Scales have always been problematic for me. In the beginning, I was consumed by them. I spent hours drilling as many as I could, even when I didn’t have context for why or when to use them. Years later, I developed a distaste for them. They seemed like training wheels for ear training and trapped me in boring shapes and licks dictated by muscle memory instead of melodic phrasing.
Now, I’m trying to build more scale exercises into my practice because I’ve identified them as a weakness (who knew years of neglect would cause an issue?)
To the best I can understand it, scales are a painter’s palette, or a traveler’s map — a list of options you can apply at any moment. With regard to a specific instrument, they also outline shapes that exist naturally on your instrument and encourage ergonomics (efficiency of movement).
Put simply: scales present you with options, and musicality comes from the choices within them.
We practice scales and arpeggios to:
- Improve our technical abilities on the instrument.
- Give us reliable choices to use in different contexts.
- Expand our ear by giving us the physical ability to play something we aren’t used to hearing in our heads (yet).
This is why scales are sometimes confusing to practice. We actually want to break out of those basic up and down shapes, at least musically, as soon as possible. The shapes and degrees should only exist to serve what’s inside our heads and what comes to us naturally as we play. Scales can hamstring us if we rely too much on muscle memory, making our default approach to our instruments strictly physical instead of listening to the options in our head first.
With that caveat in mind, here are 3 exercises for scales that my teachers, various musicians, and myself have found success from, and I hope you do too.
But before that, a few general notes:
Best “Practices” For Scale and Arpeggio Drills
- When you’re first learning a scale, don’t play faster than your ear can process. Know what note (or degree) you are playing and listen for the intervals at all times.
- Similarly, scales and arpeggios aren’t just physical patterns on your instrument. You must think in terms of scale degrees and intervals as well.
- You should apply this to all 12 keys.
- Think of scales like the foundation of and the glue between arpeggios.
- Make your scale practice as musical as possible. Try to use patterns that encourage musicality, such as drilling diatonic surround tones.
And here are the exercises:
#1 Diatonic Arpeggio Workout
Pick any scale and play the triads in order, from bottom to top in eighth notes without stopping.
In F Major, this would look like:
And so on.
Then, do the same thing but switch the order from 1-3-5 to 3-5-1, or any other order you choose.
To make this harder, add in sevenths and/or start mixing ascending and descending. So in F you could go up Fmaj7, down Gm7, etc.
#2 - 5-Note Diatonic Pattern Building
Pick any 5 note pattern and apply it to a scale degree, ascending and descending without stopping.
For example, you could decide to do play this pattern starting on the first note: 1-6-4-5-2.
In F Major, that would be F-D-Bb-C-G, and then, you go up a note and play the same interval differences while staying in the scale. For the second degree, G, that would be G-E-C-D-A. All the up and down.
To change and/or make this harder, you can:
- Switch up the pattern
- Add in chromatic notes.
- Change the rhythm.
#3 Scale Song Workout
Pick any progression you want to get better at, set a metronome, and play constant 8th notes within the scale, making sure to land on a chord tone on the downbeat of the 1 on each measure.
This will improve your ability to follow the progression and get you out of only playing arpeggios over more complicated progressions.
How to take these ideas further:
- Move these through all 12 keys.
- Experiment with different modes or scales outside of major.
- Add chromatic or diatonic surrounds.
- If your instrument allows it, try stacks of different intervals such as 3rds, 4ths, and 6ths.
- Mess with the rhythms.
- Transcribe a solo and then alter the licks you learn with other options from the parent scale.
The goal of practicing scales
The goal is to ultimately never feel restricted on any chord — either by feeling stuck in shapes or not knowing what intervals outside of the chord tones are available. Then, you are free to let your ear guide you to make the most interesting choices within the sounds and scales you’re hearing at any particular moment.
On guitar, I like to imagine each fret lighting up with possibilities whenever I think of “Blues” or “Lydian” and attach it to a root note. Anywhere on the instrument, I can know what degree I’m playing, what scale that is associated with, and how that fits into the harmonic context of the song I’m playing.
Useful Resources and References
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