When learning scales, is it important to know which key is being pressed when?

I'm relatively new to learning the piano, though this has been a point of confusion since day one.

So, I started out with C Major and everything was going fine. I got the finger motions down, I was good with the overall technique, then I began to wonder: "What's the purpose of this?"

I went to the Internet for answers, and found a truly horrifying answer - One I had wished wasn't true, a single answer I've yet to see repeated elsewhere, but uncertainty is always present. Apparently, alongside the facts that many classical pieces utilize scales and it's a good finger exercise, someone suggested that you have to memorize each key pressed in the correct order per sequence.

My conclusion:

There are twelve scales (7 major, 5 minor) (12 major AND 12 minor as I'm told, ignore the incorrect math following), each consisting of twelve keys - "96" keys in total. Then, you must also mentally overcome the same feat with your less dominant hand, essentially doubling the amount you must commit to memory. At one point you'll be expected to do this quickly, with both hands, sometimes with separate scales, and possibly backwards. It begins to sound like an entirely separate skill than actually playing the piano.

It sounds like a form of torture conceived by the devil himself - To punish the most wicked, corrupt soul for committing crimes our mortal minds cannot comprehend.

Now, I understand knowledge of scales aren't required to actually "play" the piano, but I wish to learn properly and everything seems to suggest that "scales" (Vague scales - We mustn't elaborate!) are the one of the most important things to pick up.

I'm thinking this may be like math and me - I'm really good at it as far as knowing the techniques and all, but I've always had I hard time seeing the raw math behind it (WHY does the distance formula work?).

So, in technique and practice, is it actually required that you "train" to the point where you become mentally aware that you're pressing "C D E F G A B C - C B A G F E D C", or is it just a finger/mental exercise?

I've always wanted to compose my own music - Understand the logic behind it. I'd be willing to go through this potentially traumatizing experience if I must. I want to fully grasp every aspect of it, it's something I love.

• How do you conclude there are 12 scales, 7 major and 5 minor? Just possible you're mixed up with white and black keys on the piano? Each note on a piano will be the root note for both major and minor scales, thus 12 of each. There are 3 different minor scales, and possibly one includes pentatonics and blues, the there's the modes, etc.
– Tim
May 11, 2015 at 10:32
• @Tim Aye, that's correct. Again, just started so I assumed white keys = major and black keys = minor. The instructor (DVD) began to teach the use of 'major scales' and skipped any that began with a black key. May 12, 2015 at 21:29
• I think the point of such repetition is for the memorization to happen automatically in your motor-control neurons. You don't need to be concerned with being able to have perfect recall about what you played - in fact some of the most "talented" musicians can struggle in analytical areas like that much more than average. The value is in associating your mental/emotional states associated with the scales with the technical methods required to reproduce them on the keyboard. This is a constant ongoing process which is never fully mastered. May 12, 2015 at 22:36

While only skimming the other answers, let me answer it simply this way:

How difficult was it for you to learn how to read and write? Think of all the different combinations of letters and spaces that are required in order for this sentence to "make sense" to you. The same applies to music although much more simply.

As you learn your scales, you will begin to recognize relationships between the different scales, and you won't be memorizing every individual note progression, but rather you will naturally memorize the patterns.

For example: A major and D major both have a raised 3rd that results in the keyboard going from a white key (C for aM, F for dM) to a black key; overtime you will recognize this while you play and improvise, and it will become a sort of mental "anchor" for you. As you play more and more, more and more "anchors" will become apparent. You will ultimately get to the point where you are naturally mentally comfortable with all scales and how to play them, from any position, on demand.

I know this seems like a lot since you are a beginner, but understand the most important thing about music: Music is all about relationships. How a note relates to another note, chord to another chord, progression of chords to another phrase, etc etc. As you expand your musical vocabulary more and more, these relationships (patterns) will emerge and it will help "glue" all of the various aspects of music together more and more.

Hope this helps. I only practiced my scales and had lessons for 1 year out my 10 years playing (I did practice scales sporadically since that year, however not consistent). If I had practiced my scales like I should have, I would have been a "virtuoso" (at least in terms of technical ability) years ago. <-- Keep practicing your scales and arpeggios; there is a reason why there is so much emphasis on them.

