Scales can be a real sore spot for musicians but they don’t have to be. There are a variety of ways you can make scales more interesting to practice. This can let you get the benefit of scales practice – without the boredom!
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Scales Are Boring
The problem with scales is that we learn them in a dull way – they’re not musical at all! All musicians learn to play scales but few ever stop to ask themselves why, or if there’s a way to make scale practice more fun.
We tend to treat scales as a way to get fluent fingering, pass exams, or understand music theory. Scales are important for those reasons, but scales are also the foundation for all the wonderful music we enjoy… so they should be fun!
If you approach scales in the right way they can actually be just as musical and rewarding as the rest of your musical life.
What is a scale and why isn’t it musical?
A scale is simply a series of notes in ascending or descending order, which by itself isn’t very interesting.
Playing scales in this way is useful, for developing your instrument skills. However, it’s easy to get totally focused on this and think it’s the only way to play scales.
Music exams have a lot to answer for!
Don’t get trapped in this limited view of scales. Instead, expand your scales practice by including listening skills. You’ll find those dull scales suddenly start to become enjoyable and useful.
What is Your Why?
To make scales interesting, start by asking yourself why you’re learning them and how it will help you in your musical life. With any project it’s valuable to begin by asking yourself why you are doing it in the first place.
Why are you learning scales? Is it to have fluent fingering on your instrument, to pass an exam, to help you improvise, or something else? Get clear on your “why” and then remind yourself of it each time you practice scales.
Bring the Music Back
Make your scales practice musical: relate each scale you play to the rest of your music practice.
The big problem with scales is that they’re divorced from real music. So every time you practice scales try to connect the way you practice them to other aspects of your musical life. Try thinking up ways to turn your scales into something which sounds like actual music.
1. Playing Patterns
Instead of only playing scales ascending and descending, try playing the notes in different patterns. Playing ascending and descending is a good starting point, but it’s not the only way to play that collection of notes!
- Try playing in three-note runs, for example playing C Major as “C-D-E,D-E-F,E-F-G,…”
- Try playing the arpeggios up and down, for example in C Major “C-E-G-C-G-E-C”
- Come up with your own patterns and try playing various scales with that new pattern.
2. Rhythmic Variation
Instead of just playing with a regular beat, try introducing rhythmic variations as well. It’s valuable to practice playing steady notes, but it’s not the only rhythm you can play scales with.
- Try swinging the beat, playing a dotted quarter note followed by a quarter note for each pair of notes.
- Try playing triplets – say “Su-per-man, Su-per-man” emphasising the first syllable in your head to help.
- Try taking a melody you know and playing the scale with that rhythm.
3. Tone Change
Instead of trying to make each play-through sound identical, try varying your tone each time you play a scale. It’s important to have good control over your tone, but this means being able to vary it as well as keeping it consistent
Play your scales with a consistent tone for each note, but change that tone each time you play a scale.
- Try playing notes staccato or legato.
- Try experimenting with dynamics, gradually changing volume or punctuating notes.
- Try adding vibrato, a mute, or other effects to your notes.
4. Change the Beat
Instead of playing with a metronome or silence, try playing over backing tracks. Most musicians practice scales solo or with a steady metronome beat. Why not use a more musical beat?
- You can download drum loops or backing tracks to practice scales over.
- If using a backing track with pitched notes (e.g. a guitar or piano playing) just be sure the key matches the scale you’re playing.
Benefit Without Boredom
It is valuable to practice scales, but make sure you get the benefit without the boredom. Whenever you find yourself getting bored by scales, just ask “Why am I learning scales?” and “How can I make this scale sound like music?”
If you need more information or ideas check out the full guide to making scales more interesting.
You don’t need to be bored by scales any more. Try one or more of the ways above—and spice up your scales!
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