I'm currently learning scales and 4 note chords, but I'm not really sure what I'm aiming for. When practising chords, I think they're slowly being cemented into my brain, through muscle memory mainly - I'm guessing this is the best way to memorize them. But when practising scales (which I've been doing for longer than chords, and they're just not sticking), I'm having to think about the interval pattern (e.g. W W h W W W h for major scale) every single note, to figure out what to play next. I've also tried memorising the circle of fifths - before I play the scale, I think about what notes are sharped/flatted and then play them. As you can imagine both of these 'methods' are taking me ages, so I feel like I'm going completely the wrong way about it.

Is there a 'proper'/conventional way to learn scales? I understand that this is slightly opinion based, but surely there's a generally accepted way to memorize these things... Unless I'm doing it correctly and it is literally just a matter of practising them over and over until they stick in my head through muscle memory or something?

5 Answers 5


I would venture that you're doing it correctly, and that it takes awhile.

I was still reaching new levels of mastery over the same basic scales for many years after I began.

One thing that accelerated the process, beyond what you described, was practicing the scales in two ways:

Imagine "C" is the scale of choice.

Imagine its notes C D E F G A B are represented 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

1) Diatonic sequence: Pick a number (x), and play the first x notes of the scale for every note. So if the number is 3, you would play:

123,234,345,456,567 etc.

If the number is 4 you would play:

1234,2345,3456, etc.

2) Intervallic scales: pick an interval and play the scale in that interval. There is no choice to play the interval of a second since each note in the scale is adjacent to its second. But you can use 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7. For example:

In thirds: 13,24,35,46 (CE, DF, EG, FA), etc.

In fourths: 14,25,36,47(CF,DG,EA,FB), etc.


Different people think in different ways, and what works for you may not work for other people. So you need to do some exploring, to find out how your own mind works.

Some alternatives to thinking in terms of intervals for each step:

Concentrate on how it sounds

For some people, it helps to have an idea in your head of what the scale will sound like, then play it. Rather than think logically about whether the next interval is a semitone or a tone, just play what you "feel" -- and if it sounds wrong, start again. Repeat until you get it right.

It may help to get some recordings of someone playing the scales correctly (or sequence it in a computer program, etc.)

Concentrate on the set of notes in the key

For some people, it helps to know key signatures. Mentally highlight the piano keys that are "allowed" and grey out the piano keys that are "forbidden". So for example, in D minor, all the black keys except Bb are "forbidden" and all the white keys except B are "allowed", and Bb is allowed.

Now playing a D minor scale is just a matter of playing the allowed notes in order.

One of the reasons for practising scales is to get used to key signatures. By drilling these sets of "allowed" notes, you're preparing yourself to play those notes in different orders.


This is another example where it's a culmination of finding a technique that works for you, and then sticking to a practice regime when you find one that works. One way I have found particularly useful, was using the circle of fifths as you said, and going one way round (i.e through the sharps) and then back the other way. Once I had this, I started doing it every single time I sat down at the piano, treating it as a method of warming up before I practiced pieces. Hope this helps. Just stick at it and it will come!


If you're learning scales for guitar, then a powerful way to practice scales is to play the arpeggiated harmonized scale.

Take for example C major.


The harmonized scale are the diatonic chords that use each note in the scale as the root.

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

The harmonized arpeggiated scale would be:


Now play your scales in two octaves ascending and descending and start your scale on every possible location of the C note.

Once you get that down, try playing the harmonized scale in chord order:


Once you get that down, you can start playing the harmonized scales in circles of fourths and fifths.

C scale, F scale, Bb scale, etc.

Once you can do that, try playing the chords away from your positions. For example

C chord on fret n
D F A chord on fret n - 2
E G B chord on fret n + 2

The exercises accomplish two things:

  • You learn the chord tones. Chord tones are the most important parts of a melody, they have the strongest motion. If you just practice straight scales, then your solos will sound like scale exercises.
  • You learn where every note is on the fretboard. Guitar players play in patterns all the time. That's good but you don't want to be a slave to the patterns you've learned. These exercises help you learn the placement of each note on the fretboard, which greatly expands your freedom.

I've done these excercises but the main thing I do these days is play melodies on all possible positions on the guitar, but that's for a different post. :-)

However, if you're playing guitar, one thing that is very important is to master the guitar scales systems. Lots of folks recommend the CAGED system but that never really worked for me. An excellent systematic introduction to guitar scale systems is Richard Daniel's "Heavy Guitar Bible". http://www.amazon.com/The-Heavy-Guitar-Bible-Instruction/dp/0895240661

  • The question is tagged piano. I'm sure that some of this advice translates well to piano, but you might want to be more explicit about it. The guitar info is good stuff so I'd leave it in – just please try to also make it more helpful for piano. Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 21:33

The way I memorized modes and scales was playing some jazz. I would analyze the piece and think about which scales could sound good over each chord. Playing at a slow tempo, very slow usually, I'd go through the piece trying to come up with ideas using the scales. This is a very lame way of playing jazz, but you'll sometimes be surprised at the things you can come up with and its a really great way to get the scales ingrained into your head and fingers while having a little bit more fun.

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