Scales and arpeggios – creating connections
Why are scales and arpeggios important? How can teachers make them relevant and interesting? Louise Matthew explores some answers and looks at ways to link scales and arpeggios to everyday music making. We all want to give our pupils the best possible start on their instrument, making sure they have the tools that will enable them to go as far as they want to. Scales are an essential part of this toolkit and so we have to set things up from the start so pupils think of scales as an integral part of their overall musical experience.
What do pupils say?
I asked my Year 5 recorder players (aged nine to ten) to tell me why it’s helpful to learn scales and arpeggios. They said that scales helped them to:
- learn new notes and get used to playing them
- warm up their fingers and instrument
- learn new pieces and songs
- improve their sight-reading because they help them to read notes
- play in different keys
- prepare for an exam.
None of this will come as a surprise, but by helping our pupils to make these connections clearly and regularly we can encourage them to develop a positive and healthy attitude towards scales.
Making scales relevant
It helps if pupils understand the role that scales play in music. Comparing scales and music to something which pupils can easily relate to is a good way to introduce these musical building blocks. I often use the concept of language to help with this. As the written alphabet makes words, sentences, chapters and stories, so musical letters (or notes) build patterns (made up of scales and arpeggios), phrases, sections and pieces.
Finding keys and patterns
Even at the early stages we can help pupils to recognise keys and scale patterns in their pieces, studies and sight-reading. This is a simple way to show the clear connection between scales and arpeggios and the music they are playing. Pupils can then begin to do this for themselves. This can be particularly useful for sight-reading, whether that’s playing in an orchestra or band, learning a new piece or taking an exam.
Of course, pupils can play scales and arpeggios in a myriad of different ways. They can change the rhythm, character, articulation, dynamic or timbre. They can play them forwards, backwards, upside down, inside out! Having fun playing with scales and arpeggios helps pupils to learn them, and to see them as a normal part of their everyday music making.
Connecting brain and fingers
Moving on, pupils discover that taking scale and arpeggio patterns out of their music and practising them separately can really help their brain and fingers to connect. Extending these patterns and creating sequences helps to motivate pupils with this part of their practice. You could write some warm-up games or exercises to give focus to this activity. For some starting points take a look at some example scale warm-ups. Begin these warm-up games at a slow tempo and gradually speed up. Play around with the articulation, starting with none and then using the piece for inspiration. Take it in turns to play different bars. Ask pupils to write some more exercises or extend the ones that are there. Again, it’s about having fun!
The theory link
In order to recognise musical patterns, pupils are already making links with music theory, but we may have to help them identify this connection, especially to begin with. Creating and writing out some of the previously mentioned warm-up exercises will also highlight the links between pieces, scales and music theory. It can be a useful way to bring things together in a lesson and help pupils understand the role of musical knowledge and understanding in their playing. Some pupils might want to improvise or compose a piece using their scales as a starting point. Others might like to try transposing the patterns they find in their pieces.
Developing aural skills
You can also make connections between scales and aural, particularly singing from score. Being able to recognise scale and arpeggio patterns is invaluable here – knowing when and how the notes are going to move by step or jump. Singing scales, arpeggios, exercises, patterns and bits of pieces with our pupils will give them a greater understanding of the music they are playing, as well as helping them to improve their aural skills.
Scales and exams
Where exams are concerned, everyone has a part to play. ABRSM selects scale requirements which create a progressive pathway through the grades for each instrument. As teachers we help our pupils to navigate that pathway. Pupils then need to take responsibility for practising these scales and arpeggios. Finally it’s the examiner’s job to mark this section of the exam fairly and consistently using ABRSM’s marking criteria. Pupils can sometimes feel disillusioned with scales if they only practise them in the run up to an exam, just as they might learn a list of words for a spelling test. As teachers we need to introduce scales and arpeggios as they come up in pieces, studies and sight-reading. In this way, pupils build up a bank of scales, from within a musical context, that are regularly reinforced and which they can draw on and add to.
Watch Grade 5 Piano scales and arpeggios
A final question
It can, of course, be a challenge to get through everything in a lesson. Perhaps some weeks it feels as if there is just not enough time for scales, and as a short cut we leave them out. But if we can teach scales and arpeggios in a way that connects them with the music pupils are already playing, then can these musical patterns become a short cut in themselves?
Why scales and arpeggios?
ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, John Holmes, provides some answers. Scales and arpeggios are not music, but music is made up of them. Scales are to music what words are to speech, skills are to sport, ingredients are to cooking and chocolate is to brownies! Scales and arpeggios are also fantastic skill-builders and a great technical workout. They can help with:
Reading and learning
Once you get to know your scales and arpeggios you begin to recognise keys and patterns, which speeds up reading and learning.
Facility and fluency
Scales help you learn and become familiar with the typical patterns on your instrument, giving you a muscle memory-bank of common figures and shapes. As a result, your brain and fingers know what to expect in advance, leading to better facility and fluency.
Controlling pitch, time, tone and shape
Scales and arpeggios are a great way to develop your sense of: pitch and intervals; rhythmic regularity and flow; tone across the range of your instrument; and feel for contour and shape.
Find out more
- You can find Louise’s ideas for warm-up games on this website
- Our marking criteria explain what examiners look for when they asses s each section of a graded music exam, including scales and arpeggios
- ABRSM’s brand new Scales Trainer app is available now for Piano and Violin at Grades 1 to 5
This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
Louise Matthew is a flute teacher, primary class music teacher and an ABRSM examiner.