Piano scales are one of the most important parts of piano technique.
They’re everywhere - they’re in your sonatas, etudes, warm-ups - and without them, you really wouldn’t have the repertoire you know.
When it comes down to it, there are really 3 specific reasons why practicing your scales is so important:
- Scales help you build important physical skills
- Scales help you develop your sound
- Scales help you break down your repertoire into easily digestible parts.
Every little fragment of a melody in any piece of piano music you play will most likely have some elements of scale embedded in them.
If you need something more convincing on the importance of scales click here to read our article about this very subject.
Anyways, let’s jump right into the bulk of this post.
Here, I’ll take you through major piano scales, minor scales, proper fingerings, and a whole bunch of other info that you’ll need to master your piano repertoire.
Demystifying piano scale fingerings
Piano scale fingerings are incredibly tricky.
A little online research will present you with strings of numbers and unhelpful guides, most of which expect you to just memorize a bunch of numbers.
In her tonebase post about scale fingerings, Juliana Han breaks scale fingerings down to three simple observations:
- 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.
These observations reveal two things about piano scales:
- All scales consist of a bigger group of fingers (1–2–3–4) plus a smaller group (1–2–3) (note: each grouping includes the thumb).
- They all place the three longer fingers (2, 3, and 4/pointer, middle and ring) on black keys when possible.
And that’s it, this rule of thumb (pun intended) will help make your piano scale fingerings much easier to remember and lock in with muscle memory.
Definitely give this article (here) a thorough read if you’re looking for more holistic advice on playing scales.
Let’s transition now to the scales every pianist should have mastered.
The chromatic scale on piano
Let’s face it, there are a LOT of scales to learn on the piano.
However, understanding the collection of notes that each one pulls from will help dial in the scope of our practice.
If you’ve learned a little bit of music theory, you will know that there are only 12 notes in Western classical music.
These notes, assembled into one scale, are called the chromatic scale:
There is really only 1 chromatic scale, since no matter which note you start on, it’s still the same collection of notes.
Every scale you will encounter, from major to minor, from pentatonic to octatonic, they all use the notes of the chromatic scale in some way or another.
All 12 major scales on the piano
There are 12 major scales on the piano, each one starting on a different note in the chromatic scale.
If you want to get started, here are a few of the most common major scales for you to read through. Click the attached link to see our in-depth pianist’s guide to the scale, with detailed practice tips and repertoire applications.
C major piano scale
Ah yes, the C major scale. The first scale every pianist learns, although it is in my opinion less comfy to play than some of the others.
Notice how it only uses white keys:
Be sure to check out our comprehensive C major practice guide.
G major piano scale
Next on our “circle of fifths” (more on that coming soon) is the G major scale:
Click here for the G major practice guide.
D major piano scale
Next stop on our progression through sharp-land (notice there are now 2 sharps in the key signature) is D major:
Click here for the D major practice guide.
A major scale piano
Now onto A major, the scale with 3 sharps:
Click here for the A major practice guide.
E major scale piano
Last but not least, is the E major scale with 4 sharps.
Click here for the E major practice guide.
There you go. 5 major scales to get you started on your progression towards scale mastery.
Want the rest? Click here to check out our post with all 12 major scales and fingering guides for each one, as well as all of the minor scales.
Next, let’s take a look at these minor scales, what they are, and what the difference is between harmonic, natural, and melodic minor.
Minor piano scales
Natural minor scales are, at their core, just a major scale that starts on the 6th note and ends on the 6th note (pretty simple, right?)
This is why you’ll probably see the key signature of what’s known as the “relative major” to each minor scale (as in d minor is written in the key signature of the relative major, F major).
Just like we did for the major scales, let’s check out 5 important minor scales to help you get started.
And same as last time, feel free to click the link below each scale to access our comprehensive scale guide.
C minor scale piano
The first scale on this list is C minor, which has 3 flats (just like Eb major, it’s “relative major”)
Click here for the C minor practice guide.
G minor piano scale
In the same order as the major scales, now we get to G minor. Notice this time we have one less flat than before.
Click here for the G minor practice guide.
D minor piano scale
Next up we have our D minor scale:
Click here for the D minor practice guide.
A minor piano scale
A minor is our “no sharps or flats” minor key, just like its relative major C major:
Click here for the A minor practice guide.
E minor piano scale
The one-sharp minor scale, relative to G major is E minor:
Click here for the E minor practice guide.
And that wraps up our intro to natural minor on the piano!
Just as the case was with the major scales, be sure to check out our full list of major and minor scales with fingering guides here.
Natural vs. harmonic vs. melodic minor
Let’s take a look at F# minor, in three forms: natural, harmonic, and melodic.
F# natural minor:
F# harmonic minor:
F# melodic minor:
Compare the 3 scales above. All of them are the same root scale, but as we go from natural to melodic we alter a few specific notes of the scale.
In the harmonic minor scale, we raise the 7th, creating what’s called a “raised leading-tone” leading into the root note at the top.
In the melodic minor minor scale, we raise the 6th and the 7th, but lower them on the way down. This effectively blends melodic and natural minor together.
Composers use melodic minor to add color to melodies, as the relationship between this “major ascent” and “minor descent” is extremely colorful and adds a nice character to melodic lines.
Want to hear the melodic minor scale in a piano piece? Here’s Chopin’s Polonaise in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 44:
You can hear little bits of F# melodic minor scattered throughout the melody.
Whole-tone, pentatonic, and more
With 12 notes there are a lot of additional scales that can exist, and once you start playing around with the amount of notes in a scale you can produce some really interesting sound-palettes.
Ever heard of the whole tone scale? If you’ve heard any of Claude Debussy’s music, you’ve most definitely heard it.
Here are the two and only two versions of that scale:
These scales don’t fit within any key signature, so they have this cool nebulous quality to them.
Another popular scale with the impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel was the pentatonic scale:
It’s important to know that this scale has its roots in music from many ancient civilizations, and can be heard in the folk music of the Americas, East/Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The music from these regions, most notably East/Southeast Asia, had a large influence on the music of Debussy and other composers of his time.
There are also loads of other popular scales in the piano repertoire, such as the octatonic scale (composer Oliver Messiaen liked this one in particular) and the blues scale, an essential part of jazz (think C minor pentatonic with an F#).
Even with this lengthy post, we’ve only just scratched the surface of piano scales you’ll encounter in your piano repertoire.
Hopefully now, you’ve got a bit of a stronger understanding of the piano scales that exist and how to play them with good technique.
Want to learn more?
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