First off, I'm not claiming that practising scales isn't a good thing to do. I'm just curious what specifically it teaches you that doesn't come from playing music.

I'm aiming it as a generic question since it seems common to students of all instruments, but answers targeting individual instruments are fine.

One thing I see is that it teaches you the physical/mechanical action of playing a note, whether that is training all your fingers how to press a piano key, your hands and embouchure how to form each note on the flute, etc. But that's a pretty low-level skill which doesn't require lots of different scales.

So what skill/knowledge does ingraining scales into your "music brain" impart, that makes you a better musician? Is it a bit like in the Karate Kid where seemingly pointless actions turn out to be the foundation of useful technique?

  • 8
    Note: English/American spelling are both allowed, editing just to change that shouldn't happen. – Mr. Boy Feb 10 '15 at 17:12
  • Check out my answer to a different question for what for me is the most useful application of knowing scales Click Here - link – Rockin Cowboy Feb 10 '15 at 17:37
  • 7
    I wish the answers paid more attention to this part of the question: 'what specifically it teaches you that doesn't come from playing music.` – Stephen Hazel Feb 10 '15 at 20:13
  • 5
    I think the "karate kid" analogy is perfect. And Stephen, it does not specifically teach anything that does not come from 'playing music' because scales ARE music. A scale is just a one directional melody with one prevailing tonality. Thus 'practicing scales' is just practicing a subset of all possible melodies. 'Blowing changes' is the same thing with monte-carlo sampling, but if you don't have any scale structures floating around in the mind already you're not likely to improvise melodies very fluently that sit in key very well. – Darren Ringer Feb 10 '15 at 22:20
  • 5
    It's more like this. Soccer players do a lot of long distance running. A striker will spend a couple of hours taking shot after shot straight at a goalkeeper, who will catch the ball and throw it back. That isn't playing soccer, but soccer requires a whole lot of running and shooting. Focusing on fundamental skills as a part of your practice regimen means that you don't have to focus on them when it's time to play, because they will be second nature. So it is with musical exercises and playing music. – BobRodes Feb 11 '15 at 0:43

12 Answers 12

up vote 29 down vote accepted

A lot of the benefit is in how you practice them.

If done mindfully and effectively, playing scales can give you a way to focus your practice on the building blocks that make up most of the music you play. Don't think of scales as a series of notes. Instead, think of them as the foundation pieces that music is built around.

Here are some examples of effective ways to practice scales. Remember, think about what you are playing. Don’t just blow through it for the sake of saying you did.

  • First, try playing as fast as possible. Then as slow as you can, holding each note until you run out of breathe or bow (that last bit only applies to certain instruments, obviously).

  • Play variations

  • Stepped scales: Play notes in patterns going up and down the scale. This will familiarize both your fingers and your ears with small chunks of notes that commonly show up in music. I'm writing out the first two examples in both note names for the C major scale, and numbers representing note positions. 1 represents the first note of whatever scale you are using. 2 the second, and so on.

    Examples:

    1. thirds: CE DF EG FA GB AC BD CE, 13 24 35 46 57 61 72 1

    2. Up and down in thirds and fifths: CEGEC, DFAFD 13531 24642 35753

    3. Up a thirds, down a scale: CEGFEDC 1354321 2465432

    4. Up in intervals: C CDC CEC CFC CGC CAC CBC C CCC 1 121 131 141 151 161 171

    5. More advanced (4): start at 2, then 3, then 4, etc. 2 212 232 242 252 262 272

  • Rhythms: Find a 2 or 4 beat rhythm you like or that you struggle with. For each note in the scale, play it in that rhythm. For more of a challenge, play a stepped scale in rhythm.

  • Play chords: Play the most common chords associated with a key. This will probably be the I, IV, and V chords for beginners. The I chord is the major chord starting on the first note in the scale, the IV starting on the fourth, and the V starting on the fifth.

When you play a musical piece, you need to focus not only on the individual notes and phrases you play, but also on making the sound musical, and playing a desirable interpretation. Practicing scales gives you a chance to work on the smallest building blocks of music without worrying about interpretation. It also provides a very easy way to break the music down into very small pieces. You can get a lot of the same benefit by going through an entire piece of music 1 measure at a time, breaking it down into tiny pieces, but that's about as interesting to work through as scales are.

The most common way to play scales it to simply blow through them mindlessly. The benefit at that point is low. It gives you a tiny, tiny bit more practice knowing where you put your fingers, and a little more benefit in that you have to think about which sharps and flats are associated with each key.

