How To Practise Scales On The Piano

Scales – they aren’t fun, but they are a necessary part of a well-rounded piano education. They develop finger strength and dexterity, they level the playing field between your dominant and weak hand, and they prepare you for the rigours of difficult piano literature.

Why Should You Practise Scales On The Piano?

Firstly, practicing your scales will develop finger strength and dexterity. You’ll need this finger strength when you undertake more difficult pieces of repertoire, so the sooner you start focusing on scales, the sooner you’ll be ready to play Liszt, difficult Chopin literature, and more.

Speaking of developing technique, have you noticed that most intermediate and early advanced music is right hand heavy? If you simply rely on the music you’re playing to develop technique, your left hand may fall behind by the time you reach professional level repertoire. Also, practicing scales (and arpeggios) will level the playing field between your two hands; in short, you want your “weak” hand to be as technically able as your “dominant” hand.

Also, after practising your scales and arpeggios, you’ll start to recognize those patterns in the music you are working on — this will obviously make it easier for you to learn new music and sight read effectively.

Without further ado, here are some tips for practising and benefiting scales:

Don’t Cheat – Scale Fingering Matters

We won’t belabor this blog with a list of piano scale fingerings in every key, because they should be available in your lesson books or elsewhere on the internet. However, we will press the importance of learning your fingerings correctly.

The time to build correct technical habits is right at the beginning, and if you learn your fingering correctly the first time, you won’t have to re-learn it again when you encounter a scale in a piece of music or in a piece of music. Scale fingerings need to be learned correctly for a few reasons:

  • Fingerings were developed to ensure a smooth, musical sound — for instance, the thumb crossover move in a scale must be executed at the right time, or the scale will have a rough, jerky sound.
  • If you use the right fingering, you’ll be able to speed the scale up over time. You can get away with an incorrect fingering in the early stages of learning, but you won’t be able to play the technique quickly later on.
  • The right fingering will also help you play tension-free so you can avoid injuries and tendonitis.

Use Proper Technique When Finger Crossing

When you start progressing past five-finger patterns to a full 8-note (or even multi-octave) scale, you’ll have to carefully practise your finger crossing so that the scale remains smooth.

Use this as a practice tool: put a candy on the top of your hand — if it slides off during your finger crossing, there’s too much hand motion. This matters because as you increase speed, your economy of motion will allow you to add speed. If you have a jerky motion, it will also be apparent because notes will sound louder than others. Also, if you use to much hand motion, you won’t be able to play the scale quickly.

Play Scales Musically

Don’t wait until you play pieces of piano literature to use phrasing, crescendos, and decrescendos. Scales are music too, and the ability to play a scale smoothly and beautifully — with a phrasing arc — is really quite difficult! This musical technique will translate to the pieces you are learning, and it will set you apart from other pianists.

Practise Scales Without Pedal

While the pedal is a wonderful tool, it can become a crutch — especially when it comes to scales. Practise your scales and technique without a pedal, and work towards a smooth, legato sound. You’ll have to use finger legato to accomplish this, and if your scales are not smooth and even (even without pedal), you aren’t playing them correctly. The ability to use finger legato is most apparent in professional performances of Ravel’s music — you can’t perform high end technical repertoire without the ability to play with finger legato at high speed.

Practise Scales with a Staccato Technique

Staccato is a great tool for internalising notes, fingerings, and evenness, and you will see improvement in your scales if you practise with a light staccato touch. The same technique can be applied to your other literature — of course, you will then have to smooth the pattern out again before a performance or audition.

Use a Dotted Rhythms and Alternate Patterns

Are you struggling to play your scales evenly? Use a dotted rhythm approach to practising; repeating a scale accurately with dotted rhythms will help you play it evenly once you straighten out the rhythm again

It can also be advantageous to group your scales into triplets or fours — simply playing the same duple pattern over and over again will have a limited effect on your growth as a pianist.

Don’t Increase Speed Until They Are Perfect

Start slow – it’s hard! You have to stay disciplined when you practice scales, though, and we always recommend using a metronome to gradually increase speed over time. Speeding up a scale too soon will cause sloppiness, and it will stunt your growth as a musician. It also robs your brain of the opportunity to really internalise and learn the intricacies of the scale, and you will be relying on muscle memory alone as you play your scales. 

Practice a Variety of Key Signatures

While it’s tempting to start with C Major and progress through the circle of 5ths, it’s advantageous to learn your scales chromatically. This means that you can start with C if you’d like, but you need to then work on D Flat/C# afterwards, and progress that way. It will expose your fingers to a variety of keys and finger patterns, and it will encourage holistic growth — you don’t want to be a pianist who is only comfortable playing in flat keys or sharp keys.

Remember – Scales Are Just Part of Your Piano Learning

Scales are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Spend 15-30 minutes or so every day on your technique, and don’t become obsessed with only scales — you’re better off pursuing your technique and repertoire simultaneously.

Practise Scales With Any Technique you Need – They Are a Tool

Are you working on a piece with lots of contrary motion? Practice your scales that way. Do you have pieces with runs in thirds or sixths? Practice your scales that way as well. In short, use your scale practice as a tool for improving your skills and pieces — Remember, you won’t be sitting in a recital hall playing scales in front of an audience.

Contact the London Piano Centre in the Marylebone neighborhood of London if you have any questions about scales or technique. Our professors are world-renowned pianists, and they would be happy to give you a trial lesson or find a regular instruction time that works for you.