People seem to learn different scales, each as a separate piece of knowledge - maybe for a grade 1 exam you have to know C major and A minor, then for grade 2 add E major and G major.

But isn't it better to just learn the pattern and the piano keyboard well enough you can automatically apply the pattern (major, harmonic minor, whatever) from any starting key? I don't find it very hard to do this on piano/flute/guitar - easier than memorising dozens of things like learning your multiplication tables at school!

Or, does learning each scale specifically help you when playing in the key based on that scale, i.e. you 'see' the scale notes 'highlighted' in your brain?

  • 2
    Learning by rote takes away the thinking process, which one hardly has time to use in the middle of an impromptu solo.I certainly can't think that fast.
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2015 at 11:42

4 Answers 4


It's way better to know (not memorize) what notes each scale is made of. While the pattern will help you build the scale a song won't tell you what scale you are playing in a passage, but it is typical that a passage comes directly from some scale and sometimes multiple if the song modulates to different keys or borrows concepts from different scales. Being able to identify these patterns will help your playing immensely.

Also note that on the piano, fingerings typically varies from scale to scale as the optimal fingering changes so knowing and practicing the scales in beneficial. I included a chard that demonstrates how fingers differ from scale to scale and this is just the major keys.

enter image description here

  • Your last para - fingering whilst playing a scale doesn't really give a lot of help. It's hardly transferrable, as few tunes use more than 3 or 4 notes consecutively straight from a scale.E.g. playing the first 5 notes from C scale, you thumb on C and F. Playing a run of CDEFG in a tune will hardly necessitate using thumb on anything apart from C, especially if the tune turns round after the G.
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2015 at 10:58
  • 1
    @Tim I would strongly disagree that "few" tunes use longer runs from scales.
    – user28
    Feb 3, 2015 at 15:57
  • @MatthewRead - from all the thousands I've played - baroque, classical, romantic, popular, jazz, I reckon it's way less than 10%.But the point was more that there aren't many pieces that whole scale runs would feature in, using scales and their fingerings as found in exams,which do favour scales as part of the test.
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2015 at 16:14
  • 2
    I would argue that whether or not entire scales or the need to use the fingerings through more than one position are very common, the idea is more about mobility on an instrument. Learning how to quickly transition with different patterns is invaluable. So you may not be playing a whole scale but it will teach your fingers how to move efficiently across your instrument, allowing you to more easily identify how to best play a musical passage. Feb 3, 2015 at 20:07


I have realized that you could appear to be, in part, asking for permission to escape traditional fingerings and finger patterns.

I liken this to learning to type. Many people type with just one or two fingers very quickly, but the facility of typing with ten fingers represents a speed and power that the two fingers. (no offence to those who are missing fingers.) On the one hand if you are missing fingers, you should be encouraged that great skill is still possible. On the other hand if you have all fingers but only use one or two you are definitely missing out on something that could improve your skill. Even if you are using all your fingers, there is more to it than that. You need/should try to use the correct ones for the correct keys/ strings/ frets.

There are different finger patterns possible to learn and use, but there is a standard that should be respected. It represents a great deal of study and practice and learning over the many centuries. You should not toss them aside lightly. They give you an extra benefit that automatically lifts your skill level when you use them, without the centuries of study and practice.

I was thinking in the text below, that I will leave, that you were conflicted as to what part of the study or practice of scales is essential and which can you ignore.

While all that above and below being said is true, there is a pattern to the fingering knowledge, as you suggest. On the different instruments you mentioned the patterns and the ways that they are easily recognisable are different, but there is no problem or fault in understanding and reproducing the patterns that are there rather than memorizing them by rote. If that is what you are suggesting than that is perfectly fine. Who cares how you know something if the knowledge is correct? Different people sometimes need to learn the same knowledge differently. Realize, however, that in the end if you are practising the scales and patterns and instrument(s) enough and correctly, you will memorize them by rote anyway. So there is really nothing to escape.

