We may never know the true origins of some of mankind’s accomplishments: Stonehenge, the Lascaux cave drawings, piano scale fingerings …
Hold up a minute. The piano was only invented around 1700, and we actually have many writings on the origin of scale fingerings, including CPE Bach’s famous treatise, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.
Yet, too often, method books and teachers teach scales as a stream of numbers — 2–1–2–3–1–2–3–4, for instance. Without explanation, this approach is about as interesting as memorizing the phone book. No wonder students forget “proper” fingering!
I wasn’t there when they were invented, but I can assure you that the most common scale fingerings actually make a lot of sense. This is because they ultimately derive from three observations about our hands:
- There are 7 distinct notes in a scale, but you only have 5 fingers on each hand
- It is faster to use all of your fingers in a row (as opposed to 2–3–2–3–2–3 or other such noodlings)
- When you run out of fingers, it is easier to keep going over the thumb (not pinky) end of your hand.
The result is that every single traditional scale fingering has these characteristics:
- Consists of a bigger group of fingers (1–2–3–4) plus a smaller group (1–2–3) (note: each grouping includes the thumb).
- Places the three longer fingers (2, 3, and 4) on black keys when possible.
To see this in action, place your right hand pinky on any C and start playing a downward C major scale. You’ll play all five fingers in a row (big group) and then run out of fingers. To continue, you’ll flip over your thumb onto your third finger (small group) to complete the scale.
Need another octave? Flip over your thumb again onto your fourth finger to start another big group, then to the third for the smaller group. Et voila! You’ve just derived the fingering for most major scales!
Once you realize that every standard scale pattern consists of alternating big or small groups, your task at the keyboard is to keep track of whether you’re in a small or big group.
Sounds easy, but a few things complicate matters:
- Your left hand and right hand may not be in the same group at the same time.
- Flat-key scales start you smack in the middle of a group to avoid placing a thumb on the black keys.
- You’ll have to know which black keys you need in advance and prepare your arm for the change in altitude.
So, while the logic is easy, the execution of it is not. Turns out you’ll have to practice your scales.
As a self-declared lazy intellectual, I always find it easier in the long run to understand a rationale rather than blindly memorize (and forget) a result.
Knowing the rationale for scale fingerings will not only help you remember them and correct any errors that crop up; just as importantly, they will also help you figure out good fingerings for scalar passages in your music.
Derive a scale a few times, remember it forever. Maybe not as long as Stonehenge, but good enough.