?
    – Tim
    Aug 23, 2021 at 11:19
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    @Tim - I assume 12 major + 12 harmonic minor + 12 melodic minor + 12 natural minor scales = 48 scales.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 23, 2021 at 11:55
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    Sorry, forgot about the 12 majors OP already knew!
    – Tim
    Aug 23, 2021 at 12:06
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I would suggest that you learn everything you can learn about music theory and your chosen musical instrument, the piano. Everything you learn will make you a better musician and a better player, and expand your horizons for making music. Learning minor scales will help you play better and more easily in minor keys, for instance, which is necessary for a large percentage of music in all genres.

There are certain artistic subjects - longing, loss, tragedy, tension, conflict, pathos, etc., which benefit from, if not flat-out require, a minor key to effectively convey the emotion or story within the music. Composers would be lost without both major and minor keys. Their work would be flat (in the non-musical sense) and lacking dimension and complexity as they try to express their ideas and feelings through music. It would be a bit like a painter having only half the colors on the color wheel at his or her disposal.

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...So now I put my efforts into the ones I don't know that well...

That is exactly what to do, work on the things you don't know, or can't do yet.

...But should I learn minor? If I'm not mistaken the scales are identical with their relative minors, for example C is Amin, B is G#min.

Absolutely, you must learn minor scales and harmony! Relative major/minor pairs share the same key signatures, but minor harmony - and the scales involved - work differently than major. In a nutshell, minor key music is more chromatically complex.

At this point you don't need an explanation of how minor keys work, you only need to know you can't skip playing in minor. IMO when you learn how minor harmony works, you really understand how tonal music, the major/minor system works.

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I would learn the minor ones because many pieces include minor scales and other minor-key techniques. Learning the minors can also improve general techniques as they are arguably harder than the major ones.

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If you don't have it yet, buy the Hanon Complete book and take a quick look at the fingering of each major and minor scale. What you'll notice is that the left hand and the right hand thumbs are never assigned to a black key. Playing fluidly through linear passages in major and minor keys will be easy if your brain can guide your thumbs away from playing a black key. This is done by passing fingers 2, 3 & 4 over your thumb as well as passing the thumb under fingers 2, 3 & 4. You can achieve the ability to quickly pass 2, 3 & 4 over your thumb by burning all the major and minor scale fingering patterns into your brain. Once this is done these fingering tricks will be immediately available to you. The primordial purpose of learning your scales, be they major, minor or modal, is to be able to avoid using your thumb on a black key on linear patterns. There are other factors mentioned in the previous comments, but first and foremost, you need to immediately know the options available to you.

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  • *Also by passing the thumb under fingers 2, 3 & 4.
    – PianoManNH
    Aug 24, 2021 at 1:00
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    It's not clear how this answers the original question. Perhaps you can expand a bit?
    – Aaron
    Aug 24, 2021 at 1:01
  • The original question is "Do I have to learn the minor scales?" The answer is yes in order to be able to play every combination of (diatonic) white and black key linear patters. The minor scales will have different fingering patterns so they must be learned along with the majors.
    – PianoManNH
    Aug 24, 2021 at 1:04
  • Then you should put that in your answer rather than a comment. You might expand further since, if you want "every (diatonic) combination", you'd have to include Dorian, Phrygian, etc.
    – Aaron
    Aug 24, 2021 at 1:14
  • The part about microseconds needs some references to back it up.
    – ojs
    Aug 24, 2021 at 8:31

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