Why do we require our students to learn scales?
It’s heresy, really, to suggest giving piano lessons without teaching students the full range of major, harmonic and melodic minor patterns. Not teaching scales would be seen as gross negligence, in fact; a kind of failure to innoculate, or a musical malnourishment that would only happen in the worst of circumstances; a pedagogical incompetence, perhaps, or a breathtaking breach of duty of care.
But why? What is it that scales (and arpeggios) deliver that simply cannot be gained any other way?
Teachers respond quite naturally with issues such as finger strength and velocity. And scales do focus on these two important skills of execution. But scales are certainly not the sole means available to piano teachers to develop a student’s finger power and speed.
Some teachers might add that scales allow students to develop tonal control and evenness of touch, and this is also certainly true. But these skills can also be developed using any number of other means besides scales.
What is it that scales, and scales alone, can bring to the musical education of a student? Is there, in fact, any musical benefit that scales uniquely provide?
Well, yes, but this benefit has absolutely nothing to do with agility or control.
Scales are unique in teaching us how to hear. Scales teach us how to hear in pitch patterns, how to anticipate melodic contour, how to predict harmonic outcomes. Knowing the pattern of a scale starting on any one of the 12 semitones in an octave enables a pianist to move between keys almost effortlessly, able to transpose at sight or by ear. An understanding of scale patterns underlies the ability to harmonise a lead sheet, to play from a chord chart or to sight read an accompaniment.
These benefits quickly accrue to a student who learns scales with these functions in mind. The patterns are interesting in the way they relate to music known and music yet to be known. The geographical configurations each pattern manifests appear to the student as interesting terrain to be conquered in pursuit of increased musical flexibility.
But for the student who practices scales in order to play at a faster pace and with stronger fingers, the scale itself is more like an obstacle course, with hurdles that impede progress and sudden tricks in layout that preclude clarity. Practising scales in this fashion is a task undertaken dutifully (if at all) with no sense that the scale itself is of any particular value or interest.
Now, it should be clear that I strongly advocate the use of scales in every student’s education, and it is equally clear that I believe that knowing the major and minor scale patterns sets students up for all kinds of musical adventures. But this is not anywhere near enough.
The scales we traditionally teach our students (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, chromatic) as well as the scales that more recently have come into vogue (the natural minor scale, pentatonic scale variants, and the so-called blues scale) don’t even come close to covering the patterns that 21st century students actually encounter in the music they hear every day and the music they will want to play throughout their lifetimes.
Just listen to the themes of prime-time television shows. The Simpsons, the longest running television show of all time, is an excellent example. The theme seems, at first listen (to a classically trained ear), to be a slightly quirky take on a major scale. Now, that’s not a bad way of hearing it, as it turns out. The theme IS a major scale, with the 4th raised a semitone, and the 7th lowered a semitone. Looking at it another way, The Simpsons’ theme uses the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree.
This is a really cool scale! The raised 4th (in common with the Lydian mode) expresses a high-energy optimism, while the the flattened 7th (in common with the Mixolydian mode) expresses a laid-back approach to life. Six Feet Under also uses this pitch pattern at the start of its distinctive theme.
Desperate Housewives uses the Lydian mode (major scale with the 4th raised). Then there are the themes in the Dorian mode (major scale with the 3rd and 7th flattened). American Beauty and The Sopranos are two of the many films and tv shows that have been accompanied by music in this off-the-educational-menu scale.
And that’s without getting into popular and dance musics where variants on the harmonic minor scale (particularly starting on the 5th degree) have been becoming increasingly common over the past decade, and where the mixolydian mode (major with the 7th flattened) has really been the norm for nearly 50 years.
Why don’t we teach these scales? The goals of strength, velocity, agility and control could be just as easily achieved while playing these patterns as any of our traditional scales. In fact, by teaching more patterns, one would think that technical skills could be positively reinforced.
So why don’t we do it?
It comes back to that earlier point that scales teach us how to hear, and piano teachers have been in the business of teaching students how to hear music written in a classical style (let’s say from about 1720 to the mid 1800s) since piano teaching began. Teaching students how to hear the music of Bartok or the blues (both past their centenaries) hasn’t been all that high on our professional agenda. Even the music of Debussy still seems harmonically brave and adventurous nearly 100 years after his death, and that’s because we haven’t learned how to hear it, how to be inside the pitch patterns that are the foundations of his work.
We (piano teachers) need to recognise that scales are propaganda – they teach our students what to hear, what to ignore, what to write off and what to value. And rather than just keeping on doing things the way we always have, we need to start actively introducing our student to the patterns that permeate their iPod playlists, these new scale-codes that decipher contemporary composition, and these new keys to understanding the music of their time.