Category Archives: Learning Piano

Types of Scales

By: Aaron Zimmerman

In this post, I’ll list and briefly explain different types of scales commonly used in music today.   I’ll break them into 4 categories, Common, Symetric, Modal, and Other.

Common Scales

Common Scales

Common Scales

Major is the best known scale.  The key characteristic is the major 3rd (E) and a seventh that is a half step down from the root (B). It is a pattern of whole steps W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

Natural Minor is identified by lowered third, sixth, and seventh (when compared to a major).  Natural minor keys share key signatures with the major chord that is 3 half steps higher.  That is, A Minor has the same key signature (no sharps or flats) as C Major, the note 3 half steps higher.  A Minor is the relative minor of C Major.  Eb is the relative major of C Minor (above).

Harmonic minor is a natural minor with a raised 7th degree.  In a minor key, we usually use a major V chord to create a stronger V-I cadence.  In C minor, the V chord is G Major (with a B natural, even though B is flat in the key signature).  This creates a clash between a melody using the natural minor scale, and an accompaniment playing a major V chord.  So the harmonic minor scale addresses this by adjusting the scale to be what the harmony expects.

Melodic Minor is a comprise between the natural and the harmonic minor scales.  When descending, the scale is identical to a natural minor scale. When ascending, the 6th and 7th are both raised a half step (from the natural minor).  This allows for smoother voice leading (no jumps in melodies that move up and down the scale), while maintaining compatibility with harmonic progressions.

Symmetric Scales

These scales are based on symmetric, repeating patterns of intervals.  It is the asymmetric-ness of the major and minor scale that give it a strong sense of tonic, of a “home” key.  As these scales are symmetric, they do not have a strong tonic.  If you start a C Major scale in the middle, after a few notes, it is still clearly a C Major scale.  Whereas, there is no “middle” to a symmetric scale, wherever you start, you start.

Symetric Scales

Symmetric Scales

The chromatic scale features every note.  It is made up entirely of half steps. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” makes heavy use.

The whole tone scale consists of only whole steps, so it contains 6 notes.  There are two whole tone scales.  That is, the whole tone scale that starts from C is the same collection of notes that starts from D.  Likewise, C# and D# whole tones scales share the same pitches. Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” uses an ascending whole tone scale in the introduction.

The octatonic scale is formed by alternating half steps and whole steps.  This leads to a scale of 8 notes, hence the name.   You can further classify an octatonic scale by whether it starts with a whole step or a half step). The introduction to Radiohead’s “Just” uses a whole-half ascending octatonic scale.

Modal Scales

modal scales

Modal Scales

The concept of modes comes from ancient greece, where modes were given names due to regional associations.   Today modal scales are used a lot in jazz.  When improvising over a given chord progression, it can be helpful to play the notes from a mode whose notes go well with a particular chord progression.

Dorian is a natural minor scale with the sixth raised one half step.  The key distinction between dorian and minor is that a dorian mode will have a major IV chord, whereas minor will have a minor iv.  (In C Dorian, you have a F Major chord, whereas in C Minor, you’d have F Minor).

“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson is an example of a dorian piece.

Phrygian is a natural minor with a lowered second degree.  It is featured in this piece “Phrygian Gates” by John Adams.

Lydian is a major scale with a raised 4th degree.  The Simpsons main theme song is an example.  Listen for the raised fourth degree, it is the second note you hear, on the first half of the word “Simpsons”, and again the third note of the wordless melody

Mixolydian is a major scale with the seventh lowered a half step.  It is characterized by the presence of a flat-seventh chord rather than a diminished.  In C Mixolydian, the VII chord is a Bb major, whereas in C Major, it is a B Diminished.

Gun’s N Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” is predominantly in Mixolydian.


Other Scales

Other Scales

Pentatonic is more of a classification than an actual scale.  Taken literally, it just means a scale with 5 notes.  However, two pentatonic scales have emerged that, without further qualification, ‘pentatonic’ probably refers to.  One sounds vaguely major, the other minor.

The first two lines of the folk song “Oh Susanna” use the pentatonic scale.

The blues scale is featured heavily in the genre of the same name.  It is used extensively in blues improvisations, as each of its notes can sound consonant with the 12 bar blues. Pretty much every blues piece uses this scale, here’s Clapton with “Crossroads”, jump to 1:28 for the guitar solo

FUNctional Harmony

By: Aaron Zimmerman

hognestad083008-4.JPGYou turn on the TV.  You see 20 or so people dressed in bright colors and helmets.  They are just standing around, and then suddenly they run full force into each other.  One person runs as fast as they can and another person throws him an oblong ball.  The receiver catches it and runs a little ways before flinging the ball at the ground and starting to dance.

