What are the most important scales for the piano and how many scales does a keyboard player need to learn?
Both of these questions and many others are about to be answered in our Piano Scales For Beginners And Intermediate Players article!
Do you want to learn scales on the piano in record time? Then keep on reading!
Scales on the Piano – An Introduction:
Musical scales are groups of notes that are, most often, played in succession. You can also group these notes into diads and triads, or even form bigger chords. The scales function as a reference point for composers.
If we limit ourselves to pianos, which have a total of 12 notes that are constantly repeated, a scale usually has 5, 6, 7 or sometimes 8 and 9 tones.
Having this lower number of notes compared to having all 12 notes (together called the chromatic scale) makes it much easier to understand theory the function of a note or chord within a progression. Of course, it also gives you a framework and guidelines of what you should play over existing progressions.
In the past, a scale was very important for the concept of tonality, but in modern times, tonality and scales are meant to be taken as explanations of what is played and not as rules for what should or should not be played. That being said, you can still compose songs and pieces by using only one scale.
For beginners, this will make it easier as you will have fewer notes to work with and have a guide on which chords to use. For advanced players, this will be challenging as there are hundreds and thousands of compositions that use only one scale and creating new sounds within only a single scale might be hard.
Some scales contain the same notes, but start out on a different note. This makes it somewhat easier to learn the scales because learning one scale from different starting points is the same as learning multiple different scales.
While the notes used are the same, the starting note, or the tonic, will imply chords that need to be played and create a different sound. If this sounds complicated, don’t worry – we will explain it in the first two scales that we are going to learn and you will see that it is, in fact, very logical and connected.
So, let us start with some easy to learn scales!
5 Most Important Piano Scales For Beginners and Intermediate Players:
1) The Minor Pentatonic Scale:
Used in: Rock, Pop, Blues, Soloing, some Oriental and National music
Pentatonic scales contain 5 notes, which doesn’t sound like a lot but can sometimes be more than enough. The most important pentatonic scale is the Minor pentatonic scale. This scale is a very basic note pattern that you can use as a basis for soloing over Minor chords and progressions.
One very good example of this scale are the 5 black keys on a piano. If you play the notes on the black keys in the following order, you get the Minor Pentatonic scale: E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭.
Sometimes, if you start on the second degree, you want to call that the Major Pentatonic scale: G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭.
You should learn these two forms using the black keys only first. Later on, you can move to a white-keys only position. To play A Minor Pentatonic, you need to hit the notes A-C-D-E-G-A. Moving to the second degree, you get C Major Pentatonic, which uses the same notes, but starts on a C: C-D-E-G-A-C.
We have put these two scales together for a simple reason – you really want to learn to play this scale in all 5 positions and regard it as a huge pattern all over the fretboard. With other scales, this is a little bit different and each individual position has certain needs and places in music. The Minor Pentatonic pattern is, on the other hand, an all-around solution to basic soloing.
Because this scale contains only 5 notes, you want to learn to add grace notes and passing tones to it. Sometimes, this is called going out of the scale or adding flavor notes. One example would be to play the note D Sharp between the notes D and E in a fast, chromatic run. You don’t want to spend too much time on these outside-notes, but only use them as ornamentation.
2) The Natural Major Scale
Used in: Pop, Rock, R’n’R, Classical Music
The Natural Major Scale might be the most famous scale of them all, especially if we are talking about C Major. C major is a scale that is the basis of the C Major chord and is used in a lot of musical pieces. The white keys of a piano are tuned to the C major scale. In sequence, the notes go C-D-E-F-G-A-B. These seven notes are then repeated in succession.
This diatonic scale is one of the most useful composition tools for a beginner composer. You have 3 Major chords, 3 Minor chords, and one Diminished chord.
Technically, you can form a diminished chord using the fourth scale degree, as well. You can also form a good chunk of 7th chords. That means that you have a lot of bluesy sounding chords, as well as some more standardized ones. It is not the most exciting scale, but you can definitely learn to improvise a lot of fast lines over many different chord progressions using the Major Scale.
The blend of simplicity and versatility is the main reason for this scale being the most popular and wide-spread scale. It has a happy, upbeat sound that we are all used to. A typical chord progression using this scale would be C Major – F Major – G Major. We suggest to first practice the C Major Scale but continue learning A major, E major and G major so that you can accompany guitarists more easily.
Sometimes, you will come across the name Ionian mode or Ionian scale. This is basically the same as the major scale, so don’t get confused by it. If you want to solo using these scale, start off by learning some arpeggios and learn to use thrills between the notes that are only one semitone apart (E and F or B and C).
