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I am a late adult learner, learning piano for around 7-8 months. My tutor and I take a free wheeling approach towards my learning and cover books like John Thomson's Teaching Little Fingers to Play (started with that), Alfred's Basic Adult All-in-One and Wright Piano Forte Tutor by Albert Oswald (a book printed in London but very popular in India for decades).

Of course I started with basic fingering and C Major scale. We also agreed to do scales from time to time and by now I have practiced C, Am, G, Em, D scales. I was wondering what would be the best sequence of practicing and learning scales.

I. a) Go through all majors with sharps and b) then all majors with flats and c) then the minors (all 3 types) along the circle of fifths

II. Go through a major (C/G/D...) and its relative minors (Am/Em/Bm...)

III. Go through a major (C/G/D...) and its own minors (Cm/Gm/Dm...)

IV. A corollary question to II & III, is how to progress through the scales - along circle of fifth or through harmonic, or any other sequence

I know there are no right and wrong answers but it would be great to receive perspectives.

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    Actually a common order of scales isn't among the options you listed: go through the scales in increasing number of sharpes and flats. That is, C, then G (one sharp) then F (one flat) then D (two sharps) then Bb (two flats), etc. – Todd Wilcox Jul 15 '17 at 7:46
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When I practiced scales and scale patterns, I was told by my teacher to use a variety of different "routes" through the 12 keys. For example, here are the routes I most frequently used to get through all 12 keys:

  • go around the circle of fifths (e.g., C, G, D, A, etc.)
  • go around the circle of fourths (e.g., C, F, Bb, Eb, etc.)
  • go up by minor thirds (C, Eb, Gb, A then up a half step to Db, E, G, Bb, then up a half step to D, F, Ab, B)
  • go up by tritones (e.g., C, Gb, Db, G, D, Ab, Eb, A, etc.)

There are other ways to get through all 12 keys--these are just the sequences I used and preferred. For example, you could go up major thirds, increasing by half steps (C, E, Ab, then Db, F, A, then D, F#, Bb, then Eb, G, B). Additionally, for every ascending pattern I've listed, you can play through the 12 keys using the same intervals but in descending form.

Variety is useful because it makes us more flexible. It gives our brain more avenues for accessing/retrieving our memory of a given scale (and muscle memory), which ultimately makes us quicker at retrieving the information. However, variety serves a more practical function: it presents a challenge which keeps us interested and willing to do something as monotonous as practicing scales in all 12 keys. So any amount of variety will be beneficial to your technique and motivation.

Regarding the different types of scales (major, natural minor, melodic minor, etc.), I would recommend sticking to one type and taking it through all 12 keys before moving to the next type of scale. For example, I would take the major scale through all 12 keys, then the melodic minor scale through all 12 keys (by a different route), then the harmonic minor, etc. This will emphasize the underlying structure and intervals which make up each type of scale. I think this is more beneficial than the alternative, playing C maj and A natural minor together. Playing C maj and A natural minor back-to-back will emphasize the fingering and modal relationships, which I think isn't worth focusing on because it the connection between the types of scales is straightforward and requires less practice to grasp.

Once you are comfortable with the different types of scales (major, melodic minor, etc.), it could be valuable to alternate between different types of scales as you go through the 12 keys. If it were me, though, this sort of practice would be secondary, and would only occur once I had mastered the different types of scales in all 12 keys.

To summarize:

  1. practice a single type of scale (major, melodic minor, etc.) at a time in all 12 keys
  2. go through the 12 keys using a variety of different routes and intervals
  3. once you are comfortable with the different types of scales, you can cycle through different types of scales as you cycle through the 12 keys
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A good way to decide on an order is to find a book or website that shows all the fingerings, and look for the different "patterns."

Limiting the discussion just to major scales, to explain what I mean:

C is unique in not using any black keys. The "sharp" keys G D, A ... all follow the pattern of having a black key on the leading note (the one before the tonic for a scale going up). Apart from adding more black keys, the fingering stays the same for the right hand, from 1 up to 5 sharps (B). The left hand fingering for B is different, because starting "5 4 3 2 1" would put the thumb on the black F# key. See below for 6 and 7 sharps.

