The Complete Guide to Scales

Longtime readers of this blog probably know by now that I’m a scale fanatic. Scales are one of my absolute favorite things to practice, and I think that they are also one of the most beneficial elements of any well-balanced practice routine.

I spend a lot of time with my students explaining what scales are and why they’re so important, and I wanted to create this guide to share this information with you, whether you’re a beginner or scale aficionado.

First things first – what is a scale?

You’ll probably encounter several different definitions, depending on which music theory book you reference. Basically, a scale is a group of notes with a specific pattern. There are several different types of scales (major scales, minor scales, and many more), and each type shares the same pattern. For example, all major scales are comprised of the same pattern of half steps and whole steps, and there are 12 major scales – one per every key signature.

Why are scales so important?

There’s a reason your band director/teacher/friends keep harping on scales – because they form the basis of our musical alphabet! When you first begin learning scales, it might seem like a random bunch of notes jumbled together. Over time, these notes will begin to make sense as musical “words.” I like to compare learning your scales to learning to read. When you first began reading, you had to learn the alphabet and phonetics, then you moved on to basic words so you can find common patterns which eventually became words and sentences. Scales are our musical alphabet, and by practicing them in a variety of patterns, you can learn more music “vocabulary” (i.e. musical passages and phrases) because you are expanding your musical fluency.

When should I begin practicing scales?

It’s never too early to start learning scales! However, it will be easier once you’ve learned the basic range of the clarinet (from low E to notes above the staff). Fear not – if you don’t know all of these notes yet, you can still play one-octave scales in the lower register, such as an F major scale or G major scale. If you’ve been playing clarinet for a few years and haven’t started working on your scales, there is no time like the present!

In addition to helping you learn the musical alphabet, scales are crucial to developing your technique. If you practice your scales consistently, you will find that you have more precise technique and are able to quickly recognize patterns in new music, meaning that you will eventually be able to learn new pieces in a shorter amount of time.

What are the most common types of scales?

There are so many different types of scales, but here are some of the most common types:

  • major scales
  • minor scales (there are three forms of minor scales – natural, harmonic, melodic)
  • chromatic scale

Important notes on practicing scales:

  • Go beyond the basic pattern. Many students learn their scales in one specific rhythmic pattern (usually whatever rhythm is designated by All-State, honor band, or other audition requirements). Practice your scales in a variety of patterns, such as arpeggios, thirds, and any other patterns you can imagine to maximize your improvement.
  • Pair each scale with its corresponding arpeggio. Scales and arpeggios go hand in hand, so make sure to practice both. An arpeggio (sometimes called a common chord) is 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the ascending scale. For example, the C major arpeggio is C E G. Arpeggios can be practiced ascending and descending, and these notes do not always have to appear in this order.
  • Try to learn one new scale a week. Since there are multiple scales, aim to learn one new scale every week.
  • Try to memorize your scales. Memorization is a common requirement for many auditions, but it also helps you focus on listening and hearing if there are any wrong notes. Pro tip: if you make a mistake, fight the urge to immediately look at the music for the right note. Instead, listen and try a few notes to hear what sounds correct. This way, you build your listening skills.
  • Don’t neglect your key signatures. Another common issue I see among students (even ones that can play their scales well) is that they don’t know the associated key signatures. Simply playing scales by muscle memory isn’t enough to translate this skill to music – you have to connect your mind and fingers so you can equate their motion with the key signature you’re playing.
  • Practice scales in all enharmonic key signatures. Although there are only 12 distinct major and minor scales, there are three enharmonic scales which you should practice. (Quick definition: enharmonic notes are those that sound the same but are “spelled” differently, such as A♭/G♯.) These are D♭/C♯; G♭/F♯; C♭/B. Even though these scales are played with the same fingerings and sound exactly the same, they will be completely different key signatures in music. (For example, D♭ has five flats, whereas C♯ has seven sharps.)

One more note about scales – your scale journey is never complete. Even after you learn all your scales, you should continue practice your scales in as many varieties and patterns as possible. Scales and their associated technical studies are essential to developing great technique, and it’s important to develop a good relationship with scales early on so you can continue to improve and polish your technique.

Here are a few of my favorite scale books which live rent-free on my music stand:

For beginners:

I created my I Love Scale series to help you go from beginner to Baermann! There are eight levels, and here are my recommendations for beginners:

Here are some more advanced scale studies (listed in no particular order):

Here are some free resources I’ve created to help you with scales and key signatures:

I hope this guide helps you learn and love your scales!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.