Want to learn your scales in all keys? With a little forethought you can learn them quicker and set yourself better to use them when you improvise.
The Secret Sauce
A Few Extra Steps
Along with all the scales, you’ll see a few shorter “scale fragments.” Look at the first three exercises, for instance. They are precursors to the major scale, to make your major scales easier and more meaningful to play by the time you arrive there. For the whole picture, I suggest you read this blog post: Better Than Practicing in 12 Keys. But here’s the essence:
Easier. Memorizing and coordinating twelve different sequences of seven fingerings is a lot to ask of an aspiring musician. The odds of making mistakes each time are high, and that is frustrating and counterproductive. Instead, divide the goal into multiple steps, where each step is a new task that adds only a couple notes to what you’ve already mastered. It’s like learning the leg moves to a dance step before integrating the arms. By tackling mastery piecewise, you won’t be overtaxing your conscious mind, and you’ll avoid the uncontrolled, flailing limbs which, let’s face it, don’t do anyone any good. They just slow down the learning.
More meaningful. While you practice a 3- or 4-note scale over and over in different keys, you have a lot of time to get used to what it sounds like. Do one better than that: actually sing along silently while you play it. That’s called audiation, and it’s a crucial part of the equation. By clearly audiating what you want to play simultaneously with playing it, you will not just train your muscles but also come to associate those movements with the sounds you are imagining… such that the next time you imagine the sounds, you will associate them with the fingering. If you are simultaneously thinking “do, re, mi” or “one, major 2, major 3,” so much the better—you’ll associate those with the sound too. Done this way, you learn not only the scales but the music behind them—you’re developing not just muscular coordination but the ability to play by ear.
No surprise, either, that learning to audiating a 3-note scale prepares you to more clearly hear the 5- and 7-note versions when you get there. And audiating a major scale prepares you to take on Aeolian, and hearing that one makes you better equipped to hear Altered Dominant. In this way, what’s true of training your fingers is also true of training your mind’s ear.
So, for your own good, please don’t forget the conscious task of audiating your exercises while you play them, ok? I’ll try to remind you. 🙂
Use it with Random Roots
You can autoload the exercises into the Random Roots app if you have an iPhone/iPad. (The app is a free download to try.) That way you’re all set up to be accompanied as you practice, guided through random keys, with the app tracking your progress. I won’t plug all the benefits of the app here, and you’re welcome to use this without the app… but they make a terrific combination and it’s there if you want it. 😉
Auto-loading the scale exercises. If you’re reading this on your iOS device, just click here to load in the exercises. Or, if you’ve printed out the exercise sheets, you can just point your device’s camera at the QR code on the sheet; a button will appear for you to load the app and auto-import the exercises.
Points to Keep in Mind
Don’t read while you practice
Sing along silently
So Many Scales
I’ve included what I consider some of the most useful scales, which include (among others) all the modes of the major scale, most of the modes of the melodic minor scale, and a few pentatonics.
You might not be familiar with the In-Sen scale: it’s a pentatonic with a decidedly Asian feel (the name is Japanese), but is also quite useful over jazz. It is equivalent to a sus pentatonic scale with its second note lowered—so, unsurprisingly, it works great over the sus7(♭9) sound. And it is super useful in other contexts as well—placed over different roots, In-Sen becomes perfect for all these sounds: altered, Lydian dominant, half-diminished, minor-major and Lydian. See if you can figure out which is which. 🙂
Phrygian Dominant isn’t a household name either. It’s also known as HM5, the 5th mode of the harmonic minor. It has a very Spanish feel, and is sometimes used over dominant 7(♭9) chords.
Grow your own
Of course, feel free to add whatever you like to the list. If you’re using Random Roots to practice, easiest is probably to find a similar exercise that exists, duplicate it (swipe life and hit the green icon), and change the name of the new one.
Please don’t practice all the scales at once. Work on a few new sounds at a time and internalize them deeply. You’ll learn more, and subsequent scales will come more quickly as a result. Random Roots has a way to easily track the ones you’re working on: the favorites list (★ on the tab bar). Learn how to use it—it’ll pay off in spades.