Knowing what sharps and flats are in what key is extremely useful: it helps you figure out what notes are in a piece in that key, what chords to expect, that when something sounds off, and it is a note not found in the key you are playing in, that that is probably the reason. But you don't need to learn to play scales to list what notes are in what scales.

Hmm. I think I've been neglecting my scales lately: I should go practice them more.

In addition to the other answers, I believe it improves the ability to simplify the music in your mind. Researchers studied the memory of chess experts and found they could recall the positions of almost all the pieces when placed in positions typical of a game, but did no better than amateurs when the pieces were placed randomly.

For me, at least, the same effect occurs with scales and chords when playing music. They are fundamental patterns that repeat over and over in real music. With practice, you can read a measure and your mind says, "Oh, that's just a scale starting on the fifth." Your fingers play the scale pretty much autonomously while your mind is free to read ahead and start working on the next measure. Whereas when I was a beginner, I had to give attention to each individual note. Knowing the scales significantly decreases the required cognitive load.

  • 1
    +1 for this. Sight reading is just so much easier if you've practiced Karen's exercises in the matching scales recently. I credit years of this type of scale practice as an important step towards my ability to sight read almost any baroque flute music and immediately play it a tempo with very few errors. It's just a great way of building that muscle memory. – Sumyrda Feb 11 '15 at 8:25
  • 1
    True, but, as mentioned in a previous answer, while runs of maybe 4, 5,6 notes from a known scale are found in pieces, the fingering often is not the same as one may have practised that scale in. Depends where the tune starts or finishes that run.So it's not necessarily that helpful. – Tim Feb 11 '15 at 8:55
  • I couldn't agree more with this answer. When I am learning a new song, especially the solo sections, knowing that a particular section is just using pattern run xyz on a scale in position X is indispensable. Instead of having to memorize 15, 20 or 30 notes I just remember the "pattern run", the "scale and position" and the "beginning & ending notes" of the run. – Dunk Feb 11 '15 at 19:09
  • @Sumyrda - I can't recommend learning to sight read enough, but at the same time, you don't always have your sheet music with you and relying on it too much for too long ends up dulling your music memory. First hand experience with that memory part:) There are so many songs I've played 100's of times using the sheet music (and I barely look at it) but then I can't get past the opening phrase without having the music in front of me. Very frustrating. It is probably old age, but since I've relied on sight reading for so long, I find I have a much more difficult time memorizing songs than before. – Dunk Feb 11 '15 at 19:14

Practicing scales teaches....scales.

The point of a scale is to determine what sharps/flats a song has.

Imagine instead of saying 'This song is on B major' saying 'This song has F,C,G,D,A sharps'.

That would be really pointless. Thus, music theorists developed scales so people can easily communicate with each other.

Also, when writing the sharps/flats of the scale at the beginning of the music sheet, you won't have to write them during the song. Imagine a song with 5 sharps and instead of writing them at the beginning of the song, writing them each time you find a sharp note. That would both tiring to the writer and the reader.

So, scales might not really help you technically, but they do theoretically.

Moreover, another thing I noticed while practicing scales (which is really important) is that I get to know the instrument. If you run the D minor scale up and down the whole instrument many many times, you'll see that you can find your way into the notes of the scale, no matter the place(on the instrument) you are.

If you practice most of the basic scales, you'll really get to know the instrument well and you won't have to search for notes (which happens to beginner musicians)

  • On piano, flute, I agree. On guitar, not so sure. Scales tend to be patterns there, and, let's face it, the A major pattern is exactly the same as the Bb major pattern, just a fret higher. I don't believe this scale learning teaches what note names there are on guitar. – Tim Feb 10 '15 at 17:40
  • 2
    @Tim I agree that learning scales on guitar will not teach you the names of the notes, but WILL teach you where to find needed notes on the guitar. So as a guitarist, if I know the D minor scale - and I am playing along to a song in the key of F (relative major of D minor), all I have to know is where to fret the notes of the D minor scale and I can play along without hitting any wrong notes. I don't need to know what those notes are called - but I need to know where they are. So being familiar with all the positions of the D minor scale, enables me to find (but not name) the notes I need. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 10 '15 at 18:32

Scales teach you...

  • Knowledge of music: They are the ABCs of music literally. Scales contain the building blocks of music. Understand them and you understand allot about music and music theory. Having practiced scales for years has also made me better at musicianship (note/interval recognition when listening). The ABCs are there in a different way when you read music, however the more ways you know a thing the better. No elementary teacher of children would consider not teaching their student the ABCs unless they did not teach in English and that is the way of scales (Scales and the ABCs are both raw ordering of set members.).

  • Knowledge of your instrument:

    • Know where music is going: Understand scales on you instrument, then you can predict what notes will be used in the music of others on your instrument. If you learn this from other parts of playing music, you learn it better from scales.

