So I'm piano beginner learning all major scales and their fingering. I already know all 12 major scales and how to play them from 1st to 8th note ascending and back descending in quite good speed and both hands. But the thing is that that's the only thing I can do with scales now. I don't even remember which scale has what flats/sharps or black keys in it. I just remember ascending/descending pattern/fingering.

So if I want to jam on my synthesizer in like E major scale to play some bassline with maybe 4 notes progression in that scale, I would not be able to do that because I would play scale degrees out of order, like maybe 3nd-4th-7th-1st and maybe even in different octaves, I would have to stop, think for 3secs where is the other note, what black key I can play and so on.

So my question is how do I get better at this? So that I would know immedataly that for example D major has two sharps/black keys, F# and C#, and I would know what is the 3rd degree note of that scale, 5th and so on.

Should I just memorise each note and sharps/flats black keys for each major scale with memory cards or something, or is there certain exercises for that? Thanks.

My goal is not to become a pianist or anything, I'm just producing electronic music on synthesizers and want to be able to pick a random scale and jam in it in various ways quickly without thinking and jumping in various octaves. Kinda like this guy does at 3:10 time mark:

If I'm correct he is playing C minor and he knows it pretty well. Not only that, he probably already knows what certain scale degree when played after another note will sound like in his head so he knows what to play to make it sound good with all that tension and release stuff. Maybe he has perfect pitch/relative pitch, which I don't.

EDIT: Thank you everyone for your answers. These couple last days I was very busy and didn't have time to go through all the answers until now. There is some great answers. I really appreciate all your ideas and suggestions.

5 Answers 5


The key in your question is: "How to remember". I paraphrase it as: how to make the scale degrees memorable.

From the subjective experience of one person, I deduce the following universal rule: you need to associate each degree of the major scale with emotional and functional meanings. And this is done by playing strong melodies and their accompanying chords, by ear, in different keys. When you know the relative "topology" of the scale, then the task of playing in different keys becomes a question of superimposing the scale you already know on top of whatever position you want to play in.

The major scale is enough, because when you get going with it, other scales are trivial to see as alterations or modifications of the major scale. You really do not need to learn e.g. "melodic minor" and "harmonic minor" separately, if you know songs with melody lines and chords that use those notes.

It might be difficult to remember the faces of random people, but once something memorable happens with a person, you'll remember. Which face belongs to the boy who punched you in kindergarten? Who was the one you asked out but who refused? Who was the one who asked you? So, get into memorable action with the notes - or actually, with their roles.

This is how I learned it. At the age of something like 4-6, probably like many people, I learned to locate the C note on the piano, and I learned to play a few simple melodies that other children showed, simply as memorized sequences of notes. The melodies were all in C major, i.e. white keys only. I think I even knew the names of the notes, but apart from the C note, which was important to remember because that's where all the songs started from, none of the notes had any particular meaning to me. The keys were just a homogeneous porridge, with the black keys being especially mysterious, maybe even scary, because playing any of them usually just felt like a mistake.

Then at some point, I had a big "revelation". I heard and saw an older child play something like this: (Of course I knew nothing about notation, I'm only writing things from memory)

C Am F G on piano

It sounded really nice, and I had heard something nice like that before, but this time I saw what she did! I waited until everyone had left, sneaked back to the piano, and tried to replicate what I had seen. I couldn't remember the exact arpeggio pattern, but I remembered the note locations, with the bass notes and everything, so I just tried pressing all the keys down... BOOOM! It was one of the most intense experiences of my whole life - hearing that beautiful harmony come from the piano, and incredibly, even being in control of it. There was C major, A minor, F major, G major, but each one of them felt so different and so strong in its own way. Pretty much immediately I started to try and explore other similar patterns - what happens if I move this to start from D? Oh, nice! Etc. I started to play songs by ear, finding suitable three-note chords, and I realized that none of this is tied to the absolute location at all. My father accompanied songs on the guitar, and I was used to hearing him say things to someone else like, "let's do this song in C minor ... oh, that's a bit too low, let's try D minor then", so it was kind of a given that not only can songs and chords be moved up and down, it's what you have to do all the time. My father didn't know almost any theory, just how to play songs in folk style, and tricks you do in melodic songs like "in Am, you can put a B major in front of E major, ha ha". So the whole music thing was basically a big playground for fun and exploration. The lyrics might sometimes have been serious, but the music was a toy to play with.

