The right way to think about scales

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The right way to think about scales

Post by Nathan Phelps »

Scales have always been problematic for me. In the beginning, I was consumed by them. I spent hours drilling as many as I could, even when I didn’t have context for why or when to use them. Years later, I developed a distaste for them. They seemed like training wheels for ear training and trapped me in boring shapes and licks dictated by muscle memory instead of melodic phrasing.

Now, I’m trying to build more scale exercises into my practice because I’ve identified them as a weakness (who knew years of neglect would cause an issue?)

To the best I can understand it, scales are a painter’s palette, or a traveler’s map — a list of options you can apply at any moment. With regard to a specific instrument, they also outline shapes that exist naturally on your instrument and encourage ergonomics (efficiency of movement).

Put simply: scales present you with options, and musicality comes from the choices within them.

We practice scales to:

- Improve our technical abilities on the instrument.

- Give us reliable choices to use in different contexts.

- Expand our ear by giving us the physical ability to play something we aren’t used to hearing in our heads (yet).

This is why scales are sometimes confusing to practice. We actually want to break out of those basic up and down shapes, at least musically, as soon as possible. The shapes and degrees should only exist to serve what’s inside our heads and what comes to us naturally as we play. Scales can hamstring us if we rely too much on muscle memory, making our default approach to our instruments strictly physical instead of listening to the options in our head first.

With that caveat in mind, here are 3 exercises for scales that my teachers, various musicians, and myself have found success from, and I hope you do too.

But before that, a few general notes:


- When you’re first learning a scale, don’t play faster than your ear can process. Know what note (or degree) you are playing and listen for the intervals at all times.

- Similarly, scales aren’t just physical patterns on your instrument. You must think in terms of scale degrees and intervals as well.

- You should apply this to all 12 keys.

- Think of scales like the foundation of and the glue between arpeggios.

- Make your scale practice as musical as possible. Try to use patterns that encourage musicality, such as drilling diatonic surround tones.

- Remember that scales are dry. You should put more of your focus on learning music that uses scales rather than memorizing scales to learn music. It's a subtle distinction but an important one. In other words, use scales to augment your ability to learn songs.

And here are the exercises:


Pick any scale and play the triads in order, from bottom to top in eighth notes without stopping.

In F Major, this would look like:




And so on.

Then, do the same thing but switch the order from 1-3-5 to 3-5-1, or any other order you choose.

To make this harder, add in sevenths and/or start mixing ascending and descending. So in F you could go up Fmaj7, down Gm7, etc.

Also, if you want to have better formatting with pictures etc. / see what else I've written on practicing go


Pick any 5 note pattern and apply it to a scale degree, ascending and descending without stopping.

For example, you could decide to do play this pattern starting on the first note: 1-6-4-5-2.

In F Major, that would be F-D-Bb-C-G, and then, you go up a note and play the same interval differences while staying in the scale. For the second degree, G, that would be G-E-C-D-A. All the up and down.

To change and/or make this harder, you can:

Switch up the pattern

Add in chromatic notes.

Change the rhythm.


Pick any progression you want to get better at, set a metronome, and play constant 8th notes within the scale, making sure to land on a chord tone on the downbeat of the 1 on each measure.

This will improve your ability to follow the progression and get you out of only playing arpeggios over more complicated progressions.


Move these through all 12 keys.

Experiment with different modes or scales outside of major.

Add chromatic or diatonic surround notes in your pattern.

If your instrument allows it, try stacks of different intervals such as 3rds, 4ths, and 6ths.

Mess with the rhythms.

Transcribe a solo and then alter the licks you learn with other options from the parent scale.


The goal is to ultimately never feel restricted on any chord — either by feeling stuck in shapes or not knowing what intervals outside of the chord tones are available. Then, you are free to let your ear guide you to make the most interesting choices within the sounds and scales you’re hearing at any particular moment.

On guitar, I like to imagine each fret lighting up with possibilities whenever I think of “Blues” or “Lydian” and attach it to a root note. Anywhere on the instrument, I can know what degree I’m playing, what scale that is associated with, and how that fits into the harmonic context of the song I’m playing.

And finally, remember that all music is justified by theory, and theory always catches up. In other words, with the right conviction, timing, and phrasing, anything goes harmonically. You just have to sell it. And the only way to learn how to sell it is by learning to play the music you love by ear and playing with musicians who are better than you.

Hope this helps!
Nathan Phelps
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Posts: 4 Joined: Thu Dec 03, 2020 7:38 pm

Re: The right way to think about scales

Post by GilesAnt »

Lots of good points here. Scales, and their evil cousin arpeggios, have been the scourge of young learners for decades if not centuries.

But as you point out, whatever your instrument, they help to develop technical ability, evenness of touch, etc, as well as attuning the ear. If you can't play a scale well, you don't have control of your instrument.

They are wasted on young learners! It is only in later life you realise they were actually quite a good idea. A bit like algebra.

Many composers wrote studies or etudes to bridge that gap between scales/exercises and real music, using some of the ideas you have set out. For pianists look no further than Hanon, Czerny, or Dohnanyi, before moving onto the more musical varieties such as those of Chopin.
Posts: 189 Joined: Tue Feb 18, 2003 12:00 am

Re: The right way to think about scales

Post by tea for two »

For young learners, I remember my first music school.

Were my music school start out by teaching 11year me the theory scales behind kids tv themes, action tv themes i would have loved this I would eagerly learnt.
Instead, I was taken straight to Classical that I couldn't relate to.
They could have related Classical to tv themes, I would have grasped that.

Whereas, there were other young learners they could take onboard Classical.
So 11year me felt dumb and dumber lol : which is one of the worst things to make a young learner feel.

We found an elderly gent teaching by himself not part of a music school. He was superb.
I dedicated my keyboard album to him.

It is first foremost about the young learner :
their sensitivities, leanings, natural aptitudes, personality.

After ascertaining what we can about the young learner, thereafter we tailor that most suit benefit the young learner.
Whilst continually subtly adjusting for the young learner.

Where we think the young learner would benefit from a different person than ourself,
we can explain this to the young learner and their guardian, parent,
thereafter recommend another more suitable music tutor.

Ofcourse we must never foist our personality, what we think are the ways to learn, upon a young learner.
Never patronise a young learner.
It is important we don't damage a young learners self belief.
I recall one music tutor visibly impatient at how my fingers tried to form basic chords.
Gosh he deserved a biatchslap upside the head lol.

After all these, then and only then, scales, theory for young learners.

Ofcourse nowadays there's numerous online courses, free youtube videos, some apps, young learners can check out.
tea for two
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Posts: 1330 Joined: Sun Mar 24, 2002 12:00 am
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