    • Improvise and create: Understand scales on you instrument, then you can make informed decisions about your own musical choices in both improvisation and composition on your instrument. If you learn this from other parts of playing music, you learn it better from scales.

    • Learn a bit extra about chords Chords are built on scale degrees. OK so there are exceptions to this, but I have heard more than one music theory teacher say so anyway. As a guitarist, I have been taught some chords by directly referencing scale degrees. Sure you learn chords directly from chords, but informing them with scale knowledge can multiply your skill and knowledge of chords.

    • Patterns: Since scales are the building blocks of music, they are the patterns that music follows on your instrument. Even if you are playing atonal music exclusively, you need a frame of reference that scales provide. Even in other contexts, it is scales that provide a frame of reference for the notes you use.

    • Know where the notes are on your instrument: Knowing the patterns of the scales properly along with the alphabet shows you where the specific notes (ABCDEFG) lie on your instrument. (Properly here says that you should find a way to focus on the notes that name the scale. On the guitar it is tough because if you start and end on the note that names the scale, some notes get left out. I use special notes like these to transition into new scale patterns.) Reading music can provide this in a peace meal way, but learning scales provides this for all then notes the scale covers from the first moment you begin working on it. Many find reading music difficult to learn. I am saying scale knowledge can inform and improve the process of learning to read music.

  • Skill

    • They are in the music you play: Scales (usually not complete, but still) show up in all sorts of music. When I see or need to play a group of notes that fit into a scale, I need not think of individual notes. It makes learning complicated phrases easier by reducing the need to think about each note as a septate moment. Scales enhance your understanding of all music, which is a practice multiplier. Learning a piece will not have the same multiplying effect except where it might possibly sometimes teach you about scales.

    • Focus on the technique: They help you practice playing notes on the instrument/voice without worrying about learning or playing a piece. It gives you a focus where you are not worried about any external pressure, you are focused solely on playing notes in rhythm correctly with good tone. No complicated rhythm to make some things easier (Do not swing your scales, on the guitar for example, it makes it easier to get to some notes but harder to get to others, and this is bad because it creates a skill imbalance.). Playing a scale for 15 minutes is usually more intense for your technique than 15 minutes of practicing a piece which is more cerebral. Yes, people play them over and over for more than 15 minutes a day. Playing scales should be well beyond just memorizing. Learning to play a piece is a distraction from technique

    • Strength (and flexibility) training: You can do it over and over and build up muscles and flexibility and accuracy in your muscles without worrying about getting "the piece" correct. Just get the scale correct. focus on the details of your movements. Do them over and over. There are so many things to focus on: coordinating the right hand and left in timing. Placing the finger just right, or getting the feel of the motion to flow. I tell my students that Scales are the "running" of guitar. When you are an athlete, (Baseball, Football, the other football, Cricket, Basketball, almost any sport) often the most important practice you do is running. Without being able to run, being able to make a basket, for example, is useless (You would only be good for H-O-R-S-E then). In this way scales are a practice multiplier. They help you get to the basket. They help you learn to move your fingers or what ever you need to do to get to notes quickly, and precisely without other distractions. I am likening learning a piece to shooting a basket. When you are learning a piece you are not as intensely focused on playing (Taking breaks to fix mistakes or figure out a passage. Working it out slowly first etc.)

    • Timing: There is no better way to sharpen your rhythmic accuracy than practicing scales with a metronome. Sure you should work with a metronome with learning pieces as well, however you will have more distractions that take away from the effort of perfecting your timing.

Even if you are just going for improved muscle skill and can get that from practicing less than the full set of scales, if you practice them enough to gain the effect of improving your skill, you may as well practice the other scales to prevent complete boredom. Scales are boring, you may as well learn as much as you can from them as you exercise your fingers.

If you say you are not seeing scales played in music the same way they are played in pure scale practice, I humbly suggest that your scope of scale practice is too limited.

As an anecdote, when ever my students made a significant gain in skill over the course of a week, I asked them "you practiced your scales allot didn't you?" They usually said yes.

