If you’ve ever taken a guitar lesson, you’ve probably heard about the importance of practicing scales. You might have some questions about, what, exactly, one gets out of the exercise.
Lots of people will use the word “tedious” and it’s not an unfair judgment. But practicing scales doesn’t have to be mind-numbing. (In fact, your mind should be fully engaged with everything you do, but that’s another lecture).
First of all, why practice scales?
A major scale is a musical pattern with a specific sound. You probably perceive a scale series of notes that rise or fall in perceivable steps. When this rising and falling is arranged in combination with larger and smaller increments, that creates a melody.
So practicing scales begins to create both the mental connection and the facility you need to play melody on the guitar. When you pay close attention, you can start to differentiate between the notes of the sequence. This helps make the mental connection you need to learn music easily by ear.
So there are technical, musical (sonic), and mental benefits to practicing scales, but we also need to learn to apply musical ideas to makes melodies out of these patterns.
To start with, let’s do two simple things: organize and label.
A major scale is a seven note sequence in alphabetical order, following the musical alphabet in which A follows G. Each time the letters cycle, the sequence repeats at a higher pitch in a higher octave:
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
Imagine “do re mi fa sol la ti do”, repeated and steadily rising.
The sound of a scale comes from a specific series of intervals, distances between notes.You don’t need to memorize the formula right now, although you may know it. More importantly, you want to expect that if we start on any note other than C then our scale will include some accidentals, sharps (#) or flats (b):
A B C# D E F# G# A
F G A Bb C D E F
You don’t need to memorize patterns here, just to know that we can also skip notes of the scale, and when we do the next two notes we skip to would complete a chord if we played them together:
C (skip to) E (skip to) G forms a C chord.
A (skip to) C# (skip to) E forms an A chord.
Played in order like this, skipping letters, the three-note sequence outlines a triad or “broken chord”.
Most any melody you might play will involve some combination of skips and steps. So the following exercise introduces the notes in the key of C, first in alphabetical steps and then in triadic skips.
The “skips” – the three-note patterns in the second and third lines – outline the diatonic chords in the key of C. These aren’t the only chords we can use in a song in C, but they’re the most common and likely ones.
Including these skips or “broken” triads in your scale practice helps create more of a sense of melody.
For example, the following exercise uses both broken triads and small, stepwise scalar moves to add variety.
This is, of course, one simple melody out of thousands of possibilities. But even if you don’t read music, I’ll bet you can follow the melodic shape (rise and fall)- and even distinguish scale from triad simply from the path the note heads follow up and down the staff. This makes a connection again between sight, sound, and fingers, which is what all practicing is really about!
To explore this approach further, download this set of exercises, which transposes the above patterns into six different keys.