Playing Musical Scales on the Piano

In piano, perhaps more than any other instrument, you can use scales to do some great things — like play entire songs. Although not all scales are songs, all songs are created from scales, be it an entire scale or just a few notes from the scale. Remember the “Do-Re-Mi” song from The Sound of Music? The whole darn song is about scales, and those kids had fun!

Besides using scales to understand the notes in a song’s melody, you can use scales to beef up your finger power on the piano. Plus, the more scales you know, the easier it becomes to play the piano.

Put simply, a musical scale is a series of notes in a specific, consecutive order. Major and minor scales are the two most common types, and they have the following attributes:

  • They’re eight notes long.

  • The top and bottom notes are an octave apart, so they have the same name.

  • The series follows a stepwise pattern up and down, and the name of each note in the scale follows the alphabet up and down.

Each scale gets its own wacky-sounding name, like C major. A scale derives its name from the following two things:

  • The scale’s bottom note, or the tonic. For example, a C major scale starts on C.

  • The stepwise pattern used to create the scale. Music has two kinds of steps, half-steps and whole-steps, which are the building blocks of scales. The “major” part of C major means the third note of the scale is a major third above the tonic.

Note that on a keyboard some white keys have a black key in between and some white keys are side by side. On a piano keyboard:

  • Two keys side by side (whether black or white) are one half-step apart.

  • Two keys separated by one other key (black or white) are a whole-step apart.

  • Two half-steps equal one whole-step.

Knowing some basic facts about scales, you can build any scale starting on any root note simply by applying the correct scale pattern (or combination of whole- and half-steps).

Stepping out with whole and half steps.
Stepping out with whole and half steps.
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