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It's been a few weeks since I've stuck with trying to learn the piano (after a few unsuccessful tries over the years). I'm doing the scales, and I'm wondering what speed I should be doing them at, and at what speed more experienced pianists do them at (if at all).

Currently I'm doing the major scales at 110~140bpm, 1/16 notes, just up and down 2 octaves.

Also, at which point (past which speed) really would the returns diminish to such an extent that it's not worth the time?

Thanks in advance,

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    As with everything in music, start slow and build up. Perhaps focus on aspects of your scale runs other than speed? Concentrate on getting the notes 'under your fingers', so you're not thinking about when to cross over, work on the notes being completely evenly spaced, articulation (e.g. play for the full beat, lift when you play the next). The point is not to play scales fast, but to improve your technique. – AJFaraday Jan 13 at 9:44
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    Do you definitely mean 1/16 notes, not 1/4 notes? This is what 1/16 notes sound like at 140 bpm youtube.com/watch?v=yGpgO3knx2s – rlms Jan 13 at 13:11
  • 1/16 -- the faster I get with the notes it becomes more and more like a trance meditative practice, which I like. – hisalutannyeongmarhabanihao Jan 15 at 11:04
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I agree with other answers that the speed to practice scales at is the speed where you can play them accurately, evenly, smoothly, and cleanly.

Beyond that, when you ask what the goal should be in terms of speed or where "diminishing returns" set in, I would counter by asking you, "Why are you practicing scales in the first place? What are you trying to get out of the exercise?"

I ask this for several reasons, but firstly because you state that you are trying to learn piano but have been unsuccessful several times in the past. Scale playing can quickly become tedious, and if you're trying to maintain your own interest as you're learning, I would suggest that you try to find exercises and types of practice (e.g., starting to learn actual pieces that you're interested in) that maintain your interest at the outset. If you find yourself getting bored and engaging in mindless practice, I think it's much more likely that this attempt to learn piano will fail like your previous ones.

In general, don't give up! Congratulations on sticking with your practice so far. It's a great goal to start trying to play piano again, so find exercises that will help you stick with it.

Beyond that, I ask why you are practicing scales because (this may be a controversial opinion) mindless practice of plain scales is pretty useless. (Before those who are reading this have a knee-jerk reaction, note that I have several qualifiers in that sentence, which I'll explain.) The main reason many pianists spend long hours practicing 4-octave plain scales is to pass exams, and my personal opinion is that that exercise likely collectively wastes millions of hours of practice time every year that most pianists could be devoting to other more productive exercises.

Note that I specify plain scales, by which I mean simply playing up and down the scale, often with no specific agenda, articulation, dynamics, or anything else other than smooth execution of the scale. Once you've absorbed the basic finger patterns to the scales, there's little reason to keep practicing simple ascending/descending scales over other patterns.

Many people will claim that scales teach you patterns that will be useful in reading actual music. That is true to an extent, but it's relatively rare to find long extended scales occurring all over a piece of music. And even when scales longer than a few notes do occur in repertoire, they are often modified in various ways (skipping notes, adding notes, played in parallel thirds or sixths or whatever) so that the simple specific ascending/descending pattern in octaves with both hands isn't that applicable.

Many people will also claim that scales teach you a bit of music theory. And that is also true when first learning keys, I suppose. But if you actually want to learn to play in different keys, then play music in different keys. I've met many pianists in my life who could perfectly execute a B major scale in four octaves without thinking, but they'd have great difficulty sight-reading in that key. Once learning the basic notes in the scale and the finger patterns, move on to playing arpeggios, chord progressions, and other patterns in each key.

Many people will claim that scales teach you skills to improvise in a key. Again, I say -- if you want to improvise in a key, then practice improvising in that key rather than simply playing scales. Learn all sorts of patterns and then try using them.

The other qualifier I made above is that mindless scale practice is useless. Practice should never be mindless. If you're "going on autopilot" when you're playing a scale, you're wasting time when you could actually be doing something musical. And that "doing something musical" could be as simple as things that Tim suggests, like using different articulations and dynamics. But once that gets tedious, begin to change the patterns. Practice arpeggios instead of scales. Do contrary motion scales instead of doing the hands in parallel. Do combinations of arpeggios and scales in each key. Then try playing various patterns rather than a straight scale. For example, start moving up a scale in thirds (1-3-2-4-3-5- etc.) or other intervals. Instead of playing in octaves with both hands, try other intervals (like thirds and sixths). There are many method books with exercises and etudes that do these sorts of things and provide many variations.

Mindless practicing is not teaching you to be a musician. So the moment you've gotten to a point playing an exercise that it's "mindless" and you're not able to pay constant attention because it's tedious, you might want to think of working on something else. If you haven't yet learned to do the exercise accurately and smoothly, come back to it later when you're ready to focus again. You've likely reached the "diminishing returns" mentioned in the question. (Even if you've reached the accuracy goal, come back to the exercise periodically and try it again when you've been away for a while. Hopefully by that point it will be less tedious, as you'll realize you don't have the fluency and need to actually pay attention as you practice to execute it well.)

