Memorizing scales

As I’ve mentioned before, my university students are subject to a scale proficiency exam. Most arrive at the university “knowing” at least some major scales, but most of them will also have to learn at least a few new ones and maybe put some old ones into a new format.  For their exam, the scales need to be memorized well enough to play three randomly-selected major ones, and three randomly-selected melodic minors.

For some students, there are technical barriers to this:  untrained fingers, insufficient familiarity with alternate fingerings, or tone production issues in extreme ranges. Some also struggle with nerves or other psychological baggage (“I’ve never been good at scales, Dr. P.,”). Even among students who are moving rapidly through advanced repertoire, and have all the necessary facility to play the scales, there are some that find the memorization to be very difficult.

Photo, CZMJ

Here are some of the issues that my students have:

  • Playing too fast, too soon. While accumulating the many, many repetitions necessary for mastery, it’s crucial that the repetitions are totally accurate. I sometimes see a student start a scale at blazing speed, make a mistake within the first five notes, start over, and repeat. (Some determined but misguided students will repeat this cycle indefinitely until I stop them.) Two possibilities present themselves here: first, the student is making the exact same error over and over, cementing the bad habit; or, second, the student is making a variety of errors, developing no habit whatsoever because there is no true repetition. I beg them to slow down—whole notes at 40bpm are an acceptable starting point if that is what it takes to play the scales the same (correct) way every time. Use a metronome to enforce disciplined tempi.
  • Substituting academic knowledge for technique. I do expect my students to be able to “spell” their scales. Some, when I ask them to play, even like to spend a moment thinking aloud about the key signature or interval pattern. Some can even successfully pull off a scale that they haven’t practiced well by thinking through the notes while they play, but this is risky behavior when the pressure of an exam is applied. “Knowing” the scales academically is one thing, playing them is another. They need to be practiced until the fingers can do them on auto-pilot.
  • Going one way only. Some students can play a scale smoothly and accurately going up, and then stumble through the descent. Unfortunately, the ascending and descending versions, even when the pitches are identical, are separate feats and must be practiced equally. No shortcuts. You can probably recite the alphabet very quickly, but slow down quite a bit when saying it backwards—you haven’t practiced the backwards one as much.

For successful, useful, technique-building scale memorization:

  • Go as slowly as you need to go to get total precision every time. Speed up gradually, but never at the expense of accuracy.
  • Repeat many, many, many times, over the course of weeks, months, and years. Plan to spend a lifetime polishing this crucial part of your technique.

Practice smart!


4 responses to “Memorizing scales”

  1. Yes! — especially to the “plan to spend a lifetime….” part!

    As a jazz player conscious of the huge “ear” portion of the genera, my scale proficiency improved when I started thinking of them as intervals I really had to “hear.” Today I must admit I’d be embarrassed if required to spell out an Ebm scale or arpeggio, but I’d do better (somewhat!) playing it “by ear.”

    1. Jack, I had a nagging feeling I was leaving something out, and you hit it on the head: when my students know what the scales sound like, they learn them much more quickly and effectively. Some get lost in the varieties of minor scales, making lots of mistakes and never really wrapping their ears around the sounds of the scales.

  2. Henry Melbourne Avatar
    Henry Melbourne


    This thread brings up some ideas I’ve been incorporating into my practice and I thought I’d share them…

    In the same way as you describe ‘wrapping their ears around the sound of the scales’ I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘hearing’ the the degrees of the scale rather than getting stuck with the clarinet notes.

    What I do now is to get the A and Bb out and alternate clarinets whilst playing scales in the same concert pitch. It really helps you to forget about the individual notes and start hearing the whole scale.

    So if I start with the A clarinet and play F# major I’ll then play F major on the Bb then do another.

    If you keep going back and forth you practice the fingering of two scales whilst only listening to one and it helps intonation (you’ll start hearing discrepancies) and you’re getting better at transposing with out even trying.

    1. Ann Satterfield Avatar
      Ann Satterfield

      Really good idea Henry!
      Cool. Could work with other pairs of instruments.

      When I was in grad school, when I did most of my practicing in room with piano I often found passages ‘sticking’ if I played them at concert pitch on piano (s l o w l y). I was then playing Bb/A clarinet, alto sax and flute.
      During grade school I was an unmotivated piano student, but the time apparently put some connection to hand shape and pitches and sequence.

Leave a Reply

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

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

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