Why are scales important in my music practice?

By Jade Bultitude
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flute, flute practice, scale practice

Scales… the mere mention of this word can be enough to make some students tremble in their boots! So why should I practice my scales? 

There are in fact many good reasons for learning your scales. Scales are the fundamental building blocks of any musician’s technique and allow a student to develop whilst removing all other variables, such as pieces and music notes. So, what do scales actually help us improve? 

So why are scales important?

Finger Dexterity 

Practising your scales greatly improves the fine motor skills in your fingers. By improving these muscles, you will find that you have a greater ability to play challenging repertoire. It is important to develop a smooth technique and strong coordination in order to execute challenging sequences of notes. 

Sight Reading 

With your fine motor skills being developed, you will also begin to recognise patterns in music. All music (mostly!) is written based on a specific key or sequence of keys. By being able to recognise this you will find that your sight-reading ability becomes quicker. 

Scales are fundamental to every piece of music, meaning, the time spent on them is easily transferable! Not such a waste of time huh?!

Memory Skills 

Learning your scales helps you to develop your muscle memory of common patterns seen in music. By dedicating time to learning your scales you will free up space in your working memory to focus on other aspects of the music, such as dynamics, articulations etc. Many studies have shown that by freeing up the working memory students are able to focus on more challenging aspects of a task thereby increasing performance. 

Tone and Intonation 

You will also find that the more you practice your scales the more your tone will develop. The simple act of playing these every day will improve your embouchure and lip muscles which will aid you in your tone production and create much more quality and evenness of sound. You will also begin to find that you can produce more colours in your tone as you build in strength and can increase the pallet of tone colour’s available to you. Practicing your scales will also help you relate each note to each other allowing your aural skills to develop. With a better ear you will also see a quick improvement in your intonation, which is so vital when playing with other musicians. 

Breath control and Phrasing 

Practicing your scales also makes you focus on your breathing. There is a very specific pattern of notes with a clear place to breathe i.e. at the start of the scale, the top of the scale and at the end. Eventually, many students will even begin playing their scales in one breath. Being able to focus on this, will aid in your control but also in your lung capacity as you push yourself further to perform more notes in one breath. Breathing also very much has a knock-on effect with phrasing, as phrases are often the signal of when to take a good breath. 

Allows you to practice different elements of music wherever you are

Have you ever forgotten to bring your music to a lesson or a practice session? Scales give you a very easy way to practice different elements of your music, even if you don’t have the specific notes in front of you! You can practice your scales with many different types of articulation (tongued, slurred, two tongued two slurred etc). You can also practice them with different dynamics, (crescendos, diminuendos etc) and you can even look at different speeds or even experiment with rallentando’s and accelerando’s! I think you get the gist.. 

Theory knowledge

Being able to play your scales will also greatly improve your understanding of keys and key signatures. Having this understanding, as said before, will help you to sight read and play your pieces with more fluency. However, playing your scales also will help you to relate your theory knowledge to actual playing. Being able to apply your knowledge to a practical exercise will only deepen your understanding. This theory knowledge also broadens your musical horizon by giving you a deeper understanding of composition! 

A stepping stone into more complicated technique 

Being able to play your scales gives you the opportunity to then further this with more complicated technique exercises and studies. Some great books are: 

Moyse – 480 Gammes et Arpegges

Taffanel and Gaubert – 17 Daily Exercises

Moyse – Exercises Journaliers 

Reichert – Seven daily exercises

Trevor Wye – Practice Books for the flute Volumes 1-6

There are many others to choose from but these are a great place to start!

Keep practicing those scales! Check out my blog post on how to practice your scales.

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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.