Look for the Shortcuts
If you’ve played diminished scales for a bit, you’ve probably noticed that there are, in a sense, only three. Each has 8 modes, and the 24 (8×3) scales they generate make up the 24 (12×2) whole-half and half-whole diminished scales—12 keys for each. The good news: that means you only have to learn 3 sets of notes and 3 sets of finger movements!
But please don’t practice a diminished scale in three keys and call it quits. The scales feels different in different keys, and for good reason: different notes occupy different roles and, consequently, function differently. So to get the full benefit of your practice, you need to play and audiate both diminished scales in each separate key.
Similarly, there are, in essence, just two whole tone scales, which you can leverage 6-fold to generate the whole tone scales of all 12 keys, since each scale has 6 modes, each of which is also a whole tone scale. Still practice & audiate your whole tone scales in all 12 keys… but enjoy the turbo boost of knowing there’s just 2 sets of fingerings.
The altered dominant (or simply “altered”) scale is so different than the major scale and from all the songs we sing in school as kids that it can be a challenge for many people to internalize. And you’ll notice that there are no scale fragment exercises leading up to it. But in fact there are… just not called out as such.
Whole Tone with a Twist
There are 12 altered scales, but only 2 whole tone scales (see above). That makes the whole tone scales very easy to learn, so learn them first. And once you know them, you can use this trick:
The altered scale is the whole tone scale with its ♮9 removed and replaced by both the ♭9 and ♯9. (If you’re not used to thinking about the 9, just think “2” instead.)
So if you can learn that trick in each key for the first 2 (non-root) notes of the scale, the rest of the scale is just the whole tone scale. And those 2 notes are such beautiful notes, and great to audiate together! They’re already in the ½-whole diminished scale, and they’re featured in the first diminished exercise, “DIM ½-WHOLE – 4 notes”. If you play that exercise with the whole tone scale on top, voilà! You’ve got the altered scale. Speaking of which…
“Diminished Whole Tone”
This is a name one sometimes hears for the altered scale, and we can see why: If you begin ascending a diminished scale and switch to whole tone starting at the major 3rd or tritone, you’ve got the altered scale. So if you know the diminished & whole tone scales, you’ve got the ingredients of an altered scale.
“Whole Tone Diminished”
This play on the “Diminished Whole Tone” name isn’t actually used, but it could easily refer to the Lydian Dominant scale, which is just the altered scale with its top & bottom swapped—its bottom is a whole tone scale, and its top is a diminished scale. (That’s because Lydian dominant and altered are tritone substitutions of each other; see Reverse Engineering our Dominant Scales if you like.) So we can think of these two scales when we practice Lydian Dominant.
But since the major scale is so familiar, and Mixolydian is so common too, you’re probably best off just thinking of Lydian Dominant as a cross between Lydian and Mixolydian—namely, a major scale with a ♯4 and m7.
There’s no shortage of ways to understand new scales in terms of other ones. The Half-Diminished scale, for instance, (the 6th mode of the melodic minor scale) is a whole-½ diminished scale up to the tritone and a whole tone scale up from there… or a Locrian scale with a ♮2… or an Aeolian scale with a ♭5. Look for the connections and use them to help your fingers and your ears make sense of new sounds in terms of familiar ones.
Epilogue: Beyond Scales
Of course, scales do not make music, any more than counting to 10 makes mathematics. Scales are just one way of slicing the massive terrain we call harmony, and scales won’t magically morph into improvisations no matter how much we practice them. Playing scales knowingly, while thinking and hearing them through, is a huge advance over playing them from muscle memory, and an excellent first step. Systematic variations of them, in the form of digital patterns and the like (e.g. 1-3-5…2-4-6…3-5-7…) are useful—make your own exercises if you like!—but the real stuff starts to happen when you listen intently to the scales being used in beautiful melodies and improvisations and work on reproducing what you hear. There’s plenty of that in the Random Roots library, and infinities more on recordings, waiting for you to take notice of and learn to play in every key.
And one last thing…
Don’t forget to audiate while you practice! 🙂
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