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What are piano scales?
Piano scales are sets of notes used as a foundation for composing piano music. The most common scales in piano music are the major and minor scales, which have seven different tones with a consistent pattern of whole steps and half steps between them. Other scales include the chromatic scale, which has twelve tones and only half steps between each, and the pentatonic scale, which has only five tones. Learning about different scales and how to play them is an important part of becoming a capable and confident pianist.
What is the easiest scale on the piano?
Most piano players consider the C major scale to be the easiest to play. This scale uses only the white keys, so it’s easy to play and simple to remember.
Interestingly, the famous composer Chopin thought that C major was the hardest key to play in! This is because the C major scale only has white keys, so a piano player can’t use the black keys to feel where they are on the keyboard. According to Chopin, the B major scale was the easiest, so that was the scale he used when introducing his students to the piano. By the way, B major uses five sharps!
If you watch Mr. Hoffman’s video lessons, the very first song you learn, “Hot Cross Buns,” is played in a key with even more sharps: F♯ major! This key has six sharps, and the first three notes of the scale use the group of three black keys on the piano. This makes it super simple to find the three notes you need in order to play “Hot Cross Buns.”
So, maybe the question of what is the easiest scale on the piano depends on what you’re playing and how you’re playing it!
Piano scales for beginners
The C major scale is a great piano scale to learn first. It uses only white keys, so you can focus on getting used to the fingering instead of thinking about sharps or flats. The fingering for the C major scale is the same for most piano scales with sharps in the key signature.
The G major scale is also easy to learn, with only one sharp. Once you learn the C and G major scales, it’s easy to move on to D major, which has two sharps, A major with three, and E major with four.
That’s plenty of scales for beginners. After that, we have B major, F sharp major, and C sharp major, plus all the flat scales. The fingerings for flat scales are different from those used for C, G, D, A, and E major. If you’d like to have a handy reference guide for the fingering for all major scales, you can download ours for free!
Explore our FREE learning resources on piano scales
Major and Minor Piano Scales: This colorful guide has every major and minor scale in the book! Each scale is shown on both the treble staff and the keyboard. Included are natural, harmonic, and melodic minor, plus enharmonic names. It’s a handy, indispensable resource to help piano students play scales in every key.
Major Scales Fingering Guide: Here you’ll find all twelve major scales, each with two-octave fingerings written out on the piano keyboard for both left and right hands. This is an excellent reference guide for any piano student learning to play the major scales.
Minor Scales Fingering Guide: Learn all twelve minor scales, including natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor, with two-octave fingerings written out on the piano keyboard for both left and right hands.
Circle of Fifths: Unlock the secrets of scales and key signatures with this handy, color-coded chart.
Want to learn more about a specific piano scale? Take a look at our library of piano scale articles! Each article includes fun facts about the scale, fingering and tips for playing, diatonic chords, and songs that use the scale:
Want to learn about other kinds of scales? Check out these articles:
Find even more piano learning resources in our Hoffman Academy Store!
How many piano scales are there?
There are an almost infinite number of possible piano scales. All you need to make a scale is to choose a set of notes to use as you create a piece of music. However, there are certain kinds of scales that are most often used in piano music. These are listed below:
There are twelve major scales, each starting on a different pitch within the octave.
There are twelve natural minor scales, and each of these also has both harmonic minor and melodic minor versions. That’s thirty-six minor scales in all.
The notes of the major and natural minor scales correspond to Greek modes. The major scale is just the modern name for the Ionian mode, and the natural minor scale is the same as the Aeolian mode. There are seven modes in all, and they can be built on any of the twelve tones within the octave. That’s eighty-four possible Greek modes!
Then there are other scales, like the whole tone scale, which uses only whole steps between each note, and the major and minor blues scales, which have only six tones with a set pattern of half steps, whole steps, and minor thirds between the notes. Pentatonic scales, used in many world music traditions, have five tones separated by the same intervals as the black keys on the piano. These scales can also start on any of the twelve tones within the octave. As you can see, there are lots of options to explore!
Is there a pattern to piano scales?
Yes! Piano scales are beautifully mathematical and full of patterns. Once you know the pattern behind a piano scale, you can figure out how to play that scale starting on any note.
All major scales have the same pattern of whole steps and half steps:
All natural minor scales have this pattern of whole steps and half steps:
Harmonic minor scales have the following pattern (notice the whole plus half step stretch, which is also called an augmented 2nd):
Melodic minor scales traditionally have a different ascending and descending pattern. This is the pattern going up:
Going back down, it’s the pattern of the natural minor scale, but moving from high to low:
At Hoffman Academy, we prefer to have melodic minor played the same way both up and down, the way jazz pianists do. If you look at real composers like Bach and Mozart, they’ll often use the raised melodic minor notes when a melody line is descending. The reason melodic minor scales are sometimes played differently up and down in classical music is because the upper four notes of melodic minor are the same as in a major scale. If you’re ascending, this makes it drive convincingly up toward DO, but when descending, there is less need for this tendency.
