As a young boy learning the piano and trumpet I practised scales without really knowing what the benefits were. In fact, as far as I was concerned, the only reason for practising scales was to fulfil the requirements to pass the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music examinations.
Later, as a student at the Royal College of Music, I would practise scales diligently, sometimes for hours, without really giving much thought to the benefits, other than them being a requirement for the ARCM diploma I was working for.
Now, as a musician and teacher, I can see the bigger picture. So here, in a nutshell, are the main benefits of practising scales.
- Dexterity. Practising scales improves dexterity. We learn to control and move our fingers, wrists, and arms, to the precise requirements of the instrument we are learning.
- Control. Practised in the correct way, playing scales helps us to fine tune the control we have over the sound we produce. They also act as a controlled environment for us to focus on other aspects of technique, such as dynamics, articulation, and tempo.
- Familiarity. Playing scales helps us to become familiar with the different keys, both aurally and physically. When learning a new piece it’s a good idea to practise the scale of the key of the piece first. This will help us notice wrong notes more easily.
- Concentration. Once you have learnt the pattern of a specific scale it’s easy to go into ‘auto-pilot’, where your fingers move but your mind is elsewhere. Combatting this, and trying to focus on the particular aspect of the scale or technique you are trying to improve, helps concentration.
Music contains many fragments of scales, if not entire scales spread over several octaves, so knowing scales well will improve your general ability on the instrument, and even your ability to read music. This is because knowing scales helps you recognize, and execute, scalic passages when they occur, as they frequently do. In other words, you can make assumptions about what you see on a page of music without having to actually read every single note. You learn to recognize shapes and patterns.
An often heard criticism of scales is that they are boring. However, this need not be the case. After having learnt the basic finger pattern of a scale, your focus can switch to evenness of tone, dynamics, articulation, and ‘getting it right the first time’! This will take your playing to a whole new level.
I always found I could play a scale well after an initial stumble, getting the scale right at the second or third attempt. To be a proficient musician – and to get high marks in examinations – getting the scale right the first time is important. If you are focused on getting things right the first time, boredom cannot creep in.
Scales are the foundation of an instrumentalist’s technique. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you play, having a good ability to play scales will improve many aspects of your playing.