Scales are easily the least attractive part of learning piano or instrument. They’re no fun to play at parties, and they include a lot of math and technical jargon that frighten off new students. But the scale is the basis of music, and understanding it is key to understanding music. Understanding music is the best way to learn how to play it.
Scales have a lot of benefits for any musician. They create muscle memory, which is key to mastering any instrument. Muscle memory is when your fingers move almost on their own because they’ve been trained by the brain to do so. With practice, just about anybody can obtain muscle memory. With education, just about anybody can use it correctly; and that goes for just about anything in life.
Scales also give you a mastery of instrument geography; whether it is sax or guitar or especially piano, scales give you a mastery of the patterns any musician needs to master. They’re also a great way to warm up, loosen up the joints, and put the brain into a musical frame of mind.
The Western scale (as opposed to the Eastern scale, used in Oriental and Indian music) has seven notes. These notes can be flattened or sharpened by a single half step (or halftone. The notes are not evenly spaced from one another, with the third and fourth notes only a half step apart, likewise between the seventh and eighth, which is the same note as the first only one octave higher. On a piano, you’ll note that if you start at the C key, the third and fourth white keys (the black keys are the sharps and the flats) are next to each other, as are the seventh and eighth keys.
Every key has the same scale, beginning and ending on its tonic note (E for E, G for G, C for C), and observing the same series of a whole or half-steps. The prescribed sharps and flats ensure those spacings.
There are different scales; the two most common are major and minor. Keys depend on the number of prescribed sharps (#) or flats (b) are played. The key of C major (C), for example, has no sharps or flats. F has one flat, E has four sharps, etc. Every key as both a relative major and minor. For example. C major, with no sharps or flats, has a corresponding relative minor, A minor (written a-), which also has no sharps or flats. The relative minor of F major (F) is D minor (d-), which also has one flat, the b. The relative minor of E major (E) is c#-, which also has four sharps.
The main difference between a major key (C, for example) and its relative minor (a- in this case) is where the notes begin and end. The spaces between the notes are the same, and notes which are flatted or sharped remain the same; but a C scale begins and ends on C, the a- scale starts on A.
The difference is in tone; the major scale is more buoyant and happy, the minor scale more plaintive and sad. Country, blues, jazz, R&B, classical, and other genres make equal use of both!
Scales are best practiced with both hands to strengthen the sync between right and left hand. They may not be easy at first, but the benefits of knowing your scales are incalculable to the hobbyist and inescapable for the professional musician. Luckily, flexible, easy-to-use ways for any musician to master their scales and make the most of their music.