Teaching Piano Scales Using The Circle of Fifths

piano scales

“When should I start teaching piano scales?”

Good question! Unfortunately, there’s no one answer that works for all students or all teachers. When to start scale work depends on a number of things, including the student’s age and playing level, as well as the teacher’s chosen curriculum. Sometimes teachers will simply assign scales as they come up in a method book or are required in an exam syllabus.

An understanding of scales, including the piano scale chart, and the ability to construct them is crucial to a student’s ability to read music, to “hear” music in the inner ear, and to play “by ear.” More importantly, the earlier these concepts are learned, the more anchored they will be in the student’s mind and ear.

A logical way of teaching scales that are easily comprehended and easily remembered uses the circle of 5ths. This method also gives the student a visual reminder of many different points of music theory including scale construction.

Before using the circle of 5ths, there are a few important concepts each student should master. These theory concepts are a necessary part of teaching music notes scales to any student.

Building Blocks

Know the music alphabet forwards (ABCDEFG) and backward (GFEDCBA). This is one of the first things that all students should learn when they begin to read music. Being able to move in both directions is crucial, as the music moves upward and downward, a student should know the name of the next pitch in either direction. If students know the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the seven letters of the music alphabet going both directions can be sung with the first phrase!

Know what sharp, flat, and natural notes are. Since only a few scales, like C Major or A natural minor, use only natural pitches (the white keys of the piano), the student should know what sharps and flats signify. If you teach an instrument other than the piano, you may find that using a visual aid like a keyboard to help explain the sharp pitches move up and flat pitches move down can be helpful. Teaching piano scales is always more visual and tactile in nature because the black keys create “landmarks” for each scale, making it easier to see a “shape” of the scale.

Know what keys and key signatures are. The concepts of keys and key signatures are both a means of and a result of using the circle of 5ths in scale construction. Although there are ways to form scales without using a key signature, having the key signatures on the student’s copy of the circle not only reinforces the identification of the key with the key signature but also accelerates the student’s learning of the scale notes.

Know the order of sharps or flats that appear in a key signature. This is an important part of quickly and easily constructing major and natural minor scales using the circle of 5ths. Teaching major scales should be primary for all instruments since all other scales can be formed by changing specific notes of the major or natural minor scale. A simple mnemonic for the order of sharps (FCGDAEB) is Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle. The fun part is that the order of flats (BEADGCF) is the same sentence in reverse word order: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father!

Teaching Scales

Choose a key and check the key signature. Ask the student: “How many sharps or flats or in the key signature?” Then use the order of sharps or flats to determine which notes are sharped or flatted.

Say the key’s alphabet (all the letters from the first note of the scale to its repeat an octave higher, e.g. A to A). Add sharps or flats as indicated by the order of sharps or flats. Be sure the student actually spells the scale aloud! The more ways the notes are expressed (read, spoken, written, played), the more ingrained they become in the student’s mind.

Write the scale (ascending and descending) with accidentals first. Then write the scale using the key signature, as that is the way the scale may appear in a repertoire piece, without accidentals.

Strategies

1. Start with C major, as there are no sharps or flats in the key. This scale could be used to teach a beginner about scales even before the student plays any scales. Playing scales requires specific instrumental techniques, but learning about scales can start much earlier.

2. Singing scales can be a wonderful ear training tool! Start at the very beginning of the study by having the student sing the letter names of scales (also helps with note identification when paired with written scales). Then, as you progress in teaching intervals, have the student sing the numbers 1-7 (8 is merely a repeat of the first step). This will help with teaching scale degrees and the concepts of tonic (I/1) and dominant (V/5). The solfege syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti) could also be used at this point.

3. Move quickly around the circle. We suggest moving clockwise, moving through the sharp keys first, as those keys start on natural notes, not sharps or flats. Don’t wait until one scale is perfect before moving on to another (about 1-2 scales every 2-4 weeks). Keep reviewing the scales as a matter of course in the lesson.

4. Don’t spend a lot of lesson time on the scale itself. Move into the repertoire music and identify the scale patterns as soon as possible.

5. Review scales and scale construction at every lesson. Set up an Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet to keep track of what you review to make sure all keys are being covered equally.

6. Have the student create their own “reference book” of scales. For instance, a piano student could create a set of piano scale charts that contain a staff with the key signature and the written scale as well as the fingering for each hand. They could create a separate chart for each scale or for each key (with multiple scales on one page).

Making Scales Fun to Learn

1. Play and sing the scales with different rhythms. This can also be a way to review rhythmic notation when paired with rhythm flashcards.

2. Teach segments of melodies that use scale patterns. Well-known examples are “Joy to the World” and “Do-Re-Mi”.

3. Use simple manipulatives to reinforce scale notes and patterns. You can create letter blocks or flashcards and have students place them in order for the scale you’re working on.

4. MusiClock is also a fun way to work on scale note names. It has fun recorded rhythms that the student can play along with. Students can also improvise on the notes of a scale as they play with the rhythms!

Teaching scales is an integral part of teaching the language of music. Students from beginners through intermediate levels and beyond will benefit from studying both the theory behind scales as well as the technique required to play them. Repertoire becomes easier to understand, learn, and play with a better knowledge of how each piece is put together, starting with the scale of the piece.

When do I start teaching piano scales?

NOW!