Anyway. In chords, or chord roles, I now had very strong and important, meaningful elements that felt like they're the elemental building blocks of all beautiful music. I associated in my mind, the scale's notes with their various roles in harmony.

For example, E, it wasn't just another note in the porridge anymore.

  • E was the base note of E major - my dear E major - that so beautifully worked with D minor and A minor in so many songs I loved.
  • And E was C major's middle note, the very thing that makes C major a major instead of minor, i.e. the "third". (Which was and still is, in my opinion, the most important thing to know and keep track of when playing - where's the third of the imaginary chord you're playing - sometimes even the root note can be changed)
  • E was the other bass note for a switching bass pattern in Am, where you go like /A /E /A /E.
  • E was the starting note of "Für Elise", the beautiful common melody that goes to Am.
  • E was the funny but interestingly bland note in the "G6" chord, which I found in some chord chart.
  • E was the jazzy note in Fmaj7, which I also found somewhere.

Similarly for all other notes, every one of them became familiar in many roles. Many strong and memorable things happened at every position.

A song isn't really tied to any key, you can move it anywhere else. The note names and positions on the piano keyboard change, but the roles and their relative positions stay the same. You could - and should - play everything in different keys. (For years I felt a bit inadequate, because there was always some new chord trick I couldn't yet fluently play in, say, E major or B major. Still today I don't consider really knowing a chord trick, if I can't play it in B major just as easily as in C major.)

To translate the above list of functional associations to relative scale degrees (as opposed to absolute notes), it would be like this:

  • 3 was the base note of III major - my dear III major - that so beautifully worked with ii minor and vi minor in so many songs I loved. ("I" as in the English first-person singular pronoun referring to one's self, not the Roman numeral "one")
  • 3 was I major's middle note, the very thing that makes I major a major instead of minor, i.e. the "third". (I didn't really do a lot of inversions until I combined playing both melody and chords with the right hand)
  • 3 was the other bass note for a switching bass pattern in vi minor.
  • 3 was the funny but interestingly bland note in the V6 chord.
  • 3 was the jazzy note in IVmaj7.

I could tell many other things like how I discovered diminished chords and their interesting properties, tritone substitutions and such stuff but I think you get the point already.

To sum up my life-story above: I recommend playing old-fashioned songs, with strong melodies, and accompanying the melodies with chords. Play the songs in different keys to separate the relative pitches from the absolute pitches. You'll learn actual memorable meanings for each note of the scale this way.

  • vote up for this your printed pattern: I used to start improvising with this (beside the cadence I-IV-V-I. also vote up for transposing it in all keys. (I would edit the "blah-blah" of your last advice as I first misunderstood you mean the bold recommend to be advises of other answers and if yes I would have given a down vote. but it's clear: that's your advise and I fully agree! there will fit also children songs, Christmas songs, folk songs, i just taught yesterday a Brazilian girl who never sat in front of a piano before to play happy birthday. (the actual hit will always fit!) Jan 19, 2019 at 10:55
  • Thank you for your broad answer, I really appreciate your help. I find your suggestion to associate each note/degree/harmony with some emotion. On the other hand, I think you got lucky you were exposed to this as a small child and it was easier to associate piano with different emotions. I'm 22 and was making electronic music for last ~8 years as a hobby, and notes has no meaning to me and I don't think it's gonna be easy to rewire my brain to accept differentely. The only note I recognise most of the time is F, dunno why, it sounds really unique and dissonant to me even without any context.
    – Limpuls
    Jan 29, 2019 at 14:26
  • Regarding playing a simple melody in all 12 major keys, perhaps you could recommend some easy for beginner melodies to play ant transpose it in all 12 keys? Music I listen to is not harmony and notes reach, that, or it is too complex, so I would love your suggestions. Thanks.
    – Limpuls
    Jan 29, 2019 at 14:27
  • @Limpuls You don't need to do all 12 keys just to make scale degrees more memorable. :) If you play by ear, even as few as two or three keys are hugely better than one. For starters, try doing something simple in C major, F major (1 flat), G major (1 sharp), Bb major (2 flats), in that order. What comes to a list of songs, I think it would make for a good question in itself. A list of songs might be too subjective, so it will be suspended for violating the site rules, but how about a list of chord and melody features to learn, with example songs. :) While waiting, try Incy Wincy Spider. Jan 29, 2019 at 17:04