It's always counter-productive to feel horrified while you're trying to learn something! At your level, please don't feel you have to memorize your fingering or your black-white key patterns. For now, make sure each scale you work on feels comfortable and smooth. What you are mainly doing at this point is getting some fluency, practicing these figures out of the context of a piece. It can be fun to play your scale at a couple of different speeds, and experiment with different groupings of notes, for example what happens when I play two notes to a group? What happens when I play four notes to a group? Etc.

I wouldn't spend more than five minutes per day working on scales at this point.

Preview for later: you will find yourself using muscle memory, and in practice you won't need to do nearly as much explicit memorization as you are imagining. Also, with a scale, once you know what finger to start on, the scale sort of plays itself for the most part.

Now, if you're interested in composing, then you'll want to be able to analyze music, and that's where the study of music theory comes in. For your first stage of this (which you may start now, or a year from now, or anything in between), you can get some elementary level music theory workbooks from a store that sells sheet music and instrument method books.

• I completely agree. You'll find common repeating patterns across numerous scales. So in short whilst there may seem like a lot of scales in reality they draw from a much smaller set of frequently occurring patterns. May 11, 2015 at 23:44

Just think about what you have to memorize in order to drive a car! The accelerator opens the throttle to give more power to the engine. If you want to accelerate at the rate of two miles per hour per second, you have to push it down by a precise amount, plus or minus a certain amount if you are going uphill or downhill. At the same time you do this, you have to adjust the steering wheel, and if you're driving a standard-shift car, then at just the precise moment when the tachometer hits 2,000 you have to let off the gas, press in the clutch and take one hand off the wheel to move the stick!

In actuality, nobody memorizes all of that stuff. You just practice doing it over and over until you can do it without thinking. Same with scales and arpeggios.

When reciting poetry, you don't just need to learn the sounds of the 26 letters, but also the sounds of various combinations, partly even those of whole words. I mean, compare "bough", "rough", "dough", "cough", "plough", "tough". Then you need to learn where to stress each word, just compare "determinate" and "determination" where the word ending affects the stresses at the beginning. And then words are pronounced different in combination, like "the" in "the beginning" vs "the ending".

So you spend years practising letter combinations and word stresses and word combinations.

Now what kind of nightmare is that? Or is it? Most people get by reasonably fine by not making a systematic exercise regime from it. When you're obsessed enough that it becomes important to you, you will turn this into a regular exercise on your own anyway and annoy everybody in hearing range. Don't worry about it yet.

In fact there are 12 major scales (one for each root note) and 12 minor scales -- and there are other scales too - chromatic scales, various pentatonic scales, blues scales... the list goes on and on.

However, don't be daunted. Most people don't even learn all the major scales -- there is a smaller group that are most commonly used, because they are easier to play, or sound better, on certain instruments. If you follow a structured lesson plan, a good set of scales will be introduced to you in a sensible order.

It's good that you're asking what the point of learning scales is, because knowing the reasons will help motivate you to learn and practice.

• Playing scales in general exercises your fingers and helps you get into the habit of a set of movements that often come up when playing real pieces.
• Most of the time, real musical pieces use only the notes from a particular scale (the piece's key). So if, for example, you're playing a piece in G minor, and you've been practising the G minor scale, then you'll be in the habit of playing Bb and Eb instead of B and E. When there's a run in the piece, you'll already have muscle memory of how to play it. If you've also practised arpeggios in that key, you'll be able to play those too, when they appear in a piece.
• If you have any ambition to improvise, knowing scales is important here too, for the same reason as when reading music. If you're improvising against a backing in A minor, you'll primarily be using notes from the A minor scale in your improvisation.

Different people's minds work in different ways. But many of us don't find that learning scales is a matter of learning by rote. The first scale, yes. But every scale of a given type has the same pattern of intervals -- so all major scales go up in steps of 2,2,1,2,2,2,1 semitones. Once you know that, you can (slowly) play any major scale without learning it, by just starting on the root note and counting semitones up. "Learning" a scale is just a matter of getting to the point where you can get to those notes without spending too much time thinking.