The "flat" keys have a different pattern. F is unique, because it starts on a white note, but the right hand fingering 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 for the sharp keys doesn't work because it would put the thumb on the B flat.

The other flat keys all start on a black keys, which gives another different set of fingering patterns. The two most extreme "sharp" keys F# and C# fit better into these "flat key" patterns, since they are equivalent to Gb and Db.

So to summarize all that: the scales for keys with a few sharps (G D A E) are relatively "easy" because they are all similar. You want to introduce scales of F and B flat at a fairly early stage, to cover more of the options, and because they are commonly used keys.

Exercise for the OP: now make a similar analysis yourself of melodic and harmonic minor scales!

And finally - the scales with a small number of black keys can be fingered in several different ways, any of which can occur in "real" pieces. Don't just practice the "standard" fingering - explore all the possibilities, including mixing and matching different fingerings for right and left hands. That will teach you more in the long run than just concentrating on the one "correct" fingering.

In fact, eventually you will want to practice all the scales even with "bad" fingerings where the thumb goes on black notes. Sometimes in "real" pieces, that is the least worst option available.

  • +1 for your penultimate para. alone! It's so important to try out different fingerings. Everybody has different anatomy and one man's best fingering is another's useless. Also, tunes quite often have little scale runs, but need to start and/or finish on a different finger than that you used practising the scale. – Tim Jul 15 '17 at 11:52
  • Thanks for your advice/ suggestions. I have, on my own, started doing F and Bb majors, after doing the C/Am, G/Em and D. I also realise that both the answers so far are focused on fingering aspect. Coming from India, we have a slightly different perspective on scales, and I realised that if I take any Key and play its majors and 3 minors it is doing interesting things to my ears. I guess I will do a bit of mix and match. Thanks again. – Subir Nag Jul 15 '17 at 13:09
  • You are right that Western music "scales" are a different (and simpler) concept than "ragas" - but since you mentioned three keyboard tutors all written in the Western tradition, that explains why the answer follows the same tradition! – user19146 Jul 15 '17 at 21:05
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C major is the hardest scale to PLAY (though perhaps the easiest to understand). There are so many ways you can finger it wrong! Start with B major or F# major. You CAN'T do a wrong fingering. So you don't need to waste brain power on what finger goes where, you can concentrate on drilling your fingers and achieving fluency.

  • Thank you for your comments. I am done and dusted with Cmaj. And Am, Gmaj, Em and Dmaj. No "hardness" there. My question was a bit different. I also realise that both the answers so far are focused on fingering aspect. Coming from India, we have a slightly different perspective on scales, and I realised that if I take any Key and play its majors and 3 minors it is doing interesting things to my ears. I guess I will do a bit of mix and match. Thanks again. – Subir Nag Jul 15 '17 at 13:11
  • @SubirNag Could you elaborate on what you mean by a different perspective on scales? – Al Maki Jul 16 '17 at 15:34
  • As pointed out by someone above, Indian classical music, both North and South, are based on Ragas, which are numerous combinations of scales and improvisations within the boundaries of that scales. That's the different perspective that I'm talking of. There thousands of Ragas. And then Raga isn't a key. But more a scale progression that can be played/ sung on any key. Please look up Raga and Indian music. – Subir Nag Jul 17 '17 at 12:10
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More importantly is the physics of playing. If you are using the incorrect muscles to play (most pianists do), if you ever have fatigue, pain, stiffness in the morning, cramps or just can't play evenly or fast, chances are you are first and foremost doing something wrong. Since you can't beat a dead horse, practicing incorrectly with incoordinate movement is the starting point for a downward spiral.

Fixing that right off the bat is far more important than ingraining bad habits and incorrect movement into your muscle memory. That is why mediocrity is so prevalent. We should all be prodigious in our technique but most teachers have no idea what they are doing so mediocrity is blindly passed down from generation to generation. The teacher's response is you need to practice more when all along the solution is to practice correctly.

The hand surgeons love it though.

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