3) The Natural Minor Scale
Used in: Rock, Blues, Metal, Classical Music, Hip Hop
The sad tone of the Natural Minor Scale is more than just famous – it is a staple for musicians of different genres. You may be surprised that, technically, you already know this scale.
How come? Well, if you’ve practiced the first and second scale on our list, you should already be able to play this one.
The Natural Minor scale is very similar to the Pentatonic Minor scale in terms of form, fingering and sound, but it has two additional notes. In fact, it has the same notes as a major scale, but you are starting on a lower degree.
For example, A Natural Minor has the notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G. These notes are the same as the notes of C Major, but you are starting on the A note. The reason that these two scales is not easy to explain, but basically, it has to do with the focus on certain notes.
This is the perfect moment to explain that you can, in fact, create 7 different scales using any major or minor scale. All of them will have the same notes, but the focus, the starting note will always be different.
These variations are called Modes. Modes might be scary, but you shouldn’t focus on them right now. Just rest assured that it’s much easier than many people make it out to be. If you can learn both the Natural Major and Natural Minor scale, learning the remaining 5 modes will be much faster and getting the theory behind it will not be as hard.
For now, focus on playing progressions like Am-F-C-G. This progression is extremely common in rock and metal, but also in pop music.
As with the last scale, learning thrills and arpeggios can be useful. A final tip is that you can, most of the time, comfortably change between A Natural Minor and A Minor Pentatonic. While using A Minor Pentatonic, you can, of course, use the techniques you learned previously, such as adding outside-notes to make everything spicier.
4) Harmonic Minor Scale
Used in: Jazz, Classical Music, Neo-Classical Metal, Oriental and Traditional Music
Here we have a somewhat more complex scale that is used less commonly than our first scales, but it is surely an important scale to master, especially if you are working on becoming a classical musician.
This scale is used by composers such as Bach and Mozart, but also by rock bands such as Dire Straits. Often, this scale is not used for the whole duration of a composition, but only as a device to create tension in a Natural Minor song.
The Harmonic Minor Scale is very similar to the Natural Minor scale, but the seventh degree is raised by a semitone. Working with A as the tonic, we get A-B-C-D-E-F-G#.
This gives us another possibility for playing fast trills and creates some new seventh chords. The sixth degree can now form a major chord instead of a minor one.
This is often used in both popular and classical music. If you are searching for pieces that utilize this scale more, you will have to check out the works of neo-classical metal guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, as they often use this scale in excessive amounts.
This scale has also a sad sound, but it is more exotic, more oriental sounding. It might remind you of something Egyptian or Arabic. It has a lot of tension to it in general.
It is very often that a song will progress in the Natural Minor scale, but borrow a chord from Harmonic Minor for tension. This can be heard in a lot of flamenco progressions. If you want to practice using tension and release, the harmonic minor scale is a skill that you have to master.
5) Melodic Minor Scale
Used in: Jazz, Hawaiian music, Javanese music
The last scale on our list is another minor scale. The Melodic Minor scale builds on the foundation of Harmonic Minor. It is a somewhat complex scale to use with a very distinct sound and complex chords, but it is a great finger exercise as it will force you to think outside the box.
Starting this scale on the fifth degree will also provide you with some interesting ideas, as that form has more of a major sound to it.
This scale is mostly used in jazz. It helps connect some complex jazz chords in a different way than a natural or harmonic minor scale would do.
Sometimes, this scale is not used exclusively, but together with the two previous minor scales. This is possible because jazz allows for a lot of chromatic passages and also because the melodic minor scale is built by raising the sixth and seventh degree of natural minor, or by simply raising the sixth degree of harmonic minor.
Melodic Minor enables a lot of leading notes. Getting the correct sound of this scale is somewhat tricky, but you should at least know that this scale exists and you should try to play it as a finger exercise. If you want to make your life a little bit easier, practice this scale by playing a lot of octaves or diads; playing full chords will make it really complicated.
Learning and memorizing all the different scales, especially in all of their positions, might seem like a massive hurdle. And it is, there is no denying that. But once you start learning one of these scales, all the others are going to come in naturally.
As your technique progresses, you will rely less on memory and more on hearing. Think about it this way – you are simply learning to use different ways to play notes from the chromatic scale.
If you keep on practicing every day and manage to learn four or five different scales, you will be able to compose your own pieces and to play nearly any composition you can think of.
If you need more tips on playing scales and how to practice them, take a look at our article that deals with playing complex piano scale patterns fast. We hope that you’ll enjoy that article just as much as this one!