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Conservatory-quality online piano lessons from the City of Music, Vienna, Austria

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How to Play a Piano Scale


Piano scales are one of the biggest stumbling blocks for most piano students. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to build any major scale at the piano; starting from any note.

We’ll focus on major scales since they’re best suited as a starting point. (There are three types of minor scale but only one type of major scale.)

You’ll need to know about half steps and whole steps in order to proceed with this lesson.

Most piano students know that if they play all the white keys between middle C and the next higher C, they’ll play a C major scale. Yet students tend to have difficulty learning the other major scales, and I’d like to help clear that up in this lesson.

Let’s take a look at the C major scale. In particular, let’s look at the piano keys you don’t play. In the case of C major these are the black keys. Here is an octave on the piano keyboard starting with C:

Notice how there’s a key between C and D? Since there’s exactly one key in between (the black key), the interval between C and D is a whole step.

Now let’s look at the next interval, from D to E. Since there’s also a key in between, it’s also a whole step.

The next interval is from E to F. These keys are touching each other, with nothing in between. This interval, then, is a half step.

F to G, G to A, and A to B all have one piano key in between. Therefore, these are all whole steps.

Finally, B and C are directly next to one another. This interval is therefore a half step.

Putting everything together, we discover that a C major scale is composed of the following intervals: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (indicated as W and H in the diagram):

Using this formula (W W H W W W H), you can now play any major scale on the piano! Start on any key and use this pattern of whole and half steps, and you’ll play the major piano scale for that key.

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