So what you've learned already is the scale patterns going up and down, sort of parrot-fashion. It's a good start, and what most players do. Now, you need to know which 'black keys' get used mostly for each key. You could do with extending the one octave to 2 or 3, and also start playing the scales in different ways - for instance, 1,3,2,4,3,5,4,6 etc.

Learning arpeggios will be good, too. Take one key, and play all seven arpeggios that are associated with it. In key C, they're Cmaj., Dmin, Emin., Fmaj., Gmaj., Amin.,B dim. all the way up the 2 or 3 octaves.(and down!) Stick with only a few keys foor now - you'll soon realise that a lot of those arpeggios belong to several keys, so it's not as daunting as it seems.

You can also try simply playing separate phrases, in specific keys, to get used to what an interval feels like, as your fingers stretch.

  • Thanks for the tips, I will try to do all of these. Will stick to 1-3 major scales at a time and just practice them for couple days until I feel comfortable with them so that when I look at piano, I see notes from that scale highlighted in my head. Can you explain what do you mean by saying "try simply playing separate phrases"?
    – Limpuls
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:33
  • You must know many song. Use one line from a song, and try to play it in a certain key. And stop 'looking at the piano'!! Get used to hitting the next note by how far you need to stretch. And - it's too early to decide this is the accepted answer. Other better ones may well follow later.
    – Tim
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:37

I'll offer some more ideas here:

1) Take some simple melodies, like Christmas or patriotic tunes, folk songs, etc, and learn the melody in C, then play that same melody in other keys. For example, "When The Saints Go Marching In" a fun diddly that never gets old. In C, it's all white keys, then in F you'll realize that the 4th note is Bb, and in D you'll see the two black notes.

2) When you're practicing scales with the proper fingerings as you are already doing, consider employing the concept of finger 'groups' - a concept my jazz instructor taught. Groups are separated by the place where your thumb tucks under. So, in right hand (RH) Cmaj, the first group is C-D-E, and the second group is F-G-A-B. Hit all notes in the first group, the all in the second, up and down the keyboard for a couple of octaves. Then for example when you're on Bbmaj, the 3-note group actually starts C-D-Eb and the 4-note group is F-G-A-Bb. So as you see, the first note of the scale isn't the first note of a group like in C. This has helped me get away from the root of the scale always being the first note I think about when improvising in a scale.

3) The arpeggios from previous answer is also a great thing to do!

Basically, try out all of these methods and you'll get lots of exposure to the 12 different keys from different angles, which will help build the more complete picture in your mind that I think you're looking for.

  • Great idea, I will definitely apply this in my practicing routine. Do you have any more simple melodies ideas like "When The Saints Go Marching In" for beginner? Thanks.
    – Limpuls
    Jan 29, 2019 at 14:30
  • The classic example is Mary Had A Little Lamb - the point is that it's a tune that you inherently know from childhood. Other good ones: Amazing Grace ,This Little Light of Mine, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Row Your Boat, etc Jan 30, 2019 at 14:53

EDIT: I completely deleted my original answer, because I misunderstood the question.

I think I good way to learn the physical layout of black and white keys for the various key signatures, is with broken chord patterns instead of scales.

The succession of tones in a line isn't random even if the direction of the line seems to jump around. It's very common for the line to be guided by a harmonic framework.

Here are two basic harmonic patterns, a three chord idea and a series of descending sixths:

enter image description here

After each basic pattern is a series of lines created by breaking up the harmony into individual tones.

Each line is just a permutation so we get the broken up tones in a varied sequence.

Although the lines seem to jump around with lots of different intervals they all stick to the original harmony. You can do this using other pairs of chord, different intervals (like fourths instead of sixths), and changing the direction ascending/descending.

