Scales, and why we should love them

Scales. Some love ’em, some hate ’em, and one of the things I get asked most often by my (usually younger) students is “But whyyyyy do I have to learn scales? They’re so boring! They don’t mean anything!”

Almost without exception, the reason they think that is because it’s been drummed into them that they have to learn scales to pass their exams, without understanding how we then apply that knowledge to make our lives a lot easier as musicians. How does it make our lives easier? Because most notated tonal music is built on scales and arpeggios, whether they be major, minor (harmonic or melodic), dominant or diminished or even pentatonic/whole tone (and if you don’t know what all that means yet, don’t worry – they’re just different types of scales).

Given that, it stands to reason that if you’re fluent in your scales and arpeggios – and more to the point, can spot them quickly in the piece of music that’s been plonked on your stand in front of you whether by your teacher, your band director or an ABRSM examiner – your playing, and especially your sightreading, is going to be leaps and bounds ahead of that of someone who doesn’t have that knowledge. Not only because you’ll be able to play the actual notes more quickly if your fingers are already familiar with the patterns, but because if you don’t have to consciously think about what you’re doing with your hands, that then frees up your brain to concentrate on other aspects of interpreting a piece – dynamics, phrasing, articulation, etc – which frankly will make you sound like a bit of a genius.

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One of my most gratifying moments as a teacher was when a young student of mine, who hated scales with a passion when she got to me as a transfer, finally made that connection in her head as she was learning one of her Grade Two pieces, although I forget which one. I pointed to a phrase in the piece that she was having some difficulty working out, which was basically constructed of an arpeggio and not much else, and asked her “OK. What is that and where have you seen those notes in that same order before?” After a moment’s thought, (and a prompt of “it’s something you practice every day”), she tentatively offered “Umm… in my scale book?” I then watched the penny slowly drop as she realised it was an arpeggio, and that because she already knew that arpeggio she actually knew how to play the bar that she’d been struggling with. “Ohhhhhhhhh!” she said, with her eyes like saucers (followed quickly by “Wow, that’s soooo cool!”). It was awesome to see her twig how her life as a budding musician just got a whole lot easier.

Let’s look at a real world example of that. Today, I was picking some repertoire for a new student – an intermediate clarinettist of around Grade 5 standard (or thereabouts). I settled on Crusell’s Menuetto and Trio from Quartet in C minor (although, obviously the clarinet is a transposing instrument, so it’s D minor for us; the C minor refers to concert pitch, to save any confusion) and it goes a bit like this:


It’s a fabulous little piece that I remember playing as a student myself, sadly no longer part of the ABRSM Grade 5 syllabus where it sat for years and years. It’s also one of those pieces that I always thought sounded a lot more complicated than it actually was, and for good reason.

Here it is in its entirety, with apologies for my awful camerawork:

whole piece

Looks faintly terrifying, doesn’t it?

Or does it?

Look a bit closer, and you’ll see that this piece is almost entirely constructed upon the scales and mostly arpeggios of its home key (D minor) and its relative major (F), the dominant 7ths in F and C, with a few chromatics and modulations to A and C majors thrown in for good measure. So, if you’re fluent in all the scales required to pull this off, none of which are particularly difficult or down near the scary bottom half of the circle of fifths, what at first looks like a verrrry notey piece indeed is going to sit under your fingers a lot more easily than you may assume at first glance.

So, let’s pull it apart, bit by bit. And this is where I get *really* geeky, so sorry about that.

Let’s start with something simple at the end of bar 2 – an A major arpeggio in a dotted rhythm: (it would be an A minor, were it not for the C# at the start of the bar).

bar 2 a minor
…which, if you don’t have to think about what your fingers are doing – and if you know your A major arpeggio, you shouldn’t – leaves your brain free to think about hitting your lovely dynamic soaring high point on the A in the next bar.

Bars 19 and 20 – the last half of the F major ascending scale in the dotted rhythm followed immediately by an F major arpeggio:

bar 19

… and again, because you’ve learned your F major, you know what to do there and can concentrate on producing a lovely smooth legato dolce, right? Right!

Hopping on to bars 29 and 30, but wait – what are all those terrifying accidentals? Will I have to stop and think about those every time I play it? Or could it be… a simple chromatic scale starting on A? Why yes, yes it is:

20160614_210924_resized
(well, more or less: a chromatic on A followed swiftly by a bit of D minor in thirds, if you want to be *really* pedantic about it).

Moving on to bar 43 and oh no! Semiquavers! And it’s the final flourish of the menuetto the first time around, and the ending of the piece proper after the da capo the second, so you *really* don’t want to screw it up:

semiquavers

Relaxxxxx! It’s a D minor descending scale. Which you know, of course, because you’ve learned it.

So then we get to the trio, and that’s where all the technique gymnastics start. Orrr, do they? Well no, not really. This whole trio is basically a sequence of arpeggios and dominant 7ths with a couple of twiddly bits thrown in to join them all up and more to the point, they are fairly basic scales that you should have mastered by the time you get around to playing this kind of material.

Bar 45 – 3 octave F major arpeggio:

fmajorarp

…followed swiftly by the dominant 7th in F, descending first, with a top D tagged on the end:

dominant 7th in F

This one looks a bit more complicated, but is it?

complicated

Well no, not really, if you break it down in order of grouping of triplets: 1. G major ascending 2. also G major ascending 3. C major descending 4. D minor descending 5. C major ascending 6. Dominant 7th in C descending. Phew!

Finally, after a few repeats of the above and other assorted bits and pieces, here’s our old friends the F major ascending/descending and a bit of the dominant 7th in F descending to finish off:

fmajor and d7.jpg

Ta-da. Annnnd you’re done.

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That’s why we teach scales and arpeggios. Not because they’re boring drills that we have to do to get through our exams, but because they’re such a fundamental part of how the music we play is composed and notated that if we want to be able to get around that music with any degree of fluency, we need to know them. They are crucially important to everything we do as musicians, from learning pieces for exams (and later, having the knowledge for important parts of the Grade 5 theory exam required for the higher practical grades), to sightreading in band to having the knowledge to pass on to students yourself, and knowing them is going to make doing all those things a lot easier.  You only have to glance at this Crusell for evidence of that – this piece moves along at quite a clip, but if all this stuff is already under your fingers from your scale practice, you can play it.

Now, go learn your scales. Because you’re worth it.