As a novice to the piano, you might be wondering, “What piano scales should I learn first?”
There’s so much to remember when you are first learning how to play the piano. You want to make sure you learn the basics correctly the first time, so that you don’t have to unlearn bad habits later. When it comes to learning how to play the piano, learning things right the first time is much easier than trying to unlearn poor practices and relearn best practices in the future.
Scales are often a piano student’s first step in learning how to play to the piano. While practicing scales can seem to be a tedious, routine exercise, scales provide the fundamentals for understanding music and mastering piano techniques.
But how do you know where to begin?
In general, it's a good idea to start with the major scales first, then move on to the natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales. Once you master those you can move onto things like chromatic scales, blues scales, pentatonic scales and whole tone scales.
What Is A Scale?
You might be asking, “What exactly is a scale and why is it important to learn?” A scale is a set of musical notes ordered by pitch or frequency. Scales make up the backbone of most musical pieces, with a single scale providing the melody and harmony.
Scales typically span an octave, which is eight keys, say, for example, from C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. That’s an octave. (There are other types of scales, which we won’t get into now for simplicity’s sake).
There are 12 major scales and at least 36 minor scales, including harmonic minors, melodic minors and natural minors. Major scales are basic to your understanding of musical keys and are the scales that most piano students learn first. Most everyone agrees that the scale that should be learned and mastered first is the C Major Scale.
First, Learn The C Major Scale With The Right Hand
The C Major Scale is the scale that most who have studied the piano traditionally learn first. It might be called the easiest scale, as it contains no sharps or flats (it consists of all white, otherwise known as natural, keys). Starting with Middle C on the piano’s keyboard, a scale is eight notes, otherwise known as an octave. It ends on the next C note.
- Fingering is key. You must learn proper fingering to play the C Major Scale. If you begin with your right thumb on Middle C, play the next two notes (D and E) with your second and third fingers. Then cross your thumb under your third finger and place it on the next note, F. It is easy to then continue the scale with your second, third, fourth and fifth fingers on G, A, B and ending on C with your pinky.
- Reverse the scale. Make sure to use the same fingering when you come back down the scale. (Fifth finger, fourth, third, second, thumb, cross over thumb with third finger, second, thumb).
That’s it! You’ve played your first scale on the piano! Congratulations!
Then Try the C Major Scale With Your Left Hand
If you’re right-handed, playing the bass clef C Major Scale with your left hand will probably be a bit more difficult.
- Remember your left-handed fingering. Start on the bottom C with your fifth finger (pinky) on your left hand. Play D with your next (fourth) finger, then E with the third finger, F with the second finger, G with the thumb. Then cross over your thumb with your third finger to play the A with your third finger, B with your second finger, and end on C with your thumb.
- Reverse the scale. Start with your left thumb on C, then second finger on B, third finger on A, then cross your thumb under your third finger to play the G with your thumb, F with second finger, E with third finger, D with fourth finger, and end on C with your pinky.
You did it! See, that wasn’t so hard.
Now Put Them Together And Play Right And Left-Handed C Major Scales Simultaneously
Wait a minute, you might say. I’m not ready! Really, you are ready to just jump in with both hands and try it. Just do it.
- The most important thing to remember when using both hands is to keep the fingering on each hand correct. This can confuse beginning piano students and if you learn it wrong, it will be hard to relearn it correctly later.
Keep Practicing Until It Feels Natural
Playing scales on your piano might feel a bit awkward at first and might be boring to you as a new piano student. C’mon, you might say, I want to play actual music! The best way to get there, most musicians agree, is to know your scales up and down, forwards and backwards.
One of the best resources for learning scales is the book by the Hal Leonard Corporation, Scales and Finger Exercises – Upper Elementary to Lower Intermediate Piano, available for purchase at Amazon.com. It will provide scale exercises for each hand separately and both hands together, as well as fingering tips.
Move On To The Next Major Scale
Once you have mastered the C Major Scale, many people move on to learn the next common scale, the G Major Scale. The fingering is the same premise for all scales, with the crossing over being the same on each hand, just on different notes (i.e., the G Major Scale starts on G, so you’d cross over on the right hand with your thumb at C going up the scale; while on the left hand, you’d cross over with your third finger at E).
Traditional Order of Learning Major Scales
Most piano teachers require their students to learn the 12 major scales in the following order:
- F-Sharp/G-Flat Major
- C-Sharp/D-Flat Major
- A Sharp/B-Flat Major
- D-Sharp/E-Flat Major
- G-Sharp/A-Flat Major
Master The Majors First Before Moving On
It’s important to practice, practice, practice your major scales. You want to learn the ones with natural keys before mastering ones with sharps or flats.
Practice your scales slowly, one hand at a time, before putting both hands together. That way you can be sure that you’ve mastered the proper fingering for each hand.
Don’t try to learn more than one scale per week. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself and scare yourself away from learning the piano or become bored too quickly.
Next Try The Minor Scales
There are 12 natural minor scales that you should start practicing next. In order, they are:
- A Minor
- A-Sharp/B-Flat Minor
- B Minor
- C Minor
- C-Sharp/D-Flat Minor
- D Minor
- D-Sharp/E-Flat Minor
- E Minor
- F Minor
- F-Sharp/G-Flat Minor
- G Minor
- G-Sharp/A-Flat Minor
Major and natural minor scales are the building blocks of learning to play the piano. There are other types of scales that advanced piano students may wish to study, including harmonic and melodic.
In harmonic minor scales, the seventh scale degree note is raised by just a half step.
Where there is harmony, there must be melody. Next, we have melodic minor scales, also called jazz minor scales. These are somewhat different and not vital for beginners to master. Essentially, the ascending form of a melodic minor scale involves raising the sixth and seventh scale degrees a half step. The descending form of a melodic minor scale involves lowering the sixth and seventh scale degrees a half step to their original pitches (i.e., it is the same as the natural minor scale).
Even more advanced piano students can get into the lesser-known scales: chromatic scales, piano blues scales, pentatonic scales and whole tone scales. These are beyond comprehension and not necessary for most beginners to learn, but feel free to study them once you’ve mastered the basics!