Mastering Scales and Arpeggios

Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are found in every piece of music ever written so it is important as a musician to have a mastery of their various forms yet so many students struggle with scales. Practicing scales and arpeggios doesn’t have to be hard. Let’s break them down and simplify things!

What is a scale?

A scale is an organized sequence of notes consisting of half-steps and whole-steps and is the tonal basis of music.   Scales, or variants of scales are found throughout every piece of music and are used to create melodies and harmonies which set the mood or atmosphere for the music itself. 

What is an arpeggio?

An arpeggio is a variant of the scale and usually consists of the first, third, and fifth note of the scale.  Another way to think of an arpeggio is as a broken chord. In a chord, all three of these notes would be played together, but in an arpeggio, each note is played individually in succession.

What are the different types of scales?

Many different scales are used in the music of different cultures throughout the world.  Major, minor, whole tone, pentatonic, modal, etc. but we are going to focus on the Major, Minor, and Blues Scales.

Major scales

The major scale (also known as the Ionian scale) is one of the most commonly used forms of the scale in western music.  There are 12 major scales and each scale consists of 8 notes. Every major scale uses the exact same pattern of half steps and whole steps (W, W, H, W, W, W, H).

Major Scale Example

Minor Scales

The minor scale (also known as the Aeolian scale) is probably the second most commonly used form of the scale in western music.  Minor scales come in three different forms: natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. Each form of the minor scale is also built using a pattern of whole steps and half steps.

Natural Minor 

The natural minor scale is the scale played within its key signature and follows the following pattern of half steps and whole steps.

Natural minor scale example

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor scale is the natural minor scale with a raised seventh scale degree.

harmonic minor scale example

Melodic Minor

  • The melodic minor scale is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth and seventh scale degree ascending but lowers these two scale degrees on the descension, returning to the natural minor.  Another way to think about the melodic minor is that ascending, it is the major scale with a lowered third scale degree.
melodic minor scale example

Blues Scales

The blues scale is a six note scale that most commonly found in the blues and jazz styles of music.  It consists of the minor pentatonic with an added lowered fifth scale degree. Sound complicated? Don’t worry, the blues scale, like the major and minor scales, is just an organized sequence of notes using the following pattern. 1 – 2 – b3 – 3 – 5 – 6.

blues scale example

Major and Minor Arpeggios

Arpeggios consist of the first, third, and fifth notes of the major and minor scales followed by ending on the first note one octave higher. The major and minor arpeggios are almost identical except the minor arpeggio has a lowered third.

arpeggio example

Why are scales and arpeggios important?

Since all music consists of scales, familiarizing yourself with the different forms of scales will help you learn new music quickly and improve your ability to sight read proficiently.  It is important to fully understand the building blocks of each form of the scale. Since every scale in each form is built using the exact same pattern, understanding how the scale is built will make them easier to memorize.

The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths is a tool that will help you memorize the major and minor scales and their key signatures.  

circle of fifths

Understanding the circle

Each note of the circle starts on the fifth scale degree of the previous scale.  For example: if you start on C, the fifth note of the C major scale is G, the fifth note of the G major scale is D, the fifth note of the D major scale is A, etc.

Each note in the circle also adds a sharp to the key signature.  C has no sharps or flats, G has one sharp, D has two sharps, A has three sharps, etc.

If you go backwards, you have the circle of fourths.  Once again, if you start on C, the fourth note of the C major scale is F, the fourth note of the F major scale is B-flat, the fourth note of the B-flat major scale is E-flat, etc.  

Each note in the circle going this direction adds a flat to the key signature.  C has no sharps or flats, F has one flat, B-flat has two flats, E-flat has three flats, etc.

Using the Circle to figure out your minor key signatures.

circle of fifths minor keys

The circle still follows the same pattern of key signatures (adding one sharp of flat to the next) only this time the circle is rotated three spaces counter clockwise so that A is now at the top instead of C. 

How practice scales and arpeggios

Since all music is based on scales, it is important to incorporate scales and arpeggios into your daily practice routine.  You can do this as part of your daily warm-up as well as incorporate it into your technique practice.

As part of your warm-up

Any warm-up routine should begin with long tones.  After your initial long tones add in scales played slowly in quarter notes.  Think of the scales as an extension of your long tones, focusing on playing with a smooth, even, and full sound.  This will begin to warm up your fingers and sink the scales into your finger’s muscle memory. This is a great way to learn new scales while still warming up.  After the scale, add in the arpeggio that accompanies the scale. When playing the arpeggio slowly, focus on a smooth transition between each note of the arpeggio.

As part of your technique exercises.

In the technique portion of your practice routine, you can start speeding your scales up.  Use this scale practice chart to track your progress. Make sure to practice your scales in their many different variants.

Extended scales

Extended scales start on the first note of the scale, extend all the way up to the highest note you can play, return back down (passing your first note) to the lowest note you can play, and finally returning to your highest note.

extended scales example

Scales in thirds

Scales in thirds begin on the first note of the scale, skip one note and move to the third note of the scale, return back to the skipped note, then skip the next, etc.

scales in thirds example

Returning scales

Returning scales consist of a returning five note pattern. Start on the first scale degree and move up the first 5 notes of the scale and then back down before repeating the pattern on the second scale degree, third scale degree, etc.

returning scales example

Interrupted scales

Interrupted scales start on the first scale degree and go up four notes then return to the second scale degree and go up four more notes, then to the third scale degree, etc.

interrupted scales example


Arpeggios show up in music just as often as scales do; so it is important to practice them on a regular basis. You can tag them on to the end of your scales as you practice or practice the arpeggios alone.

Mix it up

Lets face it, scale practice can get boring so be sure to mix it up.  When practicing the variants of the scales previously mentioned, mix up your practice to avoid boredom.  Try practicing at different tempos. Challenge yourself to try to move the tempo up 5-10 metronome clicks each time you practice. Try playing the scales backward using a descending – ascending pattern. 

descending scales example

You can take the descending scale even further by playing the beginning of Joy to the World, which is simply a descending major scale.  Repeat this pattern in every major key.

joy to the world

You can also change the articulation using the following scale articulation patterns.

scale articulation patterns

Practice, Practice, Practice

Now that you have an entire scale practice arsenal in your hands, use it!  Make scale practice a part of your daily practice routine and you will be learning music more quickly and sightreading better in no time!