Personally, I believe that learning, reading, and playing a large variety of repertoire is going to help you more in the long run than mindless repetition of scales. And it will probably hold your interest more than scales, if you've had trouble keeping to your practice regime in the past. Again, I'm not saying to neglect scales entirely -- but once you learn the basic finger patterns (and can play them evenly and accurately), starting finding ways to vary the exercises to keep building your skills.

Lastly, you ask what "experienced pianists" do, and I'd say it varies greatly. Some pianists love scales as warm-up exercises, just to get the fingers moving. You can do that, but other pianists just use some other lively piece of repertoire for the same purpose.

Other experienced pianists use scales for diagnostic purposes. That is, rather than playing them mindlessly, they will play them deliberately, paying close attention to the details of their execution to check for unevenness, improper technique, lack of fluid motion, etc. The benefit of a standard pattern is that it becomes a sort of "benchmark," where you can isolate the details of your technique from other musical elements specific to a particular piece. Scales are a common benchmarking exercise, used in a similar fashion to how an athlete might use stretches and warm-up exercises not only to "get ready" but also to note minor defects that need to be worked on more carefully. The scale is not the goal in and of itself, but it helps diagnose places where more effort is needed.

To go back to the original question's concerns -- those experienced pianists often aren't focused on a particular speed goal. Slow practice of scales might bring out different problems from fast practice for them. Use scales as a tool, not an end goal.

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    +1. I like this answer. Despite what people might say, I've found very little about playing scales that helps playing pieces (para.7), although sight reading with students, we always play the appropriate scale before starting, to 'get in the zone'. That works, but little else. Even runs of a few notes from a scale may need different fingerings, so not a lot of help there. – Tim Jan 12 at 15:45
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The speed you should be doing them at is the speed at which you can do them accurately and evenly. Once you get comfortable doing them at that speed, notch it up a bit - never going faster than you can handle. Don't just practise the ones that you are good at and know well. Spare time and energy to get the trickier ones just as good.

There is no rule about how fast a piece of music should go, apart from employing your musical taste. In the same way, there is no rule about how fast a scale should go. The main thing is that it is always in control and even.

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  • This answer by @Jomiddnz and the following one by "Tim" below are the better ones. They concisely address the fundamental purpose behind the scales. Patterning is essential to grasping the concept of any piece of music. Embedding the pattern of the appropriate scale into performance reinforces recognition, understanding, and retention. I think of my daily scale exercises as the Tai Chi of my practice sessions in terms of reinforcement of movement that controls the interaction of the fingers and hands. – Francis Phillips Jan 12 at 18:44
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Scales are great exercises and warm-up material. They help get fingers flexing, and also help one understand which notes go together diatonically, but that will depend on which scales one plays.

As far as speed is concerned, it is as important to be able to play them slowly and in time as it is to play them fast, albeit accurately. If it's for exam purposes, then tempos are suggested by the various boards. it may be a useful guide anyway to know what those are, in relation to your progress. Also try playing them in different ways - piano, forte, staccato, legato, de/crescendo, starting and finishing on other notes than the root.Or playing in triplets, etc. All of which are more productive than merely going up and down. Relieves the boredom too !

So, simple answer - any speed, but not faster than is possible without mistakes. Just very fast isn't the be-all and end-all of playing scales.

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You are probably going much too fast, as a beginner.

We don't know what standard you are at after your "unsuccessful tries", but the ABRSM exam syllabus gives speeds for the different grades. If we convert them into 16th note scales (they are given in the syllabus for 8th-note scales) they are:

Grade 1 - 30BPM. 2 - 33. 3 - 40. 4 - 52. 5 - 63. 6 - 76. 7 - 80. 8 - 88.

Ref: https://gb.abrsm.org/media/62972/piano_syllabus_2019___2020_complete.pdf page 11.

If you can play scales evenly (in both timing and dynamics) in 16th notes at 110-140BPM, you are already at "professional concert pianist" level.

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    Important disclaimer: you aren't necessarily as good as a concert pianist just because you can play scales as fast as they can! – user45266 Jan 13 at 15:54
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Skimming through the existing replies, I'd also like to add that practising scales induce Discipline as a pianist. Especially true if you want to be a professional pianist or classical pianist (hobby or professional).

Practising scales help with lots of other small things such as techniques, music theory, sight-read so on and so forth. But to be good at playing scales requires lots of practice and that is the basis of a professional pianist or classical pianist - discipline. You want to be good at piano for what ever reason, then you need to discipline yourself. Such is the philosophy with trying to be good at anything really.

