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On the piano I know C major, A major, D major- as far playing songs and knowing where their diatonic chords are, just because I've messed with these scales the most. I Also know A minor, and E flat minor.

Is it common for a pianist (or guitarist) to only be proficient in certain scales? Or to become a good musician should one know ALL scales (especially major and minor, and their diatonic chords) like the back of ones hand?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Stinkfoot, ttw, Pat Muchmore, Richard, Dom Apr 5 '18 at 18:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    The simple answer is to know all the scales. – ghellquist Mar 31 '18 at 20:17
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    Any scale that you do know you should know in every key; practice everything you know in every key, for that matter. Also, if you know A major, D major, and E♭ minor, then you also know F♯ minor, B minor, and G♭ major. – David Bowling Mar 31 '18 at 20:26
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    Highly related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/29388/… – Dom Mar 31 '18 at 20:31
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    Clearly an opinion based question, and very broad - dependent on numerous factors, particularly genre, musical ambitions and goals. – Stinkfoot Mar 31 '18 at 23:05
  • @PatMuchmore - care to elucidate? Which 37? It's April the first... – Tim Apr 1 '18 at 16:24
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For some instruments you don't need to know them all, the piano is not one of them.

Some ideas on the piano, only work or sometimes work better with the fingering of some keys, you need to learn them all as soon as possible.

You are severely hamstringing yourself by not knowing them all, you need the harmony basis and general key knowledge that all of them provide.

  • I'm from the future.. that bold sentence was ingrained in my head lol. this answer inspired me to learn all major and minor scales and it's much better than being limited to just a few. – foreyez Jun 21 '18 at 19:48
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You don't necessarily need to have every scale in the world comfortably 'under your fingers'. If, for example, the Ukrainian Dorian mode isn't particularly relevant to the music you're making, you don't have to have it down pat.

For most musical styles, what you should probably aim for, though, is to be able to base the scale types you do want to use on any root... so when you say

On the piano I know C major, A major, D major

I would suggest you probably do want to move on from there to being reasonably familiar with all the major scales, and being able to comfortably transpose any song into any key. Another way of putting this is that you shouldn't really be thinking that there are lots of different major scales at all - there's just one, and once you know it, you should be able to play it starting on any root, on any instrument that you understand the layout of - even if that's an instrument you've never played before.

Is it common for a pianist (or guitarist) to only be proficient in certain scales?

It probably is common, and in fact all guitarists (even proficient ones) are probably going to be slightly more comfortable in more common keys. But that doesn't mean it's a good thing.

Another perspective is - if you can learn to visualise the instrument in terms of the chromatic scale, then you've learned the one scale to (almost) rule them all - it's fairly easy to visualise any other scale that's a subset of the chromatic scale (i.e. anything apart from non-western tunings!).

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    If, for example, the Ukrainian Dorian mode isn't particularly relevant to the music you're making - I see you did address genre here... – Stinkfoot Apr 1 '18 at 10:36
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    Wiki says that the Ukranian Dorian mode is the fourth mode of the Harmonic Minor scale - which means that if you practise all the modes of the harmonic minor scales you'll already be practising it. – Brian THOMAS Apr 3 '18 at 11:58
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A lot of self-taught players tend to use three or four keys only, especially true on guitar, but also piano. It's safe in C, and even F#. But that precludes an awful lot. If you have a singer ask you to play, it's a bit tame to tell him you can't play in the key he asked.

A lot of guitar driven music tends to be in sharp keys, horn stuff in flat, so knowing all 12 keys inside out is so useful. Then, it's fairly straightforward to transfer to their relative minors, and the derivatives thereof.

Modes? well, if you look at them from the point of view that each has a parent key, you'll find you already know the major ones.

Blues scales, major and minor, are useful, and do sound different from the standard majors or minors, so get those down too.

For a bit of fun, get to play chromatics, starting anywhere, and also whole tone and the two diminisheds - whole/half and half/whole.

Not only is it about learning scales, in order to play in any key, but getting to know the instrument and its layout better.

When you are starting to get proficient in many keys, put the radio or a track on, find the key and play along with it - once you have the key, you then have that special set of notes that belong - you learned them in an ascending and descending order, called scales.

