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Learning to Love Scales and Arpeggios

The other week, I was chatting with a piano parent about our early experiences of piano exams. I mentioned the very low mark that I received for my Grade 4 scales and arpeggios, with the examiner’s sole comment being ‘often untidy and unsteady’. Whilst blunt, this accurately reflected the effort I’d invested in learning them!

The problem was that I had been taught each scale and arpeggio specifically for the exam, rather than in a progressive manner. When I occasionally practiced them at home, I referred to my rather dull graded scales book full of tiny notes and finger numbers, which only reinforced my view that scales and arpeggios were mechanical, difficult and, dare I say it, boring.

As soon as my exam was over, I promptly forgot them all!


“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

‘The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide’ (Faber Music, 2017) Anthony Williams


Over the years, I have become aware of the numerous benefits of playing scales regularly and methodically, and I’ve come to love them. It never ceases to amaze me that something as logical and structured as a diatonic scale can be used to create such beauty and expression in music.

Music from all genres consists of scale patterns, chords and arpeggios, so having a familiarity with keys and the relationships between them makes reading music far more predictable and instinctive. This predictability can significantly improve our sight reading.  Arpeggios and broken chords help us learn about harmony and chord functions and scales improve our physical technique.

Below are several key benefits of learning, and playing, scales and arpeggios regulary.



Building Musical Connections

When taught in a more holistic manner, rather than solely for exams, the relationship between scales and all other aspects of music becomes much clearer. In his insightful article ‘Why bother with scales?’ ( 2018), Andrew Eales says ‘scales learning can become connected to, and tremendously strengthen, all the other aspects of musical learning.’

Musical connections can be made in many ways, for example:

  • Link scales to the key signatures, note and finger patterns in your pieces.
  • Link arpeggios to the underlying harmonies in repertoire.
  • Sing scales and arpeggios to get familiar with how each note sounds.
  • Experiment playing them with varying dynamics, rhythms, articulation, tempo and moods.
  • Gain an understanding of the circle of fifths to reinforce theory knowledge.
  • Accompany scales with simple primary and secondary chord progressions in that key.
  • Improvise in the key of the scale being learnt.
  • Choose a famous tune and play it by ear in the key being learnt.


Ideas for teaching Scales and Arpeggios

Helping my students to develop a respect for, and love of, scales and arpeggios is an important part of my own teaching. Over the years, I have created various tools to help them visualise scale patterns, use consistent fingering and develop healthy technique and effective practice habits.

Below is a selection that work well in lessons (a full list with links is available at the bottom of the page).


1. Walk to the Shops

‘Walk to the shops’ is a great activity for younger children embarking on learning scales, to get them used to patterns and fingering. The teacher sets the objective, such as playing a pentascale or octave scale with the correct notes and fingering. On the keyboard, the starting note of the scale is ‘home’ and the top note is the ‘shop’ (you can always get them to draw a little house and a shop on some paper and place it on these notes).

The student then ‘walks from home to the shops’ with their fingers and, if successful they can choose a grocery item (erasers or collectables) and put it in their trolley.

Students will be very focussed on the task in hand, so this is a great time to build in certain technical challenges, such as passing the thumb under.

This picture is my Marks & Spencer ‘Little Shop’ which you can buy second hand off Ebay.


2. Keyboard Pattern Diagrams

Simple keyboard diagrams are a fantastic tool to help even the youngest students learn scales without feeling overwhelmed. They are very well used in my own teaching studio and are brilliant to use with the ‘walk to the shops’ activity above. Keyboard diagrams enable students to visualise the patterns of the notes and fingers, and can be taken home and used to support practice.

Keyboard pattern diagram C major  

They are also extremely helpful for students struggling to learn hands together scales, as they can quickly identify which fingers play together. For example, on the C major diagram above I would get a student to colour in the 3’s and and 1’s in the middle of the scale. We would break the hands together work into smaller sections – first a pentascale, then one octave and finally two octaves. There would also be focus on technical skills, such as proper hand shape, ‘thumb under’ technique and evenness of touch and rhythm.