I'm not a professional pianist (my main job isn't musical at all), but I'm a graded classical pianists with ABRSM and played a lot for solo performances as well as in Christian worship bands (Christian rock style). I say playing contrary-motion scales and chromatic scales helped a lot to make hands so flexible and enabled me to improvise in a high level way. It also helped me to play pieces in genre such as Fugue, which requires a lot of fingers over thump playing. Such a technique is practised by playing scales at lower level. So hopefully you can see it pays after lots and lots of practice and then when you playing more difficult pieces in later stages of your piano playing.

I can tell you that practising those scales all those years helped me to improvise playing those Christian rock songs. If you practised your scales enough (including arpeggios), you can read chord music with extreme ease. Your scale practising will without your conscious knowledge, burn into what is called muscle memory. You hands will move to the right place playing the right notes pretty much automatically and often very accurately without even looking, because you know the precise position of where an E major chord is on the piano just by playing scales.

If you don't want to be good at piano and just want to casually play piano, I recommend you don't bother much with practising scales. If you insist, stick with G major, C minor and B major. something like that. Just a few selection of them but not all. If you want to play keys for a folk band you won't need to practise much of these really for example.

Speed-wise, unless you're doing grade/exams, there's no official speed to go with. It's a matter of what you're trying to achieve by these practises. Playing in fast speed is a great way to measure how accurate you can hit the keys with your figures. If you can hear your inconsistency with how smooth your scales move up or down (legato), then you know you're technique isn't great or need improving...etc. If you can't crescendo as you go up the scale and diminuendo down the scale, you know you don't have great control with dynamics overall...so on and so forth.

You should often practice scales as to discipline yourself and check your techniques, control and remind yourself music theory and positions of the keys on the piano. Once you become good at practising these scales they become your tool for regular check ups, rather than just merely exercises. They are valuable.

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Have you ever hiked a scree field or maybe hiked a boulder laden trail where the path is uneven, the rocks are different sizes, distances, shapes and heights and you have to make short or long leaps between rocks? Scales are like that. You don't just play them and magically you can play fast. You play fast because like hiking those rocks, you make adjustments to your weight, your position, your rotation, you lift higher, shift position, leap forward, pull back . . .

Scales have in/out, up/down, forward/backward, gravity, rotations, moving left or right motions. It is when you put all these movements together for each individual scale that you can then speed up. What robs us of speed and accuracy is often what we are not doing. Sometimes moving between two notes requires lifting a little higher, moving the whole arm a little to the right or adjusting our elbow. Because everything in life has equal and opposite contradictions, what sometimes gets in our way are the little things we do do such as abduction, ulnar and radial deviation, curling, isolating or pressing. You may have everything right but one thing wrong.

So if you can't play scales to the level you want, you don't need more practice, you need to adjust either what is missing or what is getting in the way. Your body is nothing more than a machine with levers, fulcrum, pulleys and rubber bands and it must obey the laws of physics. Sure, you can just practice willy nilly and hope something magical happens but it usually doesn't. If it does, it will come at a cost. Forcing improper technique to work creates wear and tear which is insidiously cumulative.

Practice without knowledge of your body would be like giving your teen the keys to the car and telling them to go out and learn to drive. They will figure it out but it is what they don't know that will get them killed.

Learning piano is not only about matching dots on a page and putting in a certain number of hours, it is about hard wiring into your brain all the proper movements.

As far as your question of when do the returns diminish, that depends on many factors. If you first learned your scales improperly, I am sorry to say that that improper movement is already hardwired into your brain. You can overwrite it with proper movements but the improper is still there. That means if you are ever nervous or cold or play old repertoire learned with improper movements, those old bad habit movements will come back with a vengeance. That is why some days we feel rusty. It could be that your pronator and supinator muscles are tight so that robs you of rotation so you abduct a little creating imperceptible tension to the flexors and we might twist the wrist or start pressing into the keys and a downward spiral ensues. All that does is further strain the muscles which will need time to recover. But most of us just sit there and try to brow beat technique back rather than addressing the problem and not the symptom.

So, like riding a bike or swimming, you never forget but it is good to get back on/in once in a while so your brain can "reboot" the proper movements.

Often I will make a mistake (often) and will very slowly run the passage or scale associated to reboot the proper movements. Once I can delineate what movement was missing or getting in the way, I correct it and move on.

Our worse enemy is old repertoire. It is a minefield of improperly hard wired movement or muscle memory waiting to jump out. This is why your very first teacher had better be the best so bad habits can't take hold the very first day.

I had read somewhere that Bach didn't allow his students to touch a keyboard for six months as he lectured them on anatomy and physics. I beleive it was in the book FAMOUS PIANISTS AND THEIR TECHNIQUES - which is a very dangerous book because it tells you how famous pianists played but not what they did wrong.

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