To the average American adult, this is not such an odd sight, but imagine if you had never seen a football game.  How much more do you appreciate the game after learning the rules, understanding the objectives, and appreciating the strategy?

This is what it is like to learn harmony.  Harmony is the language of music, learning even a little will change the way you listen to music forever.

The three building blocks of harmony are intervals, scales, and chords.




An interval is a name for the distance between two notes.  Starting from a C, a ‘minor second’ or ‘half step’ takes you to the note directly to the left (B) or right (C#)  A whole step would be two half steps, so a D or a Bb.


C Major Scale

C Major Scale

A scale is a pattern of whole steps and half steps.   The most common scale, “major”, is the pattern, w,w,h,w,w,w,h.  This pattern can be started on any note to create the “major” scale for that note.  The vast majority of melodic material in music comes from a single scale.  A composer selecting a scale is like an artist picking out the colors of paint they will use for their next work.


C Major Chord

C Major Chord

A chord is three notes played simultaneously.    Chords are named for their lowest note (called the “root”), and the scale from which the other notes come from.   A “C Major” chord starts on the note C and uses thirds from the major scale.  (A third is the interval that you get by skipping one note of the scale.)


Now comes the clever bit.

We can take the C Major scale and build a chord for each note, sticking with the same collection of notes (the C Major scale itself), for each root note.   This results in the following 7 chords:

Chords built off C Major Scale

By convention, we label these chords with Roman Numerals (numbers are used for so many things in music, this helps distinguish those that designate harmony). We also give them impressing sounding names so we can sound smart at dinner parties.  The I chord is called Tonic, the IV chord the Subdominant, and the V chord Dominant.

Harmony is a pattern of chords, a “chord progression”.  Usually, chord progressions are designed to create a feeling of departure and return.  Think of it like running the bases, we move away from home plate, touching on other chords, before returning home to the I chord, the Tonic.

Sample Chord Progressions:

Pop Music is full of the chord progression I, V, vi, IV.

Pachelbels “Canon in D” uses a longer chord progression:  I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V.

“Hang On Sloopy” and “Wild Thing” both follow I, IV, V, IV…. for the whole song.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode To Joy” melody alternates mostly between I and V (with a few harmonic flourishes here and there).  For the last twenty seconds of the piece, Beethoven repeats and repeats the I chord.  This gives the piece a strong sense of finality, of completeness.  It is how you can tell that the piece is over.

(Jump to 4:52 to see what I mean about the ending.)

And that’s most of it.  Bam!  You are now a functional harmony expert.  Well, not quite, there are many more exciting twists and turns, but this is a great start.  Harmony is the language of music, learning to recognize it is like learning to read.  An entire world of appreciation and discovery awaits.

Read Music like a Book

By: Aaron Zimmerman

What is Music Reading?Reading Music

As in any language, fluency requires not only the ability to speak, but the ability to read and write.  Music reading is very similar to reading any other written language.  It has small elements that are put together to create larger elements.  In spoken languages, we put together letters to form words, and words to form sentences, and sentences to form stories.  In music, we start with notes, put them together to form intervals, and then put intervals together to form phrases, etc.

When learning to read, we first learn to recognize letters, then we learn common groupings of those letters over years of practice.  Recognizing letters alone is not reading, one must recognize words, and understand how the words are put together to form coherent thoughts.  In music, we must learn to recognize notes, and then learn how those notes are put together to form intervals, and finally, how intervals are used to form coherent musical ideas.

Note By Agonizing Note

Most young students learn music from a combination of memory and note spelling.  The teacher plays the piece when it is introduced, and later, at home, he plunks it out until he can recreate approximately how it sounded.  At the next lesson, minor mistakes are corrected.  This technique is supplemented with various mnemonics for identifying notes on the staff, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine (where the first letters are the note names of the lines on the treble staff), or FACE, (the spaces of the treble staff), etc.

The problem with this strategy is that it does not scale to more advanced music.  When a student is learning beginner pieces, with one note sounding at a time, (mostly quarter notes and half notes), they can get away with playing by ear, because there isn’t much to remember.  But as the pieces get harder, it will be impossible to remember and they will have to fall back to the only other skill they know, note spelling.  This works, but it is agonizingly slow to go through a piece note by note, and this frustration is a big reason intermediate students end up quitting.  Imagine reading a book letter by letter, not only is it non-sensical (a letter doesn’t “mean” anything), it is impractical for a book of any significant length.


The human brain is incredibly good at finding patterns.  We cannot help but group things, seeing larger scale object rather than the aspects that create them. When reading a book, we perceive a word, not letters. Rather than windows, wheels, and a metal frame, we perceive a car.  Rather than seeing a football defense move as individuals, a quarterback perceives a zone blitz.  Operating on a higher level lets us process much more information than we could at a lower level.