The interval patterns between a scale’s notes isn’t the only pattern you’ll find! There’s also a pattern to the number of flats and sharps in each key signature, and how that relates to the starting note of the scale. These patterns are organized in what’s known as the circle of fifths. If you start with C, the first note of the C major scale–which has no sharps or flats–and you go up the interval of a fifth to a G, that’s the starting note of the G major scale, which has one sharp. Go up another fifth to D, and that begins the D major scale, which has two sharps. Up another fifth to A, and that brings you to the first note of A major, with three sharps, and so on. Going back to C and going down a fifth takes you to F major, which has one flat. Another fifth down takes you to B-flat major, with two flats, and another fifth down will be E-flat major, which has three flats. The circle of fifths is a great tool that makes it easier to understand the relationships between the different major scales. You can learn more about the circle of fifths here.
How long does it take to learn scales on piano?
Learning scales on the piano isn’t difficult, but it does take some practice. Piano students usually start by learning pentascales, which are the first five notes in a scale. After that, they move on to one-octave scales, and then to playing two-octave scales in all keys.
Once a student becomes familiar with the fingering patterns of scales, new scales are easier to learn. Piano scales are generally easier to learn than piano pieces, and most students find that a few minutes of dedicated practice every day is enough to learn a new scale in about a week. If a student learns a new scale every week, they can learn all 24 major and minor scales in about six months.
Should I learn piano scales or chords first?
Scales and chords are both important elements of playing the piano. They are usually learned at the same time. In fact, a great way to improve your piano skills is to learn a scale along with the chords and arpeggios that go with that scale. Piano chords are built with consistent patterns, the same way that scales are. Learn those patterns, and both scales and chords will come easier for you when sight reading, memorizing, performing, improvising, and composing music. You can learn more about piano chords here.
Tips on fingerings for piano scales
Have you ever wondered why piano teachers place so much emphasis on practicing scales? Besides helping to cement a scale’s pattern of sharps or flats in your memory, playing scales trains your two hands to play independently. As you move up a scale, your right thumb will pass under at different times than your left hand crosses over the thumb. Going down, your left thumb will pass under at different places than your right hand crosses over. Not only that, the crossovers will use different finger numbers depending on the scale.
Why don’t all piano scales have the same fingering? When playing scales, we avoid playing black keys with the thumb. This is for the simple reason that the thumb can’t easily reach the black keys. If you understand this rule, the fingering for each scale starts to make sense. The fingerings are designed to be the easiest way to play the scale without ever using the thumb to play a black key.
When you learn a new scale, start by looking carefully at the fingering. It might help to say the finger numbers out loud for each hand before playing the scale for the first time. Also, take a look at where the sharps and flats occur in the scale. Play the scale hands separately until each hand is comfortable playing the scale on its own. In fact, at Hoffman Academy, we encourage piano students to play their scales ONLY with hands separately until they’ve been playing the piano for a few years. Trying to do it too early only brings frustration. The coordination needed to play a scale with both hands together will come more naturally with time.
As you put your hands together, look carefully at the places where each hand makes a change, either crossing fingers over the thumb or passing the thumb under. It may help to say or sing the letter names of the notes as you play, with reminders of which hand is crossing over or under. For example, for the D major one octave scale, you could say this when going up:
D, E, F♯, right, A, left, C♯, D
Or instead of “right” and “left” you can say the finger numbers every time there’s a cross over or cross under, in this case “one” for the right hand thumb and “three” for the left hand finger three:
D, E, F♯, one, A, three, C♯, D
Once you learn this method of keeping track of what your fingers are doing, you can use it to help you get through even the more complicated piano scales, like the two-octave C-sharp major:
C♯, D♯, one, four, G♯, A♯, one, three, D♯, one, four, G♯, A♯, one, three
How to memorize piano scales
Memorizing piano scales isn’t that much different from memorizing any music. In fact, the patterns in scales can make memorizing them even easier!
There are many different ways to memorize piano music. Some pianists memorize the way their hands need to move to play a piece of music. Others memorize the way the music sounds, and then play it by ear. Or they might memorize the way the music looks on the page, and use that to know what notes to play. Piano players can also use their knowledge of music theory, including intervals, scales, and chord progressions, to help them memorize their music. Most musicians use a combination of all of these strategies to reinforce their knowledge of scales.
When memorizing a new scale, start by learning how the scale sounds. That way, if you’re playing and you miss a note, you’ll know right away and can make a correction. Fortunately, all major scales have the same pattern of sounds, and this is also true for all natural minor scales, all harmonic minor scales, and all melodic minor scales. That’s only four patterns to learn, and after a while, the sounds of each type of scale will become unmistakable for you.
Another way to memorize the scale is to remember where all of its sharps or flats are. Can you name all these sharps or flats? Can you write out the key signature without looking? If you wrote out all the notes on the staff, would you know which notes have sharps or flats drawn next to them?
Try to memorize how it feels to play the scale without listening to the notes. Starting with your hands separately, use a table top or the closed lid of your piano and simply move your fingers through the motions of playing the scale. Can you do it with your eyes closed? Now try doing it with both hands together.
Memorize the note names of the scale and try chanting or singing them out loud as you play, both hands separately, then hands together.
Working with each hand separately, memorize the fingering and chant or sing it out loud as you play. When you put hands together, chant or sing note names when there’s no cross over or cross under, and finger numbers when there is a cross over or cross under (see examples in the “Tips on fingering for playing piano scales” section). Once you have the chant memorized, you have the fingering memorized.
Make piano scales a part of your practice every day!
Practicing and learning piano scales will make you a better piano player and all-around musician, without a doubt! Take some time every day to practice your scales, and watch your piano skills and musical understanding grow.
Find free sheet music for all skill levels and lots of great piano learning resources in the Hoffman Academy Store.