Why Are Scales Important?

Recently in the lessons, a mom asked the following (very loosely paraphrasing): “So scales are important, to the overall scheme of things?” (MN: correct me if I have this wrong!). I think I responded far too snobbily and far too hastily (this is how it is in lessons when trying to cover everything a student is working on; hard to take time to answer a big question). I said, “Scales [diatonic, that is—left this out] are the basis of all of Western music.” And that was that. On with the rest of the lesson!

After I was done teaching for the night, I thought: That was a terrible explanation. And way too dismissive. I need to have one on hand that’s concise, but also something more detailed. And of course something to read! So here goes.

And by the way, it’s not just moms (or dads) who ask … all my students ask me, young and old:
Why are scales important?
Why do I have to practice them?
Are they really that necessary?

Yes, yes, and yes! And my job as teacher is to tell you why. And to try and inspire students to want to play scales. To actually enjoy playing them. I am striving to be better at it. 🙂

Call me a music geek but I actually love scales. Everything about them. Playing them, teaching them, understanding them, hearing them.

I started playing them well over 40 years ago. Oddly, it was never drudgery as a young child—difficult and hard and challenging, yes—but in high school, I came to totally dig them (especially too when I started to study jazz piano also). As a kid, I didn’t understand their important to the whole scheme of things, but I loved the sound of them (especially the minors!). Learning them (well) also gave me a sense of pride, and of “ownership” at my growing musicianship and progress at the piano.

When I began to play more difficult music, though, was when I truly began to understand the relationship of scales to the music I was playing, seeing the patterns in the pieces. At that time, when I was about 15 or 16, I was just being introduced to  classical music (by my first serious piano teacher, RIP Mrs. Westman, I owe you so much)—my first pieces were Clementi’s Sonatina in C, Op. 36, No. 1 and Beethoven’s “Easy” Sonata in G, Op. 49, No. 2. The scales in the keys of C and G (and their relative harmonic minors) were completely obvious to me! Voilà! There they were! Everywhere in the music! Duh. Good thing I’d learned my scales. 🙂

Scales (7-note scales, diatonic and minor) are the basis of the fundamental knowledge of Western music (scales are different in different places, for example, Japan has its own scales), essential to learn on all instruments.

Also, with learning and practicing scales, comes the knowledge of the geography of the keyboard, sort of like studying a map to see where you’re going. In piano, fingering is everything (Fingering will be the subject of another post! For now, here’s a previous blog post I put up for the kids about fingering). Not like other instruments where a single note is played at a time (trumpet, clarinet, etc.)

A bit about diatonic scales on Wikipedia.
Wanna geek out even more on scales and where they come from? Click here.

Here’s a great app for all the scales (except melodic minor).

And if you’re reading this and you know more than I do (probable) about Western music scales, or can add to the discussion to help my students, I’d love that! 🙂



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