Scales: Why They Matter and How to Practice Them

If I could go back in time to teach myself one thing when starting to learn an instrument, it would be to have a lesson on scales - why they matter, and how to practice them.

by Tarun

Creator, tuneUPGRADE

If I could go back in time to teach myself one thing when starting to learn an instrument, it would be to have a lesson on scales - why they matter, and how to practice them. Many times it's not clear to beginners as to why scale practice is a recommended part of your practice routine. Let's talk about why scales are important, how to practice them, and how to apply them to every tune you learn - and how they can open up your musical world, regardless of whether you play piano, guitar, or any other instrument.

In this article, I'll talk about what benefits lie at each level at scale mastery and give you practical exercise recommendations (and teach you craft your own!) to achieve the next level of mastery - and what that level will unlock for you.

Using Scales to Learning Songs Faster

Grab a piece of music that you're trying to learn. If you've got traditional sheet music, take a peek at the key signature. If you're learning from tabs, this might be a bit more challenging, but try to identify the key, or look it up. Scan the notes that you see on the page. Sure, there might be an occasional accidental here and there, but for the most part, the notes will stick to the key of the song you're playing.

Now look at your instrument and run through the scale - maybe just one octave, or one position to start, but imagine you've spanned the whole length of your instrument, hitting every note in the scale. All of a sudden, you don't need to be too concerned with all 88 keys on a piano, or every fret on every string on a guitar or bass. If you play piano and your song is in the key of C Major or A minor - you would have just hit every white key. If in D major, you now know the 7 notes that are part of the D major scale - D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# - and more importantly, you know what notes are not in the scale.

When you know the locations of the notes that are in and out of the scale - and have practiced the scale enough to see the pattern on your instrument of where the in-scale notes are, learning new songs becomes easier. This is doubly so for playing in keys that may make you apprehensive or you're not familiar with. Say you encounter a piece in the key of F# major - running through the F# major scale before practicing will make it leagues easier to avoid hitting the wrong note because you weren't able to recall what sharps or flats are part of a particular key!

Guitar players - take special note if the line you're about to learn is in a pentatonic scale, and practice those patterns first! A great example here is the solo from Let It Be by the Beatles, which is in A minor pentatonic.

1.1 Recommended Exercise: Just before you practice any song, warm up by running through the scale belonging to the key the song is in - slowly - until you get comfortable with the shape or pattern of the scale. It is better to be slow and get it right than fast and get it wrong, because the point is to ingrain the pattern or shape of the scale in your mind and fingers.

Building Speed and Dexterity

Once you start feeling like you have a scale shape or pattern down, now you can start using those patterns to build up some speed and dexterity. This is where you can introduce a little creativity in your exercises. The most basic exercise here might be to just put on a metronome and start running up and down scales, one note at a time. If you start making mistakes and hitting a wrong note, slow down. It's more important to get it right than be lightning-fast. The speed will take time to build, and won't happen overnight, but you certainly won't get there hitting wrong notes not part of the scale.

Running up and down each notes can get pretty boring pretty quickly though! Here's where you can start introducing a huge amount of variety on how you're practicing a scale shape or pattern and build up your speed and dexterity in different ways.

Recommended Exercises:

  • 2.1 Start practicing scales up and down with a metronome, one note at a time.

  • Come up with a different pattern to run through the notes and start practicing those runs. Here are some examples using the C major scale, which is typically C | D | E | F | G | A | B | C.

    • 2.2 Skip a note then dip back to it, and repeat: C | E | D | F | E | G | F | A | G | B | A | C (and reverse for the way down).

    • 2.3 Play a triplet set starting on each note of the scale: (C D E) | (D E F ) | (E F G) | (F G A) | (G A B) | (A B C) | (B C D) | C

    • 2.4 Play through arpeggios within notes on the scale: (C E G) | (D F A) | (E G B) | (F A C) | ( G B D) | (A C E) | (B D F) | C

    • 2.5 Come up with your own patterns, or incorporate unique aspects of your instrument - Guitar Players, for example, could work in bends or slides, piano players, work in that sustain pedal to get practice with that too).

  • 2.6 Noodle around within a scale - don't follow a pattern, just start jumping around a bit within it. This is how Gary Burton, a world famous improvisor, recommends you practice your scales to master the shape or pattern of it rather than just runs up and down.


If you performed the last bullet in the above exercise list for Building Speed and Dexterity - congratulations! You've improvised. If you know your scales well, and you know the harmony of a track, you can use notes from that scale to improvise over top of it. A simple exercise here is to find a C major backing track on YouTube, and try playing notes from the C major scale over it.

If your improvisation feels scattered and un-musical, this is where you can start looking at songs you know, and start borrowing little snippets (or riffs) from them, and work them into your improvisational playing. Building up a little mental library of these riffs and figuring out how to string them together is really what will get your improvisation sounding musical and fluid.

3.1 Exercise: Find a backing track in the key of a scale you know (i.e. C major, G major, D major, A minor, etc.) - and start improvising over it.


When listening to music, if you can identify the key it's in, chances are the melody line will adhere to the notes in the key of the song. For example, While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles is in the key of A minor (with notes A B C D E F G in it). As such, the notes that are sung are all within the notes of the scale.

"I look at you all" is E A B C A.

"See the love there that's sleep-ing" is B C A B C D C.

"While my guitar gently weeps" is E C A B A G A.

By understanding notes that are part of a scale, transcription will become easier (and bonus - focusing on your ear training skills will make this much easier too).

4.1 Exercise: Find a simple rock or pop song and identify the key. Then, see if you can figure out the vocal line's notes by ear. If you have trouble - look up some sheet music and check your work!

...And more!

Beyond just the above, there are many other benefits of knowing your scales really well, including:

  • Read music faster. If you are familiar with the key of D major and the notes in the scale, you won't have to keep checking the key signature to understand what notes are sharped or flatted when you see it on a printed page.

  • Composition skills - having an understanding of the notes available in a key will let you craft melodies, and what a starting set of harmonies might be within the set of diatonic chords (and guess what - exercise 2.4 covers the diatonic chords in a key!)

  • Understand common musical patterns better - which is pretty much the underlying thing that helps fuel all musical learning.

Lastly - everything in moderation!

Don't try to master a certain scale at a high tempo until you move onto other exercises. Spend a little time each day - getting some exercises to extremely fast tempos can take a very long time! It's better to do a small variety of exercises than try to give one your all.

Don't overdo just scales! 25% of your practice time devoted to warm up exercises like scales is good enough, and you can spread it out among your practice (i.e. practice a scale before you play a piece in a new key).

Work scales into your practice routine the way you would any song you're working on - and keep an eye out for context - if you practice your D major scale right before practicing a song in D major, you'll certainly start to see how you can apply your scales to your learning!

This post is part of the The Beat, a blog by the free music practice tracker tuneUPGRADE. Sign up and start tracking your practice to become a better musician today - totally free!

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