I asked my teacher how I can memorize every scale degrees and inversions of chords and he told me that I should not just sit down and memorize them one by one because I'll forget them easily. instead he recommends me to be familiar with the "Rooms" of the key and be "friends" with chords and notes like the super tonic or the leading tone. He told me that I have to be curious about a piece that whenever I hear something interesting I have to try and just know what the notes mean and how they work.

That's how he mastered all keys and he did it in 4 years. Now he can play like any chords and any inversions. He could improvise a chord progression and change keys.

have any of you used this method before? if so I'd like to have some tips because I'm certainly not good enough

  • 1
    As it stands, the question is somewhat vague. 'rooms' and 'friends'? What's that about? What's special about a supertonic? Help!!
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 13:32
  • You're welcome to ask this question here. However, you're asking a question about what your teacher told you; wouldn't it make more sense to ask your teacher, since he/she is the source?
    – SirPython
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 22:16
  • 1
    This is actually a really good question, and one that a lot of people struggle with when learning to play extemporaneously. I'll write an answer shortly. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 14:39
  • By the way, since you're new to the site, I'll point out: It is generally customary to "accept" answers that sufficiently answer your questions. Not only does it give the answerer a little reputation boost, it also helps visitors to the site find high-quality answers that meet their needs. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 15:40

4 Answers 4


Learning scales and chord inversions

I disagree with him that you shouldn't "just memorize" them. Learning scales and chord inversions is all about repetition, repetition, repetition. I don't think I know any teachers who would say "no, don't memorize scales by themselves". Scales are the basis of EVERYTHING you play on the piano (or most other pitched instruments, too, for that matter). If you want to be able to play like he can and improvise your way through anything, you must learn the scales and commit them to memory.

Learning chord progressions and improvisation

Here's where he is correct. If you want to learn how to play any song and improvise anything in any key, the best way is to expose yourself to music and understand what's happening. This is how I, too, taught myself how to play almost anything in any key in just a few years.

In order to that, however, you first need to learn a few basics.

1) Learn how to build chords. If someone says, "play a C chord", you should be able to immediately hit a C chord. If someone says, "play a Gm-add6", you should be able to immediately hit a G minor (add 6) chord. There are countless resources on the internet that have charts and diagrams you can learn chords from.

2) Learn your scale degrees. If you're playing in the key of C and someone says "play a IV chord", you should know to play an F chord. If someone says "play a vi chord", you should know to play an A minor. Once you understand the concept of what a "IV (4) chord" or a "V (5) chord" is, you will be able to grasp the idea of chord progressions much more easily.

3) Learn your basic chord progressions. Learn the "rooms" of the keys. When he says to familiarize yourself with the "rooms", he's talking about learning all the standard chords associated to a given key. That key has a "room", with all the chords in it that you can choose. For example, in the key C, your room typically will consist of things like a I chord, a IV chord, V chord, a vi chord, a II chord, and so on. If someone says to play a song in the key of C, you should be familiar with these "standard" chords you will play with.

Here's an example. Using ONLY the chords mentioned above, here are some songs you can play in the key of C (the "room" of C):

"Let it Go" - I  V  vi  IV*
"Oh, When the Saints" - I V I IV I V I
"My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" - I IV I V I

*this chord progression applies to a LOT of pop songs-- "Let it Go", "Don't Stop Believing", "Country Roads, Take Me Home", "I'm Yours", etc.

4) Start immersing yourself in music (preferably music with fairly basic chord progressions, to start out). Find some guitar chords for a particular song. Since you learned how scale degrees work in Step #2, you should be able to look at that chord sheet and tell what the chord progression is.

For example, if you know the song is in the key of G and the chords are G C G D G, you know that the chord progression is I IV I V I. Practice the song until you are very, very comfortable with playing the chord progression.

5) Here's where the magic begins. Remember that I IV I V I we just figured out in Step #4? We can take that progression and apply it to any key. Maybe we want to play the song in the key of D. Well, if we play a I IV I V I pattern in the key of D, we end up with D G D A D.

Over time, you still hopefully start to develop an ear for chord progressions and be able to tell which scale degree is being played at any given time. As your teacher alluded to, each note and chord has a specific purpose in the scale/key, and it's up to you to know how to use each one (which is largely what Steps 1-5 are to help you with). Once you can do that, you can start playing along with songs without any written music. That is the point at which you can start improvising.

Disclaimer: While the process is fairly straightforward, my explanation you see here is quite oversimplified. This isn't a "learn it all in a week" thing. It's a "Take a step here, practice. Take another step, practice." thing. Don't be surprised or frustrated if it takes you a while to get to Step 5. It's a process of learning and growing.

Disclaimer #2: I write this answer under the assumption you already are a competent piano player. If you are still in the process of learning which keys play which notes, please learn that first. You will only frustrate yourself by trying to jump ahead. Again, it's a process of learning and growing.

Disclaimer #3: If want to learn how to improvise because you can't read music, I strongly caution you. Yes, many phenomenal pianists can't actually read music. But, I would still highly encourage you to learn to read music. It will help you in the long run.

EDIT: I forgot to make a final comment on chord inversions. Once you have locked down your ability to play with songs using the chord progressions, you can start experimenting with inversions and finding out what sounds the best. Some songs lend themselves to using a 2nd inversion. Some songs lend themselves to using a 1st inversion. Some songs lend themselves to switching it up. Assuming you have an ear for music, play around with it and find something that suits your fancy. Develop your personal style.


It's not really a method. He's just telling you not to obsess on rote-learning, but to let your theory knowledge grow out of the music you encounter.

It sounds like you may be a guitarist? PLEASE learn notation, and play lots of music written by other people. So many guitarists seem only interested in improvisation.


I think your teacher wants you to learn the functional roles and names of notes in a key. For example, at some point in a piece of music you may play the note B natural. This alone doesn't tell us anything about how the note functions. But, if we know the piece is in C major, the B natural is the leading tone member of the C major scale. The leading tone can be an important part of the dominant chord. The leading tone often resolves by moving up to the tonic. Your musical curiosity should prompt to you analyze the music to see if there is a dominant chord and a dominant function at this point in the music. Keep in mind a note can have several possible functions depending on context so you must analyze what is happening. Also, sometimes music fulfills the expected functions, other times it will behave unexpectedly. Composers play with those expectations.

A good harmony textbook will provide an introduction to these functional ideas. You can also look for online resources like this Wikipedia page: Diatonic function. Notice the 'Degrees and functions of the diatonic scale' section of links at the bottom of that page. It likes to additional pages for each scale degree.

As far as "rooms" and "friends" are concerned, your teacher is probably just using those terms for analogies. If music theory is new to you, some analogies may help you get the ideas. "Rooms" may be synonymous with harmonic function? Ask your teacher for clarification.


I’d agree with your teacher. Don’t just sit and memorise. I am 100% self-taught on piano and know all scales and inversions like the back of my hand.

I’d advise to just play around. Once you know what notes are in an individual chord you can just play them in any order and you will end up with the same chord: each inversion has different qualities that you will just become a custom to.

Similarly for scales, don’t just sit down and learn scales. The best way to learn would be to play lots and lots of music in as many different keys as you can, this way you’ll simply pick up the patterns that form scales (and chords) in different keys.

The key (excuse the pun) is simply to play as much as you can and be adventurous, don’t stick to what you know. Push yourself to play advanced pieces in “unusual” keys.

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