Study both patterns, fingerings, muscle memory, and the intellectual knowledge of the notes your playing. Did I say both. Study more than that and less than that at different moments in your practice, study in every way you can stand. Study them together and separately. The more ways you know it, he more ways you exercise and challenge your brain the better the result and benefit. Consider, for an advanced practice, to sing the notes in solfege as you play them. Also Hands together hands separately. Practice slow sometimes, and fast other times in the same session. Spend some time focusing on the metronome, and then less often without the metronome. Be able to recite the notes of the scales by rote. Be able to think about the notes of the scales and understand them. Be able to play the scales by rote. Improvise with the scale, have fun with playing the notes out of order. Play the notes out of order, in patterns like what is suggested in the Hannon studies (Hannon as a web site or Hannon as a book). Be able to play the notes of the scales and know what they are. Each way of knowing is different, and if you work it as many ways as you can, you intensify the power of your understanding. It is also possible that you engage different parts of your brain. and yet each part of the practice and study flows towards a unified understanding of the single scale.

I have found in life that when faced with a difficult decision, it turns out it is difficult because you know that the correct decision is the hardest one to do.

This is a life long study. Clearly many get by through one piece of this set of scale study and create great music, but by studying all you:

  • Discover your strengths and exploit them.
  • Improve the weakest parts of your understanding to raise your own personal bar.
  • You multiply the power and intensity of your practice.

You won't find it as hard on guitar, the patterns are the same! As in a maj. scale over two octaves will have exactly the same pattern on A as it will on Bb. Just move up a fret! Flute is obviously different, and piano substantially different. Each maj. scale, for example, has a different pattern from any other. So: 12 patterns for maj. 12 for minor (or is that 36...) and so on.

If you are thinking along the lines of, say, TTSTTTS for majors, it's not going to help much, if at all, as you'll play each subsequent note in relation to the last. C+T=D, D+T=E, etc.

Since lots of tunes are in one key, mostly, it will help to be able to think which set of notes work in that specific key. Like Dmaj will have all white keys except F and C, 'cos they're sharp in D. So that's the set of notes. Put them in order, like humans seem to want to do, you've got a scale.Not that many tunes actually use those notes in the scalar order, though, so just playing up and down scales isn't going to do much, except warm up the fingers, and cement the fact that those 7 notes 'belong in the same family'.

Answer to last bit : yes!


I think you should always be identifying patterns.

All scales can be broken up into groups of 3 and 4 fingers. Without understanding this critical pattern learning all the scales will seem especially difficult.

  • C major and scales starting on white keys using sharps in the key signature G, D, A, E, B in the right hand all use the same finger pattern 123,1234,1.
  • F major and scales starting on black keys Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb in the right hand also use a regular permutation of 123,1234,1 like this...

    R.H. 1234,123,1234,123,1234,123,1234

Another way to understand the pattern of fingering for the 'flat' keys is start with the right hand fingering for C major 123,1234,1. Keep your hand in this "C" position and then add the flats for the 'flat' keys. First add the Bb then Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb. As you add the flats maintain the fingering 123,1234,1. This fingering then covers all the standard fingerings for flat keys.

    R.H. 1   2   3   1   2   3   4   1 

    F  : C   D   E  [F]  G   A   Bb  C

    Bb : C   D   Eb  F   G   A  [Bb] C

    Eb : C   D  [Eb] F   G   Ab  Bb  C

    Ab : C   Db  Eb  F   G  [Ab] Bb  C

    Db : C  [Db] Eb  F   Gb  Ab  Bb  C

    Gb : Cb  Db  Eb  F  [Gb] Ab  Bb  Cb

    * tonic for each scale is given in brackets

  • similar patterns are found in the left hand.
  • except for a few exceptions the fingerings do not change between major and the various minor scales.

Some methods explain these patterns, like this one...

...but IMO too many don't show crucial patterns and just notate endless scales.

If we return to part of your original question...

...learn each [scale] as a separate piece of knowledge... [or] memorize the patterns?

...it seems clear the scales are not separate and unrelated, but rather follow patterns. It's counterproductive to not seek out these patterns.

There are other patterns regarding the position of the black and white keys. Things like major 2nds and major 3rds will be keys of the same color except when crossing the B,C and E,F half steps. Perfect 4th and 5th are always the same color keys except when the the combination B and F.

Regarding memorization, I'm not sure if that's the best word. It may suggest too much conscience thought. Awareness of patterns and development of reflexive motion is maybe a better way to think about it.

Whichever way you think about it recognizing patterns should not be twisted to mean something like you do not need to practice all the scales. That would be wrong. Despite the repeating patterns the specific, physical "shape" of each scale is unique. The fingers and wrist make small adjustments to reach the changing key positions. They should all be practiced.

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