How music is read

To read music, students have to learn to see the patterns that pitches create.

Level 1 Reading with Note Names

Level 1 – Note Names

Level 1 is identifying notes on the staff.  Initially this is done by learning specific landmarks.  The treble clef circles around “Treble G”.  The dots of the bass clef enclose “Bass F”, and the first ledger line above the bass staff, or below the Treble staff is “middle C”.  As the student progresses they will pick up the names of all of the notes.  If they have trouble with this, flashcards or mnemonics are very useful.


Leve 2 - Intervals

Level 2 – Intervals

Level 2 is quickly identifying the distance between two notes, the “interval”.  These intervals are given names, based on how many steps of the scale away the notes are.  I have my students write an arrow with a number next to it between every pair of notes in their music when they are starting out on the staff.  Sometimes I even introduce a piece of music by giving them a starting note and then verbally instructing them “Third up, step down, step down”, etc.

Level 3 - Patterns

Level 3 – Patterns

Level 3 is identifying larger scale patterns.  There are many types of such patterns (just as there are many sentence structures, many grammatical rules one has to learn when learning English or any other language).  The most useful to work on identifying are things like chord progressions, scales, accompaniment patterns.

Read music like a book

The world of music is so much richer, so much wider, and so much more satisfying with the ability to read music.  One adult student described it as follows:

Before I could read music, playing the piano was like snorkeling in lake Michigan.  Now, it is like scuba diving the great barrier reef!

photo credit: djwtwo via photopin cc

Why do kids quit piano?

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Quit Piano

Piano lessons don’t work out for everyone.  Unfortunately there are a few reasons a student may quit that could have been avoided.  Here are a few such reasons I’ve come across and what you might try before giving up outright.

1)  They never learn how to read music.

Many students learn a piece of music by listening to the teacher play it, remembering how it sounded, and then plunking it out at home until the piece is recreated from memory.  Further, they are often under the impression that music reading is the same as music spelling.  They learn to name notes on the staff with tricks like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “FACE”, and this will work when there are only a few notes per measure.   But as the music gets harder, it becomes impossible to accurately recreate from memory, and using note spelling (“note by agonizing note”) takes an excruciatingly long time.   There is just too much going on and FACE does not scale.  Reading music is about identifying patterns; things like scales, chords, intervals.  If this is not learned, the student will have a hard time learning new pieces as the pieces get harder, and the pain of learning a new piece will begin to outweigh the joy of playing it.

To learn to read music, start with intervals.  Have the student write the interval distance right in the music for a few pieces to get her used to the new approach.  Then do the same thing with chords, and higher level patterns.  With a little hard work they’ll be reading music before you know it.

2) They never learn how to practice

Improvement, progress, is not achieved during lessons.  Lessons are course corrections, and practice is the wind in the sails.  But many students never learn what practicing the piano actually means.  In lessons, students usually perform the pieces for their teacher and receive feedback, so the logical conclusion of many students is that this is what they should do during practice sessions.  Practicing is not performing, however.  Practicing is the repetition of isolated elements of a challenge (see this previous post).  Without structured practicing, a student will take longer and longer to learn pieces as they get harder.

To help students practice better, come up with a structured practice regimen.  Help them break the music into smaller, practicable pieces that they can master quickly.  Encourage students to allocate time and set small, well defined, achievable goals (such as, “By the end of today, I want to play this line of music hand separately at 120 bpm”, rather than “I will get better at this piece”).   Progress is powerful, once they see the results of deliberate practice it will be easy to maintain.

3)  They never wanted to play in the first place

If getting a child to practice is a daily fight, it probably isn’t worth the effort.  If a student doesn’t want to practice, forcing them will only make everyone unhappy.  I’ve seen   students pushed into lessons, despite not showing any interest, because the parent always wished they had taken lessons.  While it’s possible that the student may come to like it, usually this is not the case.  Rather, if you’ve always wanted to take lessons, take them yourself!  It is never too late to learn to play the piano.  Upon seeing the joy it brings you, your child may be inspired to do likewise.

4)  They had a bad first impression

Often in young children, a subject is personified with an early experience.  When they think of “math”, they think of a grouchy math teacher, or particularly dull homework that was too easy.  And this experiential dislike is transfered to the subject itself.   Music is no different. If a teacher is grouchy or unprepared to handle your child, your child probably won’t think very highly of music.

Try exposing your child to music in other avenues, go to concerts, sing her favorite songs as a family.  Bring up your child’s reaction with your teacher as well.  Hopefully they will work with you to engage your child in a more effective way.

Its true that music lessons are not for everyone, but hopefully you can avoid these pitfalls that might squelch an otherwise burgeoning musical education.

What other reasons have you encountered that could have been avoided?

