Why do we learn and practice scales? Have you (or your students) ever asked this question? Is it just for tradition’s sake that piano teachers assign scales to work on? I think it’s important not only for we teachers to know the WHY behind scales, but also for our students to know!
My top 5 reasons why we should practice scales:
- Because they appear in music. It makes learning and memorizing scales passages a lot easier if one can identify the scale that the passage is based on. Already in many intermediate-level sonatinas (by Clementi, Kuhlau, and others, for example), there are many instances of scale passages occurring in the piece. If students already know their scales, learning these kinds of passages in their pieces will be much easier.
- To develop coordination between the hands. It’s not easy to get those hands and fingers working together! Practicing scales is a great time to focus on developing coordination which will then transfer over to repertoire pieces.
- To develop a good sense of fingering. It is absolutely crucial to develop a good sense of pianistic fingering at a young age! If students learn good fingering through their scale exercises, then when they encounter similar fingering in their pieces it will seem natural and logical.
- To develop an aural sense of a key / tonal center. Practicing scales will develop the student’s ear so that they begin to hear how each note of the scale functions within a key — e.g., hearing that the leading tone’s pull to the tonic (ti-do). They will also begin to be able to aurally recognize major versus minor pieces they might be learning.
- To build a theoretical understanding of key / tonal center. Knowing about scales and key signatures is the basis of understanding how music works. Once the student understands what it means to be “in a key”, the rest of music theory will eventually follow: they can begin to understand how chords are formed, which chords usually progress to other certain chords, how to transpose, how dissonances are properly resolved to consonances (voice leading), how modulations work, which keys are closely related, etc. And, of course, understanding how music works allows for better interpretations of repertoire. It also makes it easier for students to learn and memorize music if they can understand what is happening.
To summarize, scales are basically where technique and music theory meet. Not only are we developing things like coordination and fingering but we are developing an understanding of keys, which is the foundation of music theory. As an added bonus, learning scales helps with learning and understanding repertoire pieces better.
At first, scales might seem like quite a drag to students. However, if we as teachers celebrate scales by referring to them in their repertoire pieces and their theory worksheets/games, students will begin to understand their importance and appreciate them. Let’s hear it for scales! Hip hip, hooray! =)