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I am trying to re-learn many scales I kind of knew, but want to get better at. The question is, at which point do you know you mastered the scale (at least in terms of knowing enough to move on to explore another scale)?

In particular, does one consider a scale to be truly mastered only when one can 'visualize' where all the notes are on the instrument, like if you saw circles over where the scale notes are (my instrument is guitar, by the way)?

Also, is there a 'checklist' of sorts to see how far along you are at mastering the scale? For example: can play all the shapes ascending/descending, can play them in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc, can connect shapes on a single string, on two strings, etc... Are there more of those 'tasks'? Any books or teaching methods employ them?

  • Are you purely concerned with physical technique, or also how you would use the scales in different musical contexts? – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 20 '15 at 16:50
  • Both! I think an alternate way to phrase my question would be: think of someone that you have as a model of knowing scales in and out. Let's say, for example, Joe Satriani. How does he think of the pentatonic scale? Does he think about the notes that are in the scale and his fingers know where to go? Does he think about the degrees of the scale and then he applies instrument (i.e. fretboard/scale shapes) knowledge to do what he wants do do? – Rafael Almeida Feb 20 '15 at 16:54
  • Everyone is different, there's no sense in targeting what someone else does subconsciously. What are your goals? What do you want to be able to do? – Matthew Read Feb 20 '15 at 17:12
  • My goal is to recognize if I'm actually evolving or if I only got good at a certain drill that may not be representative of a higher-level understanding of the scale. Imagine the following example: I'm trying to prove you that I know a certain scale, so I play it fast and clean in all positions. So you tell me: OK, now play it only on the 1st and 2nd strings, and I have to stop and think. This makes me realize there's more to learn on that scale, and that I had not mastered it yet. Does this make any sense? – Rafael Almeida Feb 20 '15 at 17:23
  • @MatthewRead in case you were the downvoter, could you explain what I could have phrased differently in order to not be downvoted? – Rafael Almeida Feb 20 '15 at 19:56
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Rather than levels, how about splitting the problem into 3 dimensions:

  1. Pure fretboard navigation. Be able to spot every occurrence of every note - and every degree of every scale - all over the neck, as fast as possible. This is something you can do on paper or even just in your head, and it's probably not something you want to do separately for each scale - instead, learn to do it for the 12-tone scale and then to map all other scales onto that.

  2. Physical playing technique. being able to play each scale up and down and across the fretboard; skip strings; hit the bends; combine all the scale degrees into 2,3 and 4-string chords all over the fretboard, slide from one mini-chord to another... and do whatever is useful in your musical genre. You can invent dozens of exercises here.

  3. Musical knowledge: learn what scales you can use in what contexts. I won't even try to give examples as there are just too many!

1) is probably the only one you can 'master' as it's a fairly finite problem. With 2) and 3) you can always get better, so there's no mastery possible, only perpetual apprenticeship!

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Like anything in music, there isn't really a finish line, or a point where you can say: "Ok I have mastered this, there is no more to accomplish". I think what you are looking for is to become competent with an individual scale to the point where you can musically use it in fitting contexts. I agree with the items that topo listed out as being useful things to address in order to gain a higher fluency in scales, and just wanted to add one that helped me leaps and bounds. Learn to play through a scale or mode in certain intervals, for example, ascending the major scale in thirds. This means you play the first note, then the third of that note, the second note, then the third of THAT note within the scale, and so on and so forth, ascending and descending. Do this with all modes of a scale, with a metronome, in all intervals, and you'll be shocked with how it helps you develop your lines.

Another very important thing that I think people often have trouble with is making the scale musical. If you can rip through a melodic minor scale all over the neck in all 12 keys with impeccable technique, that is great, and you may feel like you have "mastered" the melodic minor scale. Then your in the heat of the moment with other musicians and it's time for you to improvise, ripping through that scale isn't going to sound like much other than what it is: playing a scale. You want to be crafting lines, not exercises. So I guess what I am trying to say is in your study of scales, be sure to differentiate practicing the scale itself(which is of course important), and USING the scale to create music.

  • Good point regarding being "competent" (finite problem) versus "mastering" the scale (unbounded problem). I will add the intervals exercises to my practice! – Rafael Almeida Feb 20 '15 at 18:02

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