  • You give good reasons for learning scales, but your arguments for why one should continue to practice scales are less convincing. Do you practice reciting the alphabet every day? Once you've already mastered all the keys, it seems that you could get similar benefits from practicing anything, except for your point about focus on your technique. – 200_success Feb 12 '15 at 0:49
  • @200_success And strength and flexibility and also it is a practice multiplier. The metaphor of the ABCs is limited. Knowledge of the ABC's is kind of one dimensional, but in music we need to need to know it backwards and forwards and upside down with a metronome singing it in your head, thinking about the notes not thinking about the notes, thinking about your fingers, skipping notes, rolls and patterns like Karen suggests. I could go on. All this is somehow wrapped up in the seemingly straightforward knowledge of the scales. – amalgamate Feb 12 '15 at 16:07
  • @200_success Yes you can get these skills from certain pieces of music, but not all pieces of music will convey these skills so strongly and completely as scales will. – amalgamate Feb 12 '15 at 16:18
  • @200_success The point is that, while you may be able to recite the alphabet from beginning to start easily, you may not be able to recite it backward, with arbitrary intervals, and recognize these intervals in arbitrary words. Besides, the main focus of a musician is not on practicing scales, so I dare say that any musician agrees that they perhaps could practice them some more. – Sanchises Feb 13 '15 at 18:17
  • The skills gained from practicing scales are like the skills needed to compete in an Olympic event. You can always get better at scales and top yourself no matter how good you are and thus it is always worth striving to do so if you have the least motivation to be a better musician. – amalgamate Feb 13 '15 at 18:50

When I was learning piano, and, say, Bbminor scale came along, my teacher said the reason I needed to learn to play it was "because it was in the exam".

Many many years later, when I started to teach RGT exams in electric guitar playing, certain scales were prescribed to be learned. Later, in the exam itself, the candidate had to make up a tune, to fit to chords from a particular key, on the spot.He would need to recognise the key, and choose appropriate notes which would fit to the chords in that key.

Thus, if, for example, the chords were C, F and G, notes from the C scale could be used. Know that scale, then one could make up a tune containing those notes. A set, if you like. In the early stages, pentatonics tend to be used, as they play without the 'awkward' notes of the 4th and 7th, thus any will work diatonically. Later, blues scales could be used, if the chords were mostly dom 7ths.

EDIT - a potential problem with learning scales to use as a basis for improvising is that, initially at least, the improv tends to be very scalar, because this is the order that the series of notes has been played to death in.

A lot of songs tend to use notes from one key only. So, if one realises that a new tune is in, say, D Dorian, then one will plump for the notes from the C maj scale, as they are guaranteed to fit.And you won't expect an Eb or C# to appear.

  • Does that mean the keys with notes in the given scale sort of "appear highlighted" in your mind, as a result of having the scales burnt into your mind? – Mr. Boy Feb 10 '15 at 17:31
  • 1
    @Mr.Boy - that's a yes. – Tim Feb 10 '15 at 17:35
  • "The awkward notes of the 4th and the 7th" You mean the 2nd and the 7th? – Cole Johnson Feb 11 '15 at 6:49
  • @ColeJohnson - No. Pentatonic major loses the 4th and 7th notes that are in the full major scale.In the minor pentatonic, the 2nd and 6th are missing from the natural minor. – Tim Feb 11 '15 at 8:07

I play guitar mainly (occasionally piano) so I will answer this question from a guitarist's point of view. I also write songs - both lyrics and the accompanying music. I don't actually write the music down - other than the chords, but I compose it on my instrument and record it on my Boss BR 800 Multi-Track recorder to save for posterity.

For me personally the most valuable application for the skills I develop by learning scales, is the ability to improvise and be able to instantly play fills, licks, or solos over or between chords in a song. So if I am playing with other musicians and there is someone playing the chords on guitar and maybe a drummer and a bass player, if I know what key the song is in, and I know the appropriate scales that correspond to that particular key, then I know which notes I can play that will sound right in the context of that particular song.

Or if I am playing solo, I can use this knowledge to add some color or spice up my arrangement by adding a few fills between chords or simulate a solo that occurs in the full arrangement for that song.

Knowing some scales also helps me in composing the music for my original songs. It helps in finding the notes for the basic melody as well as adding fills, runs and lead solos during my arrangement when I start embellishing the recording of my demo.

I also find that practicing the scales, improves both my right hand and left hand dexterity. I will practice playing them backwards and forwards at various speeds and with different picking patterns (down down down vs. down up / down up etc.). So I get the dual benefit of learning a set of notes that I can use for playing or composing a song - while enhancing my physical playing skills at the same time.

I find learning a scale for multiple keys is easier on the guitar than on piano. When you play a particular type scale (major, minor, Lydian, Dorian, whatever) on guitar, the shape of the patterns look the same no matter which key (A,B,C etc.) you are in. But on piano, the number of white keys verses black keys will change with each key so you must memorize 12 times as many patterns to learn a particular scale in all 12 keys.

