Knowing the scale when learning piano piece

I am composing piano pieces. And I see it is very difficult for me to play it by heart without mistakes even if I play it many times.

I thought that maybe it has to do with the fact that I never know the exact keys I am using. Especially when there are modulations of the key in the piece.

Do you think this is the key to solving my problem?

This is most likely the key! Knowing the notes which normally (diatonically) belong to a particular key is pretty important, so being able to play those notes in order, called scales - helps a lot. It will also signpost when a modulation is taking place. It also helps anyone reading the music to get a ballpark placement of where they are. It's also useful, from the same viewpoint, that the key signature reflects this, for future readers, rather than seemingly random accidentals, which turn out eventually not to be accidentals, but part of the key sig.

I find it helps students to play the scale and arpeggios of a piece before playing the piece. That reminds them of the notes that will likely be involved, and those which maybe won't. If a piece changes key or modulates, then that point would be where we stop, and restart from later. Different key, different set of notes, usually. Sometimes only a subtle change, but worth learning at a separate time.

No doubt it'll help you memorize your piece. When you know what key you're in and what the black/white pattern looks like, then you're only worried about 7 notes (as opposed to all 12) within the octave.

Memorizing all keys is not that hard and should only take a few weeks. It's like memorizing the multiplication table in math. Once you memorize them it's handy because when you play in scale X, then you see each note as a number (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) relative to that scale which make it alot easier to remember and to modulate your song between all keys. you can use C major as a reference key for the major keys (and A minor as a reference key for the minor keys). Meaning, it's easiest in those keys to see 1-7 as they're just the white keys.

There are four ways to memorize music. The first is by rote. You simply play it 3,000 times and the brain will memorize the movement and you will be able to regurgitate your notes. This method is highly to be avoided. Not only will you lose "it" in a few days but if you use it at performance, if the slightest hesitation creeps in, you will lose your place and not know how to recover. Knowing all your scales and arpeggios will service this method for in all music, if your hands just know where to go without thought, half the battle is done.

The second method is to know your music theory. Much like knowing how to spell. As you type, a lot of words just fall out of your fingers without thought because you know how to spell. You just know that "cat" is c. a. t. Or is it k. a. t? We musicians often combine theory with rote. Theory is the alphabet of music. If I asked you to play a C chord, you may be able to play it without thought because you know it is the first, third and fifth tone of the scale. Knowing that, if you have rote and know all your scales, you should be able to effortlessly invert, change octaves and easily transpose it. You don't have any of that memorized, you just know it. Like "cat" is spelled "Kat." Or is it "Kate?" Ah, improvisation. Just as adding an "e" to the end of a word makes the previous vowel long (Cap-Cape, tap-tape, sit-site) music theory has the same rules. If you know them, they will serve you in all musical endeavors.

Third is to hunt and peck, combined with rote and theory. I'm not even going to address that. I cringe at people who hunt and peck without theory. Like driving through a new city, you don't just "hunt and peck" your way around town. You use the sun, street numbers, maps, asking for directions, research, etcetera. So if you have a birds-eye view of the city in your head, and you know where north and south is, and can see the sun, and know what time it is (all like theory), you can then hunt and peck your way around. People who get lost boggles my mind.

Fourth is combining ear training (hunt and peck) with theory. For instance, I just know the notes to the Star Wars theme is 15 43285 43285 4342. Now, I don't know if those are correct but my ear and brain know what all intervals sound like and I just know the what the notes are (in any key because I know the numbers, not the letters). Combine rote, theory, hunt and peck with a knowledgeable ear, the song is yours forever. No "memorization" is needed.

Just like giving a lecture. You can memorize it word for word but if you slip up, you can crash and burn. However, if you know your topic, love and adore it, and know what is under the hood of your topic (rote, theory, trained) you can just use cue cards then combined with the aforementioned - hunt and peck your way through the lecture - FLAWLESSLY. Then if an audience member interrupts you with an ancillary question, you can improvise, effortlessly - or at least get back on track without losing a beat.

• brilliant answer. "hunt and peck" what do you mean by that did not quite get it... – LoveIsHere May 16 '18 at 15:39
• Someone who hunts and pecks is a person who doesn't use their brain nor their ear and just hits any note hoping it is the right one and if it isn't, they hit another and MAYBE they can whittle down to the correct note, at least on the third or fourth try. Without using your brain, try to play Happy Birthday in a random key or a key you are not comfortable in. People who H&P usually miss the first or second "to" or the third "birthday" even though the notes are a 1, 2 and 5. Our ears must always know where a one or five is at all times. – Malcolm Kogut May 17 '18 at 19:01
• I heard a kid doing the H&P trying to play Fur Elise and he probably played six notes before he found the correct one. It starts on the fifth. Pick a key and play the fifth, then go from there. No guesswork needed. This is why I opine that most musicians are musically illiterate. Especially readers. – Malcolm Kogut May 17 '18 at 19:04
• Brilliant. So true to conbine this also :-) – LoveIsHere May 18 '18 at 4:46
• There's some good stuff here. But isn't 'memorise' the same as 'learn'? Or are you saying one is deeper in the brain, or the other is more understood? – Tim May 18 '18 at 7:43

Before worrying about the theoretical analysis of your piece, master writing and reading notation. That's the direct and obvious route to playing it the same every time!

• Hi the thing is that i am not good in sheet music...i always try to find other ways. – LoveIsHere May 16 '18 at 5:05
• "......I am not good at sheet music........I always try to find other ways." Well, there is your problem. You appear to be trying to avoid learning the very thing that you need to know. If you stop doing that and take Laurence's advice I would expect things to improve massively. You will need to put in some effort but you will find it worthwhile in the end. Good luck. – JimM May 16 '18 at 19:38