I. Studying Scales

Why study scales?

It is true that scales and arpeggios are often found in musical compositions. It is very useful in these cases to be prepared in advance. But there are more basic reasons for studying scales.

Scales are the foundation of your musical knowledge. All music can be seen as being dependent on scales, just as every word you read is dependent on the alphabet.

For example, when a piece is said to be in a key, like C major, most of the notes in that piece are chosen from that scale. By studying scales, one develops the ability to think in keys. This is an indispensable musical skill.

Many students think that scales aren’t fun. However, playing scales is an activity involving concentration and willpower. Scales couldn’t be boring to someone who enjoys precision and control, and who can derive satisfaction from having the right finger in the right place at the right time.

II. Scale Technique

There is no single correct way to approach the keyboard. All of the following considerations apply to scales and arpeggios only and are specifically designed for maximum efficiency and speed.

General Observations: The piano keyboard is narrow, long, and flat. The most efficient movement along such a surface will be a lateral movement. Therefore, while playing a scale, the torso, shoulders, arms, elbows, and wrists will move in a straight line from right to left or vice versa, with no movements up or down, forward or back. The hands make lateral shifts from the wrist, and the fingers stay close to the keys.

That which is larger subordinates that which is smaller. Therefore, the arm leads the fingers. Think of a scale as a motion of the arm–the finger movements are the final details. There is never movement of the fingers without an accompanying arm movement. It is incorrect to sit still and let the fingers pull the arms along.

The body: The body should be relaxed. Sit at the middle of the keyboard. Both feet should be flat on the floor and near one another, side by side. Do not cross your legs, put one or both under the piano bench, or extend one or both forward under the piano. Your spine should be straight and erect. As you lean from side to side, stay facing forward. Do not turn sideways to reach the extremities of the keyboard.

The shoulders: The shoulders should be relaxed. They are never hunched at any time. As you lean from side to side, the shoulders remain level with one another. Neither becomes higher or lower than the other. This will require shifting body weight from one leg to the other.

The arms: The arms should be relaxed. With your hands on the keys, your elbows should be about level with the keys. Without lifting your shoulders, bring your elbows away from your body until the knuckles of the hands are level across the top. This puts the elbow in its position of leadership. It facilitates the sideways movement of the wrist as the fingers pass over the thumb. It slightly elevates the hand, creating more space for the thumb to pass beneath. It allows the thumb to reach farther under the hand, and with greater ease. And it nullifies the compensation you were making for the short fifth finger.

When reaching far to the right with the left hand, or vice versa, many students bring the elbow close to the body to be able to reach the keys with the thumb. Instead, keep the elbow out and turn the hand more on its side. This preserves the correct arm position.

The wrists: The wrists should be relaxed. You can feel that it is easier and more comfortable to move the fingers while the wrist is straight than when it is bent. Therefore, there should be no angle at the wrist while playing scales. During its movement from right to left or vice versa, the wrist should not bounce up and down.

The fingers: The fingers should be relaxed. The fingers not in use should rest on the keys. A sure sign of unnecessary tension is when the idle fingers are up in the air.

The fingers should be curved so that the joints don’t collapse inward. This is so that the pressure is transferred directly into the key. With the collapsed joint, half of the power remains in the joint instead of passing through to the fingertip. Test this for yourself by pressing on a hard surface with a curved, then a “broken”, finger.

The motion of the fingers is straight up and down. The fingers shouldn’t curl under the hand after releasing a note or while at rest. Nor should they reach sideways from the knuckles to cross over the thumb. This is done by a lateral shift of the hand.

Movements through the air space around the keys will produce absolutely no sound from the instrument. This is wasted motion and wasted energy. Therefore, the fingers should stay close to the keys. One by one, as called upon, each should depress the appropriate key from a position of resting on the key. The finger is not lifted into the air before coming down. It is not lifted into the air after coming up again. It should not cause other fingers to lift into the air during its activity. (Incidentally: Be aware that you can be touching the key as it returns as well as when you are depressing it. Your physical involvement continues throughout its course of action. This increases your control as well as your tactile sensitivity.)

Be sure that the fingers also stay close to the keys when they pass over the thumb. Many students flip them up over the keys. A lateral movement is better.

The fingers shouldn’t slide on the keys. Rather, the finger touches the key at only one point while pressing down.