As part of building musical connections, I link scales to key signatures of pieces that a student is learning. When a student embarks on learning a new piece, I quickly pull out the relevant sheet from my pattern books, which cover all major and minor scales, to familiarise them with the key signature and scale.

These pattern books include keyboard diagrams, notes on the stave, activity sheets, progress trackers, useful tips and crib sheets. They cover all major and minor scales, ordered by the number of sharps and flats in the key signature, and there are specific ones for ABRSM and MTB syllabuses, from Initial Grade to Grade 3.

Links to these resources can be found below.


3. Build a Scale board

As mentioned in the introduction, a diatonic scale is logical and structured. Students can work out ANY major or harmonic minor scale with two simple formulae of whole steps (tones) and half steps (semi-tones).

A few years ago, I created this ‘Build a Scale’ board to help students learn and apply these formulae and build their own scales. They can use it to work out even the most difficult scale….get them to start on a C#!


4. Scales trackers

I’m a huge fan of self assessment, and teach my students to listen to and evaluate their playing from the earliest stages. When learning scales and arpeggios, I use a dot system to monitor progress. Each student is given a tracker (see below) where we write down the scales and arpeggios that they are learning. Each scale has circles next to it split into quarters and each quarter represents focus area – correct notes, correct fingering, tonal and rhythmical eveness and shaping. Once they have played their scale or arpeggio, I get them to self assess, with my support, the areas they did well in and what could have been done better. We fill in the relevant quarters and get a dot sticker if all areas are done well.  These trackers are also extremely useful for monitoring which scales each student is working on.











4. Circle of Fifths

I love the circle of fifths. It’s such a magical tool and is wonderful for introducing scales in a logical order and explaining the link between major scales and relative minors.

Many of my students are currently working through this blank fillable Circle of Fifths by Gwen Harborne. With the help of this tracker,and my major and minor scale pattern e-books, we work on a selection of major scales and their relative minors (natural, harmonic and melodic).

Circle of fifths













I hope that this article has given you some ideas on how to make scales learning fun, engaging and holistic.

Below is a selection of resources available on My Music Resource to help your students learn to love scales!


Resource Links

Keyboard Pattern Books

Circle of Fifths: Scales and Patterns in all major and minor keys (£30 with studio licence)

Circle of Fifths: Scales and Patterns in all major keys (£15 with studio licence)

Circle of Fifths: Scales and Patterns in all minor keys (£20 with studio licence)

Pattern Book 20% off Bundle: ABRSM Initial Grade, Grade 1 and Grade 2 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£19.20 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: ABRSM Initial Grade Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£6.50 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: ABRSM Grade 1 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£8.50 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: ABRSM Grade 2 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£9 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: ABRSM Grade 3 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£9 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: MTB Grade 1 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£7.50 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: MTB Grade 2 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£7.50 with studio licence)

Pattern Book: MTB Grade 3 Piano Scales and Arpeggios (£7.50 with studio licence)


Scales Cards and Progress Trackers

Scale Tracker colouring worksheets (£4.25 with studio licence)

Scales Cards and Progress Trackers ABRSM Piano Syllabus Initial to Grade 5 (£15 with studio licence)

Scales Cards and Progress Trackers ABRSM Piano Syllabus Grade 6 (£4 with studio licence)

Scales Cards and Progress Trackers Trinity Piano Syllabus Grade 1 to Grade 5 (£10 with studio licence)

Scales Cards and Progress Trackers MTB Piano Syllabus Grade 1 to Grade 5 (£10 with studio licence)

Scales progress tracker (free!)


Circle of Fifths

Circle of Fifths (£5 with studio licence)

Circle of Fifths Blank Fillable (£3 with studio licence)


Other Scale Resources

Build a Scale Cards and Board (£3 with studio licence)

Tips for Identifying Key Signatures £3 with studio licence)

Scale Buses (£3 with studio licence)


About the Author and My Music Resource

Ruth Alberici is a piano teacher who runs a busy studio in North London. She is also Co-Founder, Owner and Director of, a one-stop shop bringing together creators and customers of music teaching resources. There are hundreds of resources on the site, covering all aspects of music learning. All resources are downloadable and come with a single studio licence, meaning you can use them with all students that you teach!

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