Piano Scales for Beginners: A Definitive Guide

Before we dive in, allow me to define some necessary terms:

  • Pitch:  a tone measured by vibrations: how high or low a tone sounds.

  • Step:  moving from one key to the next.

  • Half Step:  the closest any two pitches can be to each other (in Western music).

  • Whole Step:  distance of two half steps.

  • Scale:  organized set of pitches.

  • Tetra Scale:  a playing position using all fingers (minus the thumb) on both hands to play the scale.

Ok - let’s talk about piano scales for beginners.

What is a scale?

The base definition of a musical scale is an organized set of pitches. That’s it! Now there are several kinds of scales. The two most common scales in Western music are the major and minor scales.

The Major Scale

Bright. Happy. Sunny. Cheerful. Playful. These are all words musicians choose to describe how a major scale sounds, but these words are not the major scale. The major scale is Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step. Memorize that, and you can play scales all day! Start the pattern on any white or black key, and you’ll get bright, happy, sunny, cheerful, playful sounds every time.

Play C Major Scale

Using your tetra scale hand position, find the letter C with your L.H. finger 5 (left hand pinky) on your piano. Following the pattern of whole and half steps, place each finger (except for your thumbs) on the keys. Starting with your LH finger 5, play each key beneath your fingers all the way up to RH finger 5 (right hand pinky). And that is the famous C Major scale.

The Minor Scale and His Personalities

Dark. Sad. Rainy. Gloomy. Depressed. Many musicians choose to color the minor scale this way. But again, the minor scale is simply an organization of set pitches. The natural minor scale is a whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, and whole step to finish. There are three variations of a minor scale, but the pattern you just played is called the natural minor scale.

Play A Natural Minor Scale

Find the letter A on your piano. Get your hands in Tetra-scale position starting with L.H.  finger 5 on A. Your fingers should have all white keys and contain the natural minor scale. Play it. How does it sound to you? Dark? Sad? Rainy? Gloomy? Depressed? Minor-ish?

Traditional Scale Fingering

The tetra scale is helpful when you want to see a complete scale under your fingertips all at once, but it is inefficient fingering when playing a piece of music. Assign one finger per key and these are the fingerings with which you end up:

            Ascending scale pattern:                                Descending scale pattern:

               RH: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5                                             RH: 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1


You’ll notice the fingerings reflect each other whether ascending or descending. The same applies to the LH fingering:

                             Ascending scale pattern:                                                        Descending scale pattern:

                                     LH: 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1                                                                    LH: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5


Here is a diagram I use for my students when introducing a new scale:

                       C Major Scale

              RH:   1    2  3   1   2   3   4   5

                       C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

              LH:   5   4   3   2   1   3   2   1


Reading left to right is the ascending fingering, and reading right to left is the descending fingering. You can apply this diagram to any scale simply by changing the letters to match the scale.

Playing position

Efficiency is essential, so avoid moving more than you have to. Utilize the agility between your thumb and fingers and pivot with your thumb or finger (whichever comes first) so that your fingers glide right over. If you can play a scale with a piece of candy sitting on your wrist, you have mastered the playing position.

If you have any thoughts or questions about piano scales, if you need a scale chart recommendation, or if you'd like to learn more about piano lessons in Philadelphia or online via video call, please get in touch!


Erika Gingery