For a more detailed discussion on how learning just one particular scale on guitar will allow you to play improvisational lead solos and fills and runs and licks (or whatever you want to call them) on the fly when playing with other musicians - take a look at my answer to another question on Music Practice and Theory by clicking here Using Scales to play lead solos and fills In this link you will also find a brief example of how easy it is to change keys once you learn the basic pattern of a particular scale on guitar.

  • I don't know a bit of piano, but I found this useful as an idea for adding embellishments to my own composition (which I do mostly via software, since I'm not all that good on any instrument). – Steve Feb 10 at 23:08
  • 1
    @Steve Thanks for your comment. I hope you continue to compose. I believe composing music with software is a form of artistic expression in the same way as composing on an instrument. Your instrument just happens to be a computer keyboard vs piano keyboard ;-) – Rockin Cowboy Feb 23 at 17:05
  • I meant to write that I don't know a bit of guitar, and I don't play piano well enough to compose on it. I came across an essay advising people against composing for their own instruments, unless they're really good, because limits to their playing skills can constrain their composing. (But I don't have any problem with composing piano parts I'll never be able to play.) – Steve Feb 24 at 19:32

Two topics I want to hightlight beause I have not read them in other answers:

  • Music is very far from uniformly distributed random notes. Especially for instruments as clarinets, the keys are also very much biased. So the scales at least guarantee, that no note hides in the shadow and that all notes get equal attention.

  • You need a (I would even say: very) high level of experience, to judge the intonation for woodwind instruments within a - say Allegro - piece of music. Unfortunately, a beginner should learn to hear correct intervals right at the beginning. Concentration on the score and decoding it into fingerings is a major distraction, which may leave no free attention to the intonation. I guess it can be somewhat compensated by playing a piece by heart, but then we are again at the first issue.

  • This doesn't seem to address the question. – Ben Crowell Feb 11 '15 at 5:53

If you just learn how to play songs then when it comes to writing one you're solos, harmonies, melodies and chords will be all over the place. When you learn a scale, you know what notes "belong together" which enhances your written piece. Also, if you learn the scales of the songs you learn, you can learn to improvise which in the long run builds technique and broadens your arsenal when playing music. Scales are also good for identifying notes which helps you play by ear. They aren't necessary for playing music, but for improv and writing, it is highly beneficial and will make your music more interesting.

What benefit can you get from practicing the alphabet that you can't get from just reading a book?

What benefit can you get from practicing maps that you can't get from noticing what's out the window when you're driving?

Consider these two absurd notions I have brought forth, and I hope you will arrive to answer your own question.

You are correct. Practicing scales only teaches you finger control and technique. It doesn't teach you anything that doesn't come from playing music. For example, if you play a bunch of melodies (and chords) in the key of C major, you are going to learn the C major scale whether you consciously realize it or not.

  • You may learn which notes constitute C major, but why learn or put them in ascending/descending order. This is what the OP referred to. – Tim Feb 13 '15 at 18:20

Well, scales are the foundational building block of harmony. You practice them because those are the runs you will generally be playing. I'm not sure what sort of music would come out of the instrument if you never practiced scales. You can't understand much about harmony without knowing scale

A scale is a collection of intervals, the most common intervals you will be playing.

  • I know, and play with, quite a few singers who can harmonise more than adequately,- and spontaneously, and none know their scales. – Tim Feb 13 '15 at 18:15
  • @Tim do they have a musical family background and/or a culture with strong traditions in music? – mey Feb 14 '15 at 13:12
  • @mey - certainly not, specifically. None has musical training, some play guitar with no formal training, or knowledge of scales. Some don't even know what the stuff they play or sing is technically! But it does NOT stop them being great players and singers and harmonists. Some will disagree and say it shouldn't happen. I say I'm glad it does! – Tim Feb 14 '15 at 13:32
  • Wow, @Tim, that's amazing. They probably have had no formal training, but i guess they "informally" train their ear through listening to various songs. Or they go to church and get involved in the choir. – mey Feb 14 '15 at 21:08
  • No church chiors, I'm afraid! Just listen and sing. I love it. Who needs formal training... – Tim Feb 14 '15 at 21:58

I have seen some great answers here, but I would like to add something about scales that comes from an improvisational standpoint:

When you improvise, you have an arsenal of melodic ideas at your disposal that you can relate to the harmony. In this context, the scales may serve you as two really important things:

  1. A folder to file your musical vocabulary under. If you know the lines you may play over a a certain chord, most of the time, you can relate those lines to a scale that lies behind them. By using this, you can immediately have phrases under your fingers.
  2. An alphabet to punctuate and connect the melodic ideas inside your arsenal. You get a chord, visualize a scale, recall and play melodic concepts, linking them with the notes provided by the scale.

protected by Matthew Read Feb 13 '15 at 17:03

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.