Notice that C major and A minor contain the same notes, and so do all the other pairs of major/minor scales a third apart. If you take an observant and analytical approach, you will see loads of these patterns and it will make learning easier.

So, in technique and practice, is it actually required that you "train" to >the point where you become mentally aware that you're pressing "C D E F G A >B C - C B A G F E D C", or is it just a finger/mental exercise?

A piano method will usually recommend not just notes, but a particular finger for each note in each scale. Also the sequence will be different for the right & left hand. If you stick to these recommended fingerings, you'll find the notes are automatically easier to play; for example the longer fingers tend to be in a good position to reach the black keys.

Of course not every piece will use the recommended fingerings, but in general learning these positions will allow you to read through most new pieces without your fingers getting tied into knots.

someone suggested that you have to memorize each key pressed in the correct order per sequence.

What you read about rules and finger-setting might have been a good meant advice to a beginner and was not meant for all piano pieces but for just a difficult passage.

It sounds like a form of torture conceived by the devil himself - To punish the most wicked, corrupt soul for committing crimes our mortal minds cannot comprehend.

If you start with the scale of B-major there are just 2 white keys that you can play with the thumb as it makes sense to play the black keys with the longer finger. The more you come across the scales of the circle of fifths BEADGC... the more white keys can be played by the thumb and the more freedom you will have to use your fingers. Still reserve one black key to cross the thumb under the 4. finger. This is not a rule it’s just more comfortable.

So, in technique and practice, is it actually required that you "train" to the point where you become mentally aware that you're pressing "C D E F G A B C - C B A G F E D C", or is it just a finger/mental exercise?

It will be benefit for composing when you are aware of what your finger are pressing. But even more helpful will be that you hear what you are playing. You can practice this mentally by thinking or singing those passages (together with the finger-settings). It will help you memorizing the music and understand what you’re playing. One day this will function automatically.

There are twelve scales... (12 major AND 12 minor...), each consisting of twelve keys - "96" keys in total. Then, [you have to play it in both hands] essentially doubling the amount...

Let's not quibble about the math and simply admit there are a lot of keys on the piano and lots and lots of combinations to play in all the keys. Of course this will seem overwhelming!

But let's consider two things to make learning the keyboard more manageable.

Musical elements like chords and scales follow repeating patterns and have overlapping similarities. For example the `D`, `A`, and `E` major triads are all the same shape on the keyboard. Instead of three totally different things, they are one common shape. Similarly the `C`, `G`, and `F` major scales each have 7 tones, but instead of 21 separate tones for all three, the tones `C`, `D`, `E`, `G`, and `A` shared between the three keys, and the unique tones are `F`, `F#`, `B` and `Bb`. That's a total of 9 tones not 21. Learning the difference between the three keys can be though of as just learning how to handle the `F`'s and `B`'s. The real focus is on only those two letters.

Secondly, focus on learning a small set of keys and then learn how the patterns are transposed to different keys. The process is about re-applying patterns. Normally beginners start by playing short pieces in `C`, `G`, and `F`. That will provide the foundation for fundamental patterns. Probably the two next most important stages are learning minor keys and learning keys that start on black keys like `Bb` and `Eb`. Minor keys will introduce new harmonic ideas. Black keys introduces mostly a mechanical challenge about how to place your hands on the black keys.

...is it actually required that you "train" to the point where you become mentally aware that you're pressing "C D E...

Eventually your hands start moving automatically and you don't literally thing of each and every key pressed. You think of the key harmonic notes. Also, you tend to stop thinking about concrete letter names like `F#` and think for about _leading tone in `G` major.`

I've always wanted to compose my own music - Understand the logic behind it.

The logic behind it is music theory. That is where you study all the patterns. Instead of the concrete letters like chord `C F Ab` to `C E G` you think of the patterns cadential 6/4 chord and _borrowed subdominant in a major key`.

• Learn the basic patterns in a few keys
• Learn how to transpose the patterns into other keys
• Learn about the mechanical fingering issues involving black keys

That's a managed approach instead of thinking you have a thousand different combinations to memorize.