The age old question…how do we make piano scales fun and relevant?

The age old question…how do we make piano scales fun and relevant?

fun relevant piano scales


“Ok, let’s start with some scales.”

*Cue student’s eyelid’s drooping*.

We all know we’re supposed to teach our piano students their scales, but it can quickly turn into a battle of wills. I never want to tell my students to “eat their vegetables”, so how do I make those vegetables look like candy?

It’s not just the kids that want candy either, adult students can be even more tricky to convince. Most adult students know what they want (usually just to play songs they know and like), and don’t see why they should learn piano scales. Scales conjure up images of an old-fashioned piano teacher with a cane, who only teaches classical repertoire and never listens to what the student wants to learn.

An adult student recently asked me why we learn scales, hmm. Where to begin? Because they’re the foundation of music, because it helps us play runs with ease, because, because, because

Too much talk, it’s time to show what scales can do.

In Context

When introducing a new piece, one of my first steps is to discuss the scale it’s based on (i.e. the key). Have the student play the scale, arpeggio and chords on each scale degree. Find the scale in the piece, identify scale runs, find the tonic note in the melody, and mark in what chords are used.


Give a student some time to get acquainted with a new scale by playing an accompaniment for him to improvise over. Give him ideas for using the scale such as going up in patterns of thirds, using different articulation, experimenting with different intervals from the scale to see what they sound like. By the end he will know the scale forwards, backwards, and upside down. PLUS it will have actually been a musical experience, not just a drill.


Use a new scale as a jumping off point for a new composition. Help your student to form a bass-line using a chord progression in the new key and write it out on staff paper for the left hand. Then play this new left hand part for them on repeat while they experiment with the scale to come up with a melodic motif. Show him how to use this motif to create a piece with a simple musical form such ABA. The new piece doesn’t need to be amazing; keep the atmosphere positive and encouraging. The most important thing is that he’s putting his new scale to use, and seeing first hand why it’s relevant. (If you haven’t heard it yet, Tim recently did a podcast with Daniel McFarlane on Student Composition Tactics, check it out for loads more ideas on how to get students composing!)


When all else fails, add a competitive edge! You could create a studio wide challenge, with 1 point for every scale learned at 80bpm, 2 points for 120bpm, and 3 points for 160bpm. The points could be recorded in the student’s folder, or on a wall chart. You could even set up a plastic tube for each student that you fill with tokens as they gain points. (In my own studio I use these scale level charts to track scale achievement, and award those who complete a level.)

Scale level stickers small

Bringing it all together

One of these ideas on its own isn’t enough to see the big picture. To really make scales feel relevant to students, we need to use everything in our toolbox so that our students can see all the pieces of the jigsaw fitting and taking shape. Here’s an example of a lesson to show you how this could work:

  • You know that there is a piece coming up that’s in A major, a new key signature for your student.
  • Don’t show it to them yet!
  • Teach them to play the scale and arpeggio and use the metronome as a challenge to see what speed they can get to.
  • Have them write out the scale on staff paper in their note-book, in both the bass clef and the treble clef.
  • Identify the I, IV, V and vi chords in A major.
  • Use these to comp an accompaniment while your student improvises with the A major scale.
  • Take an element of your student’s improvisation to make a short piece (as little as 8 bars will do) and write it out together.
  • Then (and only then!) show them their new piece. Help them to find the chords and chord patterns, and elements of the scale and arpeggio in the music.

Seem like a lot of work for one piece? It is! This may take a full 30 minute lesson, but it will be time extremely well spent. By the end of all that work, your student will not only know how to play the scale, but will have seen how it supplies them with freedom for creativity, and they definitely won’t come back the next week playing C naturals instead of C sharps! Try mixing up how you teach scales, I promise you won’t regret it!

When we teach scales in this way, we’re not just teaching a scale. We’re giving our students a glimpse at the maps that make up all music. A student who sees first hand what scales can do for us as musicians, is a student that’s happy to learn and practice their scales, and never again sees them as a chore to be got through.

What ways have you tried to spice up scales?

Do you use any of the ideas above? Has something different worked for you? I’d love to hear about it!

Nicola Cantan

Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. Nicola's Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. She also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies.

 feeling inspired? 

fun relevant piano scales
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Great post, I love anything that involves improvisation and of course fun! Children learn best when they have fun.

    I’ve made some fun accompaniments for scales which kids seem to love. They’re at feel free to have a listen. Your brain tends to remember the last thing that you do, so I always make kids practice scales using 3 tempos, first medium, then fast (actual speed or faster) then slow which is usually about half the speed. In these accompaniments students play RH, LH and then Hands together. When students have finished the set, they have played the scale 9 times in total. Here’s the Youtube clip of what I give my students in Grade 1 – feel free to use it: (C major) and (A minor)

    Other benefits of playing with a backing track are: it’s like a metronome, it’s like playing with a band, they have to listen, but most important it’s fun!

    • Love that Paul! What a fantastic alternative to the metronome, and a great way to get kids putting in the repetitions needed to make scales stick. Thanks for posting!

  2. I love the improvising ideas Tim. I too, like to link scale learning with a point system. I use the circle of 4ths, starting off by playing and memorizing all notes in the circle starting at C. When you play these notes starting from the bottom of the piano, working up in Perfect 4ths, holding down the sustaining pedal, it sounds really cool. Then we move to learning the first three notes of the scale in the pattern 12321 starting on C, then move to F, playing the same pattern and so on, (rhythmically of course). When they have mastered the three notes starting on every note of the cycle, then we move to five notes, then on to the octave. I have found that it is a much quicker and more enjoyable way of learning scales. I have also found that there is an obvious aural benefit as the student is hearing the V-I progression throughout the process.

    • What a fantastic way to make scales a musical experience Clare! Love the idea of holding down the pedal while you work up through the 4ths, my scale challenges are also based around the circle of fifths, by far the best way to organise scale work.

more Technique posts

from our blog

contact us

Reach out to learn more about our multi-teacher memberships