5 Major Scale Exercises to Practice Daily
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Most piano students spend time practicing scales, but is this time well spent? For example, what does a student gain from playing a traditional major scale exercise in parallel octaves? Perhaps not as much as you thought. In today’s Quick Tip, 5 Major Scale Exercises to Practice Daily, Jonny May shares a different approach to this familiar topic in order to maximize the benefits for students. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Major Scale Exercises for Piano
- Contextual Major Scale Exercises for Jazz Piano
Regardless of your current playing level, you’re sure to find a major scale exercise in today’s lesson that will better equip you play popular styles in general, and jazz in particular.
When considering scale exercises, it’s important for students to have a clear perspective on what they hope to accomplish. Earlier, we posed the question, “What does a student gain from playing a traditional major scale exercise in parallel octaves?” Often, the assumption is that if I keep practicing my scales in this manner, and if I keep getting them faster and faster, then eventually I’ll be able to play anything! Unfortunately, the only thing that can be guaranteed with this approach is that if you keep practicing major scales in parallel octaves, you’ll get really good at…playing major scales in parallel octaves! While that expectation may seem obvious, it is often overlooked.
Of course, there are many benefits to the type of traditional major scale exercise described above. First and foremost, these exercises benefit the piano student’s technique—the anatomical mechanics needed to produce precisely desired sounds. Furthermore, students who can play major scales in every key gain a strong foundation for understanding traditional harmony. In fact, here at PWJ, we also teach scales using this traditional approach in our Beginner Piano Foundations Learning Tracks. Members can even download our handy All Major and Minor Scales PDF reference guide with complete fingerings for both hands in all 24 major and minor keys. Therefore, today’s lesson isn’t challenging the assumption that traditional scale study has strong benefits. Rather, we’re challenging the assumption that more and more is better and better.
The problem with traditional major scale exercises, as represented by the archetypical parallel octaves example, is that student’s often fail to recognize when they’ve outgrown their need for this type of technical exercise. The assumption that “more is better” makes it difficult for students to realize that, after a certain point, the benefits become less and less. After all, when was the last time you encountered a piece of repertoire that contained a major scale in parallel octaves? The truth is that it’s simply not very common. Therefore, today’s lesson advocates for contextual major scale exercises for students of all levels. These are exercises that employ major scales in ways that are more closely related to how scales are actually used in jazz performance, especially as it relates to improvisation.
Each of the 5 major scale exercises in today’s lesson simulate a particular jazz piano performance context. In fact, you’ll discover from the very first example that these exercises are rooted in jazz practicality. In addition, each scale exercise is accompanied by a video demonstration containing two performances—first, at a moderately fast tempo, and then at a moderately slow tempo.
If you are PWJ member, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF which appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, members can easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Now, let’s check out our first major scale exercise!
When practicing major scales, piano students are best served when their scale exercises take into account the typical functionality of each hand in jazz music. For example, jazz pianists frequently use scales or scale fragments when improvising in the right hand. By contrast, the left hand typically plays a supportive role by accompanying. The following 2-5-1 scale exercise demonstrates this context. Notice, the right hand plays an ascending and descending scalar line that is similar to many traditional scale exercises. However, for this exercise, we’ll play the 8th notes with a swing feel. Meanwhile, the left hand features chord shells that outline a 2-5-1 chord progression in C major.
2-5-1 Scale Exercise
After you feel confident playing this exercise in C major, the next step is to try playing it in additional keys. For example, after C major, the next most common keys for beginners are G major, which contains one sharp (♯), and F major, which contains 1 flat (♭).
Our second major scale exercise focuses on a jazz piano technique called inner voice movement. Jazz pianists use inner voice movement to create beautiful countermelodies when playing jazz ballads. This late beginner exercise ascends and descends through the diatonic 7th chords of C major. For each diatonic 7th chord, the left hand plays the root while the right hand initially plays the guide tones (the 3rd and 7th of the chord). Specifically, we’ll play the 3rd with our pinkie finger while our index finger plays the 7th below it. Then, we’ll create inner voice movement by descending from the 7th above the root in our index finger to the 6th above the root with our thumb (see video demonstration.)
Inner Voice Scale Exercise
To learn how to apply inner voice movement on a jazz ballad, check out our course Misty—Jazz Ballad 1 (Int).
Our third major scale exercise is for early intermediate jazz piano students. In this exercise, you’ll learn to ascend and descend with the C major scale from any starting note. In jazz theory, we use the term modes to describe starting on different degrees of a source scale or parent scale. While this principle can apply to any type of source scale, modes are most commonly associated with the seven modes of the major scale.
The modes for each degree of the major scale are assigned the following Greek names: (1) Ionian, (2) Dorian, (3) Phrygian, (4) Lydian, (5) Mixolydian, (6) Aeolian and (7) Locrian. In fact, the following example includes labels to indicate where each mode appears. For a deep dive on this topic, check out our Quick Tip on Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide (Int).
Modal Scale Exercise
Initially, the right-hand fingerings in this exercise can be confusing. In fact, there is more than one way to finger most scalar exercises, including this one. However, you always want to have some sort of logical framework that guides your fingering decisions. In this case, the particular fingerings shown are designed to keep the right thumb orientated on the notes C and F, just like you would normally do when playing the C major scale with the right hand.
Click here to view specific courses in the PWJ library on modal improvisation.
Our next major scale exercise prepares late intermediate students to seamlessly connect different tonal centers in real time. This is important for jazz pianists because jazz standards frequently navigate through several different keys all within a single tune. In the following “rapid switch” scale exercise, you’ll play a continuous line of 8th notes while cycling through all 12 major keys!
Rapid Switch Scale Exercise
Check out Lesson 2 of our Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge to see how Jonny applies a similar connecting scales exercise over the turnaround progression.
In our final major scale exercise, advanced piano students will apply a technique called “pattern shifting.” In musical terms, this is also known as a melodic sequence. Pattern shifting or melodic sequence is a special type of musical repetition. However, instead of using exact repetition, this technique starts each iteration on a different pitch, all the while preserving the rhythmic and intervallic relationships within the melodic phrase. Jazz pianists will often use pattern shifting to improvise impressive, rapid phrases when soloing.
Pattern Shifting Scale Exercise
For more examples of pattern shifting, check out Lesson 8 in our full-length course on How to Improvise a Solo with the Major Scale 2 (Ind/Adv).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 5 Major Scale Exercises to Practice Daily. Hopefully, you’ve also come to see how contextual major scale exercises can become a real game changer for your playing.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’re also likely to enjoy the following PWJ Resources:
Also, check out our Course Series on 2-5-1 Soloing with...
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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