Exploring Scales and the Circle of Fifths with Improvisation

Improvisation is one of the best ways to teach students about keys, scales and chord patterns. In fact, I believe in teaching scales through improvisation first – before fingering, before metronomes, before checklists.

Let me show you how I do it.

Circle of Fifths 1

Circle of fifths 2

It was years into practising scales when I finally understood what they were for. I think if I had really grasped the point of them, I would’ve practised them more and learnt them faster!

How ’bout you? 

Did you enjoy practising scales growing up? Do you even enjoy practising them now?

Why Do Scale Improvisations with Your Piano Students

I hear all the time from both students and teachers that scales don’t get practised because they’re BORING.

But why are they boring?

You may argue that they’re just inherently boring things. If that’s the case, then the better first question to ask is: Why do we need to practise scales? What’s their value?

I’ve shared 6 great reasons in a previous post. Click here to read it and download the infographic.


So if those are our reasons for practising scales, why do we focus on only the muscle memory when we’re working on scales? That’s surely the most boring part – and not the best place to start.

Drilling scales up and down, over and over, doesn’t lead to recognising them in pieces, developing an awareness of key or being able to improvise with them.

I think we’ve got this all a bit backwards in fact.

We should be starting with improvisation.

Improvisation can hook students in and give them a real understanding of scales, keys and chords from the start. The theory and speedy fingerings can come later.

Making Improvisation Simple

If improvising scares the pants off you, you’re not alone.

I hear from teachers all the time who are terrified to jump into the world of improvisation – heck I was one of them once upon a time! But I did jump in, and I’m so so glad I did.

The best and simplest way to start including improvisation in your lessons, in my opinion, is to play a simple chord accompaniment and give your student some basic instructions.

If we’re exploring the key of C major for example:

  • I would first ask my student: “We’re going to improvise in C major, what does that mean? Which keys are we going to use?”
  • Through some discussion we would arrive at the conclusion that we’re going to play on the white keys and C is home.
  • Then I would play a chord pattern such as I-V-vi-IV while they play around with the white keys.

From there you can move on to other scales and keys.

You don’t need to do anything fancy with your chords – seriously. The main focus should be on the melody your student is creating anyway.

improvisation accompaniment for piano teachers

The Circle of Fifths Odyssey

The Circle of Fifths Odyssey is the most recently released course in the Vibrant Music Teaching library.

This course takes students and teachers on a journey around the circle of fifths, exploring every major key through improvisation, games and other activities.

You can get an idea what this course is about by watching the introduction video.

If you like the sound of this course, but you’re not a member yet, you can become a member here.

3 thoughts on “Exploring Scales and the Circle of Fifths with Improvisation”

  1. Great post! I think another great way to work with scales is to connect them to the chords of a specific key (and the circle of fifths). This way students can learn right away that chords and scales are made up of the same tones, and that many nice chord progressions can be created with one simple scale. Of course the melody fits in here as well. Keep it up!


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