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How I Learned Piano from Soccer Practice

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Soccer practice started with stretches.  Then small__5257670808we would run, followed by basic skills like dribbling, passing.  Next, game simulations, where we walked through game-like situations slowly.  At the end if there was time, we would scrimmage (split up into two teams and play).

Many students don’t really know how to practice piano. Unlike soccer, students usually only interact with their coach for a short period of time, once a week.  It is logical to simply perform the activities the teacher asks for in lessons, which is usually “play the piece”.  This is like learning to play soccer by just scrimmaging.  But scrimmaging is only one part of practicing.

Practice is the mindful repetition of isolated aspects of a challenge.

If you spent all soccer practice scrimmaging, you would gradually pick up the basic skills, but there would be a low ceiling on your improvement.  Some of the skills are simply too complicated to learn while your mind cannot focus entirely on them.  Piano is the same, and while a student is learning easy material, performance practicing is usually enough to learn a piece of music.  As their technique progresses, they will find performance practice increasingly frustrating, it will take a longer and longer to learn music, and often, the student decides the it is no longer fun and quits.

Students need to practice practicing.

When practice is framed as something different than performing, it is fun in its own way.  It is a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to be explored.

The below steps are also available here in a condensed handout form.

Steps to Effective Practice:

1: Warm Up 

This cannot be overstated.  Without warming up much of your practice is wasted.   Playing the piano is an athletic activity, it takes muscle control and stamina.  Piano technique is a unique use of the fingers, and before warming up, fingers are uncoordinated and sloppy.  This leads to making mistakes when you otherwise wouldn’t, and practicing mistakes is one of the worst habits of piano practice.  The exact method of warming up isn’t as important.  I usually suggest scales, improvising, or specific technique exercises.

2: Practice one thing at a time

Music is delightfully multi-dimensional.  At any given moment the pianist has to contend with harmony, melody, rhythm, and more.  When practicing, isolate each of these and practice one at a time.

  • Isolate the melody, playing it by itself, even as it crosses hands.

  • Isolate rhythm by clapping and counting the rhythms, or tap both hands on your lap, each following their own rhythm.

  • Isolate harmony by playing all of the notes in a measure at once.  The left hand is often a chord, so it is somewhat easy, but do it for the right hand also.  And do it in time, counting the measure and moving the hand to the next group of notes.

  • In music that has multiple melodies, such as a hymn, a fugue, a countermelody, isolate each of these voices.  Learn how they move, what they sound like, or they will lose their identity when layered with the rest of the piece.

  • As practicing progresses, isolate more complicated passages.  Start a measure before the problem area, and play until a measure after (these are usually awkward places to start and stop, that’s ok).

3:  Practice slowly, slower, and then finally, slow

Even when isolating elements, there is still a lot going on.  You have to go slowly and not make mistakes.  Making mistakes is counter productive, you are learning incorrectly, reinforcing the wrong muscle movement.  Find the hardest part of the piece, and go as slow as you need to to play that passage without a single mistake.  Metronomes are often very helpful in this, they will keep you honest (it is tempting to let yourself speed up).

4 : Get into the flow

Practicing really takes off when you let go and get into the moment.  This is the most abstract part of practice, but no less important for that.  It is like the feeling of swimming, before you start getting tired, but after your muscles stop complaining about the swim.  It is a very peaceful, zen like feeling.

To get there, I put pressure on myself to not make mistakes.  One way is imposing some kind of penalty for a mistake, like 5 pushups, on every mistake.  Another way is putting 5 pennies or similar on one side of the piano.  Every time a difficult passage is played successfully, a penny is slid across.  On a mistake, all of the pennies return to the starting positions.  Upon all pennies being slid (so, 5 times without a mistake), you move on to the next passage.

This raising of the stakes brings a focused intensity to your practice.  It forces you to really concentrate and not make mistakes.  For me, this leads to losing myself in the moment, to looking up and realizing that i’ve been playing the same passage for 15 minutes.  It is a very pleasant realization.

5:  Other suggestions

  • Write in finger numbers, and use the same fingers every time

  • Practice a piece back to front (in phrases)

  • Write everything down.  ”don’t make this too loud”, circle problematic passages, label chords and and write in beats.    (One side note, I usually don’t write in accidentals found in the key signature as I want students to learn to play in a key.  Rather, I’ll create an eyeglass symbol to remind them that there is something tricky about that measure.)

  • Practicing 15 minutes every day is much better than practicing 2 hours once a week.

What children find the most rewarding is accomplishment.  If they come to see practice as its own kind of skill to be learned, they will find much more joy in it, and they will do it more.  And it makes the scrimmaging, the performing, all the sweeter.


photo credit: Keoni Cabral via photopin cc