Many of us have a default order we use to teach scales to piano students. It could be because that’s what our teacher did, or perhaps because that lines up with our favourite method book. Have you ever stopped to question whether you’re starting with the right scale?
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Scales are an important puzzle piece when learning to play, improvise and compose confidently on the piano. However, not all scales are created equal. Some are harder to read and some are more awkward technically-speaking.
So which scale should we start with?
Unfortunately, I can’t give you a simple answer because there are differing opinions. And even though it sounds like a basic question, this can actually affect many other areas of our teaching. So I think it’s worth mulling over for a bit.
What makes some scales harder than others?
Let’s start by considering the differences between scales. Assuming we want to start with the easiest scale, we need to think about what that means. What makes certain scales tricky for piano students? Is it the memorisation of notes? The finger patterns? The technique?
Many of us start with the C scale. The main logic is it’s the easiest to find on the piano. After all, it’s just all the white keys.
But the notes are not the only thing involved in a scale.
Another consideration in the pattern of finger numbers we use to play each scale.
I would argue that C major is not the simplest in this regard. However, it does have a different bonus (or drawback) to consider. If you teach your piano student the C major scale and then proceed around the circle of fifths in order, they’ll learn 5 scales in a row with the same fingering pattern.
This is a bonus as it could make these scales easier for them to learn. However, it’s also potentially a drawback because they may get too used to this pattern. Just like a student who learns from a position-based reading approach, they might learn the lesson that any scale which doesn’t use this pattern is “hard” when really it’s just different.
I’m not about to get into the debate of thumb tucking vs crossing vs flicking. That’s a whole other story.
But whichever way you choose to think about the thumb movement (or not,) one thing is clear: C major is not the easiest. When we play a scale which has a black key before the thumb crosses (e.g. D major), our finger makes a bridge for the thumb to scooch under.
Because the 3rd finger is the longest, this is a more natural position for your hand to be in than crossing on the white keys. Try it and feel the difference in the effort required.
Wait, what about pentascales?
Let’s take a quick sidestep to consider pentascales or five-finger patterns.
If you’re not familiar with these, they consist of the first five notes of any scale. They are normally played with fingers 1–5 regardless of the key, but some teachers prefer to teach with the start of the standard scale fingering patterns. Don’t mix them up with pentatonic scales. That’s a whole other thing!
But should you teach them?
Personally, I only use pentascales with young beginners who will not be ready for full one-octave scales for a long time. We use them to work on non-legato and legato techniques and to aid with transposing work.
If you’re going to use them with every student – have a reason. I’m not against pentascales, but I do think it’s one of those default things which teachers can do without questioning. So take the time to consider why you’re using them.
Piano Scale No.1
We’ve hinted at possible starting points. Now let’s consider two different options for which piano scale we should introduce first.
Starting with G Flat Major
Chopin started many of his students off learning the black key scales first and teaching the C major scale last. He actually found C major to be the most difficult scale to teach.
In black key scales like G flat, the knuckle bridge is slightly elevated when long fingers 2,3 & 4 are on the black keys. This allows ample space underneath to move the fingers.
G flat major can be explained to beginners as all the black keys, plus white key B and white key F. You don’t necessarily need to explain the C flat to students if their theory is not at that stage yet.
Why did I go for G flat rather than B?
I personally think the fingering is easier to remember in G flat. Many beginners are used to putting three fingers on the three black keys which is the starting point for both hands. Many like to start with B major, though, and the pros and cons are much the same. You do you.
Pros of teaching G flat major scale first
Piano students practise a more natural hand shape on the keys which can be easily transferred to other keys. It can be presented as all the black keys plus these 2 white keys to reinforce keyboard geography.
Cons of teaching G flat major scale first
G flat might be tricky to relate to written music, as most music for beginners is written in C, G and F major keys.
Starting with C Major
The old reliable didn’t become the standard without reason. The main benefit of C major is the ease of reading and relating to pieces.
Also, as I mentioned above, it starts a sequence of 5 major scales which all use the same fingering. This may make them easier to learn.
The technique is more challenging and could introduce undesired habits which carry through to other scales and their playing in general.
Pros of teaching C major scale first
C major is easy to remember as it consists of all the white keys. It’s also directly relatable to a student’s pieces since many will be working on repertoire in C major at first.
Cons of teaching C major scale first
Tucking the thumb across the white keys may cause students to lift their wrist and introduce tension into their hand. This can carry through to their technique in general and cause knock-on issues.
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What Order to Teach Piano Scales In
We’ve thought in detail about which scale to do first…but where should we go next? What comes after C, or G flat, or whichever other scale we choose?
Circle of Fifths
Working our way slowly around the circle of fifths helps students learn several important theoretical concepts in addition to noticing patterns.
Some talk about this as being a benefit of starting with C major. But much like the world map, it can be flipped around!
Working around the circle of fifths in order from C major will mean you teach all those similar white-key scales in a row to your piano students.
But starting at G flat means you get all the flats “over with,” and students may even see these as the easy scales since they learn them first. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Circle of Fourths
The circle of fourths (or reverse circle of fifths) offers similar benefits in terms of understanding the relationship between keys. It just changes the order of the scales.
So if you liked the idea of doing all the flats first but you want to start with C major, just do the circle of fourths instead!
Going chromatically through the notes isn’t my favourite, as it divorces the scales from the theory behind them.
It does have the benefit, however, of making the pattern of tones and semitones (whole and half steps) clearer. So if you prefer to teach scales according to the pattern, way this may be the order for you.
Your One Thing.
If you’ve always started with the same scales or taught them in the same order, consider trying something different. Make a note to use this new approach the next time you have an opportunity.
Which piano scales do you teach first and why?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. 🙂
3 thoughts on “What order should I teach piano scales in?”
When teaching scale patterns of whole step and half steps (in the US ) I find the C major scale is definitely an advantage as you can more easily “see” the pattern on all white keys.
An additional benefit to C Major.
Many thanks for this Betsy!
This is all super information. In being self taught (starting at age 49, but drumming for 30 yrs) my fingers do not adhere as a younger persons would. I find scales and patterns that kind of match finger length helps in the beginning.. D major, A major, etc. as well, the black keys are raised and separate. Sometime to this day, I play two white keys together, when applying some speed, however this is ok too.!
When playing, say second inversion do D major , for example, (right hand) since there are white and black keys to play, there are ‘pockets” in which the fingers need to placed to create the chord. This has truly helped me for location.
So I guess I am a fan of black keys incorporated in early learning.