What I Learned When I Fell in Love with Piano Scales

Growing up, just about everything I pursued on my own seemed incredibly fun and quickly came to make sense (programming, electronics, woodworking) while everything people tried to teach me seemed confusing and endlessly painful (math, guitar, history). Over many years, I grew frustrated with teachers, their methods and their curriculums.

When I began learning piano about a year ago, it was no surprise that I didn't think twice about completely skipping over the topic of scales.

Interest is the lifeblood of learning and I was simply not interested in them.

Thinking of someone ‘practicing scales’ brought images of a person mindlessly going up and down a series of notes over and over again - not expressing themselves, just droning on. They turn ‘practicing’ into a negative word, something I “really should do. (but dont)”.

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My interest was (and is) in playing songs I know, putting together expressive tunes and impressing friends (let’s be honest here). So I started learning piano by just diving into song tutorials on YouTube.

I am so glad I did. It gave me the chance to develop my interest further until it naturally expanded into the technicalities of music. To the point where I, against all odds, became interested in scales.

It went something like this: "Now that I can play a few songs, I bet it would be interesting to have a better understanding of which keys sound good together and why. Hm, could scales be part of that?"

Sure enough...

What I Love About Scales

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1) Scales are sets of notes that sound good together. That is it.

2) Scales are ratios of notes, not random and endless commands. Musicians before us did all the leg work of figuring out which ratios of notes sound good together. Playing those notes sequentially is called a scale.

To start feeling the power of scales, you just need to get acquainted with one of those patterns, not spend countless hours memorizing music mumbo-jumbo.

From that one pattern, you can extrapolate many sets of notes that sound good together, which is where the real fun begins.

3) Scales help me be creative even though I'm no maestro. I used to think scales were just for the pros. But as a beginner, what I really needed was a basic framework for creating tunes that don't sound like mud.

Scales are the shortcut to start messing with melodies that sound good in the right hand and bass lines in the left that complement them.

4) No matter how uncreative I feel, I can always practice scales. And, it turns out that "practicing scales" isn't so lame. It's a fun challenge and is slowly giving me a subconscious ability to find chords and notes that evoke feelings. Eventually, I'll be able to use this to naturally express myself (like I'm doing now with these shapes, called writing).

(Music buffs: forgive me if I clobbered some music theory here. I really feel that these concepts are generally communicated in a way that is much too abstract and confusing.)

The Bigger Picture

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1) Following trains of interest works. Are you afraid that if you don't learn a new skill in the "proper" order you'll be setting yourself up for failure? Get over this fear and jump onto the interest-train at the station nearest you.

The moment your interest comes to a halt, your ability to learn plummets and you inevitably quit - that's what you should be afraid of.

2) When we learn and teach, we need to understand the Whys. As learners, it's important to be aware of why we're doing what we are and what we want from it. This applies to the skill as a whole but also its sub-techniques.

Understanding this allows us to constantly reinvigorate our interest as we progress and accomplish goals instead of getting frustrated and stagnating.

As teachers, it's in our interest to communicate the Whys of a given technique in a way that resonates with the person learning, not the person teaching.

This means you need to start by understanding the Whys of the student and work on your feet from there.

3) Rudiments are tools not obligations. Interest is the only obligation. It creates a genuine need in us that we demand be fulfilled. Then it becomes worth seeking rudimentary skills like scales.

Just as you learn to use a hammer, screwdriver and saw one at a time, as you need them, rudiments should be learned when useful and not necessarily all at once.

4) Rudiments are gifts. Fundamental skills are passed down by creators before us as offerings, not demands. We're welcome to use them as we wish.

Instead of feeling like you should learn rudiments now, and grow to see them as adversaries, approach them as your needs naturally pull you in their direction. You'll come to genuinely appreciate them and those responsible for them - gratitude feels much better than frustration.

The Most Important Lesson

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The most important lesson to take from all of this is that awareness and open-mindedness, even after 20 years of frustration, pays off. My feelings about scales before coming to love them were justified but wouldn't have served me any longer - it was important to be able to let them go.

There's never a need to work on a skill you can't find a Why for. But once you do find one, not a single thing, not even yourself, should keep you from it.


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