If you have the finger over the right key, it is nearly impossible to play the wrong key. Therefore, touch the keys before you play them. While the thumb plays, touch the remaining notes in the group of three or four. When the fingers play, the thumb reaches under the hand toward its next note. This demonstrates the principle of preparation in advance and is essential for accuracy.

The thumb and fifth finger should act as independent fingers, not as the side of the hand. Many students move these fingers by lowering the wrist. If you wiggle these fingers in the air, you will see that your wrist is not called upon to assist the movement. The same finger motion should be used at the keyboard.

The thumb: The thumb is the central stumbling block of a good scale technique and deserves special attention.

The correct thumb position is an automatic result of the correct arm and wrist positions. The thumb should be diagonal to the keys so that it contacts the key on the tip of the thumb next to the nail. It should not be played in a horizontal position with the whole side of the thumb touching the key. This is as incorrect as if you were to play with the other fingers pointing straight ahead.

The thumb must remain over the keys at all times, within the field of activity. It should not be allowed to hang off the edge of the keyboard when not in use.

When passing the thumb under the hand, many students bend the thumb at the knuckle below the nail, pointing sideways. Often, this shortens the reach of the thumb. In many cases, one can reach farther with the thumb unbent and pointing forward. To find out which way works best for you, look at the palm of your hand and, keeping the four fingers straight, reach with the thumb toward the fifth finger, first bent and then unbent.

When passing the thumb under the hand, the thumb should stay near the keys, almost grazing their surface. Do not lift the thumb up in order to move it sideways.

The thumb must pass under the hand IMMEDIATELY after the second finger plays. It is never too soon for the thumb to pass under.

If that’s too much to remember: Most of these considerations boil down to one thing: if you attain and maintain a good position between the shoulders and wrists, the hands and fingers will be forced to move correctly.

III. Arpeggios

All of the conditions for playing scales apply equally to arpeggios. The only difference is that arpeggios may require a positioning of the elbow slightly higher than in scales to accommodate the passage of the thumb.

IV. Fingering

There is one fingering for all seven-note scales: 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4; a group of three, then a group of four, alternating. You do not always start with the thumb. A scale can begin on any of the seven possible places in the pattern, depending on which scale it is. But the pattern is invariable except at the top or bottom of the scale. Here, the exceptions are that the fifth finger may be substituted for the thumb, and fingers closer to the thumb may be substituted for those farther from it.

You will see in the pattern that the fourth finger appears only once while the others appear twice. One shortcut to remembering fingerings, then, is to notice which note is played by the fourth finger.

All scales starting on white keys have the thumbs on the tonic note.

When playing hands together, seek for simultaneous fingerings. For example in C major in parallel motion in octaves, both hands use the third finger on E and A.

The fingering for triad arpeggios is either 1-2-3 or 1-2-4. The fingering for seventh chord arpeggios is 1-2-3-4. These have the same exceptions as scale fingerings.

V. Miscellaneous

While playing scales and arpeggios, be sure that only one note (per hand) is heard at a time. Many students hold down a note even after playing the next one or two notes. This creates a confusion of sounds.

When playing hands together, be sure that the two notes are struck simultaneously. Many students arpeggiate the interval between the hands.

Develop a visual sense of the scales as combinations of black and white keys. The keyboard is designed for this by virtue of the different sizes and colors of the keys as well as the irregular distribution of the black notes.


This exercise is for the movement of the thumb under the hand. Play all notes with the thumb only, without moving the rest of the hand. Touch each note for a moment before playing. Hands alone, slowly. Left hand part is upside down.

This exercise is for the lateral shift of the hand when passing the fingers over the thumb. Play the first measure 6 times: twice with fingering a., twice with b., and twice with c. Same with the second measure. Hands alone, slowly.

This exercise is also for the lateral hand shift. Throughout the exercise hold down the first note without repeating it. Repeat the 8th notes ad infinitum. Hands alone, slowly.

To practice relaxation during scales and arpeggios, divide the material into small groups of notes. Hold the last note of the group down as you purposely relax. Especially be sure that no fingers are in the air. Gradually increase the number of notes in the group. Hands alone, slowly.

To imprint the pattern of the 3- and 4-note groups, practice the groups as clusters. Remember that the groups do not always start with the first note of the scale. Practice the thumb-plus-remainder pattern for the same benefit as well as working on touching notes in advance. Hands alone or together, slowly, and fortissimo.

Jeffrey Chappell © 1982

Listen to Jeffrey Chappell being interviewed about a life in music in this half-hour “Muse Mentors” podcast from October 2020.