You can also play around with placing rests if different places, like this:

enter image description here

The principle here is to take something familiar and present it in a new way without wiping the slate completely clean. Broken chords and linear permutation take familiar harmonies and refocus the attention on new and different interval jumps.

As you get used to jumping around the harmonic tones the end result is you learn where all the black and white keys are. You will be able to jump around the keyboard freely.

  • Thank you, playing arpeggios seems a good way to practice scales and speed of fingering. I already started doing it.
    – Limpuls
    Jan 29, 2019 at 14:28

2 ways how you can learn the tones and chords in other keys:

1. Circle of fifths (backward = circle of fourth)

in contrary of training the scales clockwise of the circle of fifths start with the B major scale. start with finger one at b and use it for e. you will easily recognize the pattern of the black and white keys, the other fingers are on black keys. notate the scale and also draw the scheme of a 2 octaves of a keyboard which you can copy, where you name the tones of b-major scale and the chords as triads 135, 246 etc. notate the chords in a sheet with of a grand staff, drawing the lines by hand and writing the names write there where the note will sit on the lines or between the lines. the same you will do with the triads or with 7 chords: note names or simple the notes.

do the same with the pattern of the keys (scale and triads of major B)

your idea to write them on cards and train them to identify them quickly will also helpful, especially when you write on one side the notes in the system and on the other side the chord pattern in root position and can play memory with them)

when you go backward in the circle of fifths (E, A, D, G, C) you will realize that in each scale there is a sharp less, the fingering will stay the same, lower half of E is upper half of A. Lower half of A is upper half of D etc.

This logic you will also discover if you develop the scales in the clock wise turn of the circle of fifths: then the upper half of C becomes the lower half of G and so on. And you will always note that the 7th step of the new scale needs an augmentation by a new sharp (#) to get the new leading ton (ti-do)

analog you will recognize the relationship of the chords. don't forget to write them down (not copy or printing) otherwise you act to fast to get something in your long term memory.

you will realize that this study will be very useful to play across the circle of fifths: you will be able to improvise on chords, starting at C major, jumping to B7 and back to E7, A7,D7,G7 C. (scales and triads)

2. Transposing and improsvising

the second approach that was of great benefit to me was to transpose short chord progressions in other keys (as the cadences, fall of fifths etc.) starting by C-major to G-, to F major and later - in a progressive kind - entire songs (pop songs, gospels) and finally little preludes and other classical pieces. most helpful to me is to transpose pieces as an inventio (e.g. Nr. 8 in F) or a piece of the mikrokosmos of Bela Bartok to C key, because the harmony became more transparent to me. e.g. I like to play Bachs BWV 999 in all keys or the Prelude in D in C (if only the Chords, this would be already a good practice)

Thus you can go on to play e.g. the triads of Chopins etude Op. 10,1 in all kind of triads or arpeggios that you can manage, not the original written one and you will see how you become familiar of reading, of playing the chords, analyzing, improvising, transposing, fingerings and the orientation on the keyboard. Don't forget to write a lead sheet in roman numbers as well chord letters.

Most pianists here don't have the ambition to become a professional musician as a concert pianist or music teacher. They would like to play the piano and for aim my advises might be more helpful than endless training technical fitness in playing fast scales and chords or arpeggios, if not improving and progressing just in these tasks and disciplines is a reason of joy and the source of happiness too.

  • Interesting about the upper half of one scale being the lower half of the next, but isn't it the other way round from what you said? Lower half of E is upper half of A. Lower half of A is upper half of D?
    – Tim
    Jan 19, 2019 at 9:16
  • of course, you are right, Tim. I will edit it my answer. (this comes from been low sugared yesterday. by the way: nutrition and learning might also be a point for piano teachers when the pupils seem to be lazy, not motivated or falling from the chair. but you won't say nutrition could be an interesting new tag, won't you.) Jan 19, 2019 at 10:32
  • More diatonic than diabetic here!
    – Tim
    Jan 19, 2019 at 10:37
  • ok, but don't ignore the importance of this conditions of learning. if I read some questions I often think: was there to much coca cola or might it be a lack of "sugar". Jan 19, 2019 at 10:42

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