To young beginning piano students, the term “major scales” might be more
reminiscent of an enormous dragon or slimy fish than of music.
Even though scales comprise the sinister skin of reptiles and hardly makes one feel inclined to
touch them, there is an eerie connection between a lizard’s and piano’s scales: both are needed for survival.
Many piano students enjoy a momentary sense of relief when they discover that touching the scales
on the piano won’t make the piano bite them, but this relief is short-lived when the next great revelation hits
them: scales are boring!
“Gasp!” the teacher says every time a student makes this proclamation. Normally, beginning piano
students feel excited to play songs and pluck their favorite tunes from the keys like a child plucks flowers for a
What teachers appreciate, however, and what students fail to realize until later, is that scales
form the foundation of understanding all music. To comprehend even the most artistic, complex jazz improvisation
begins with understanding the basic scales that comprise the ground level of all musical knowledge.
The major scales on
piano are the first obvious place to begin acquiring an intimate familiarity with music. There are fifteen
major scales to learn, and each one represents a different key of music with their own unique number of sharps or
flats. Fifteen seems like a large amount of scales to try and keep straight, but there is a method of organization
that makes sense and is easy to remember.
First, understand that scales are either scales that feature sharp keys or flat
keys, with the exception of the C scale which has no sharps or flats. You don’t have to worry about scales
that have sharps and flats in them (yet). The sharp scales are the scales that begin on the notes G, D, A, E,
B, F#, and C#.
The flat scales are the scales that begin on the notes F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb. Note that
there is some overlap here – the notes Db and C#, Gb and F#, and Cb and B are each actually the same note on the
keyboard, but they are considered as different scales.
The major scale differs from other scales in that it follows a specific pattern of whole and half
steps up the keys.
The sequence of steps is as follows: whole,
whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
This sequence of steps is unique to major scales, and the steps are exactly the same for all major
scales no matter which note you begin on. So if you wanted to play an F major scale, if you were to follow this
sequence of steps, you will play the notes F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F.
When you follow this pattern and play each scale in the order listed above, you notice that each
successive scale adds one additional black key. C major has no black key, G major has one black key (F#), D major
has two black keys (F# and C#), and so on throughout the set of both sharp scales and flat scales.
Mastering the major scales stands as the first and most important step to understanding music. Take
time to memorize each major scale on piano, the sharp and flat keys in each one, and the fingerings that
correspond. Once you do, scales will be your best friends instead of the frightening dragons they once were.
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