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    Guitar and other fretted instruments are among the easiest to transpose from one key to another on. A beginner not comfortable playing away from the nut can use a capo. Many professionals, even though they can play in any key without a capo, will choose to use one to get the correct feel for a particular song as it allows certain open-string fingerings that aren't available without the capo. – Level River St Apr 1 '18 at 10:34
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    @LevelRiverSt - well aware of that. It's been my experience that the majority of self-taught guitarists will only play in certain keys - and use the capo to change key, rather than play 'awkward' chords, sometimes for the reasons you state, sometimes 'cos that's all they can do. I mean playing 'properly' in any key. And sometimes I play with keys players who need to use the transpose button, so they can 'stay in C'. I tend to use it the opposite way, and after the third song in A, I'll hit the button so the next one is in any other key! – Tim Apr 1 '18 at 11:11
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    @LevelRiverSt "Guitar and other fretted instruments are among the easiest to transpose from one key to another on." -- I hear people say this all the time, but it seems like an empty truth often used as an excuse to avoid the work of actually learning to play in all keys. By learning to play in different keys you confront problems that require new solutions and fingerings (e.g., the way you usually play it requires chord shapes below the nut, or too high on the fretboard). Solving these problems provides new ideas and broadens playing possibilities in all keys. – David Bowling Apr 1 '18 at 15:00
  • @DavidBowling but it seems like an empty truth... by learning to play in different keys you confront problems - True, but it's still much easier on guitar than on piano or saxophone or chromatic harmonica, where each key requires different fingerings/patterns. On a guitar, there are relatively few new positions compared to the number of keys, as opposed to most other instruments. – Stinkfoot Apr 2 '18 at 1:08
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It depends on your goals as a 'good musician'. If you aim to become a serious and professional musician, then you should certainly be fluent in all the majors and minors, not to mention all the arpeggios. If your aims are not so lofty then it doesn't really matter if you are less familiar with G# melodic minor or Cb major. Only seldom will you encounter them in your musical endeavours.

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Short answer: you should know how a play the Major scale and Minor scale starting on any root note. Most other scales can be extrapolated from these two.

Long answer:

Memorize your intervals. Once you know all your intervals starting from any root note you should be easily able to play in any scale. Reading these scales comes from practice, but you should still know how they are constructed from intervals.

The Major scale is going to be the most important one, and knowing how to construct the major scale from all 12 roots (with 3 enharmonics) will get you very far on the piano. All of them follow the same intervalic pattern and all of them can be played starting on a different part of the pattern, whether during normal scale play or when utilizing modes such as the minor scale. You should be able to recognize the minor scale as both a modification and restatement of the major scale; as a modification it's like the major scale with a flatted 3rd, 6th, and 7th, and as a restatement it's like playing a major scale starting on the 6th degree.

Knowing the half and whole step relationship between scale degrees is only one step, the other being to know the interval between any 2 degrees of the scale, especially how far from the root each one is. Knowing your seconds helps play the scale sequentially, knowing the thirds helps playing chords, etc.

"Scales" may be different shapes, but intervals are always the same from one note to another, ie Eb will always be a major third from G. Once you know these intervals playing in a B major will be as easy as C major.

Is it common for a pianist (or guitarist) to only be proficient in certain scales?

I would say yes, especially for guitar. I can't tell you how many rock and metal songs I've seen written in E minor simply because it's the lowest key available an a standard tuned guitar and all the intervalic relationships are simple. Once you know that fret 7 on the A string is always E it's not hard to memorize the power chords in the lowest octave. Even when bands down tune to a lower standard tuning a lot of them still use the same E minor shape. If a band doesn't vary their keys it can easily lead to a stale album.

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I practise major modes systematically like this, as it covers all the possible scales. The "recipe" is that each time you repeat the scale you flatten another degree of the scale. Eventually, after playing the sequence of seven major modes, you're playing the next major scale down chromatically.

So for instance, starting with the C Major scale starting on C:

C Ionian = Major scale - no sharps or flats
C Mixolydian - flatted 7
C Dorian - flatted 3 and 7
C Aolian - flatted 3, 6 and 7
C Phrygian - flatted 2, 3, 6 and 7
C Lochrian - flatted 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7
Cb Lydian enharmonically equivalent of B Lydian - This step flattens the 1st degree of the scale.
B Ionian - back to the major scale
B Mixolydian - etc.

Still working on the reverse sequence where you systematically sharpen scale degrees, but it's just a matter of time and practice. You can do similar with minor modes.

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