Why Four-Octave Scales Are Overrated
In this penetrating article, Dr. Hall explains why playing major and minor scales the traditional way of four octaves at fast tempi is overrated and overvalued, and why piano teachers and students would be better off not spending so much time on them.
Most students and teachers of piano are well aware that playing major and minor scales and arpeggios four octaves is the “industry standard.” Colleges, conservatories, popular examination programs like ABRSM or RCM and others, as well as most university or conservatory trained piano teachers throughout the world regard four-octave scales as something like the “Holy Grail” of piano study. Basically, if you cannot play your scales and arpeggios four octaves at a fast tempo (or even at a slow tempo) you are often thought of as being sub-par in your pianistic abilities. Piano students spend countless hours trying to perfect their scales and arpeggios played fast and impressively four octaves up and down the keyboard. But does all of this practice really lead to musical results? Is this time well spent, or could this time be spent on other areas? I happen to believe the answer is “no” to both of these questions. I do not recommend four-octave scales in regular daily practice except as a supplement to the more important and practical one- and two-octave scales. Here is a list of eight main reasons why I believe four-octave scales are overrated and overvalued:
Many piano students who can play four-octave scales impressively and mechanically have a difficult time playing any given scale just one octave. I have witnessed this with transfer students who have followed traditional systems and studied with other teachers. They come to me with impressive scales played four octaves at a fast tempo, yet often cannot play any random scale slowly just one or two octaves, say, like G-sharp melodic minor. This is a big problem, and the way to fix it is to stop spending time on four octaves and focus on one or two octaves instead. It is better to play a scale slowly and musically at one or two octaves than mechanically and unmusically four octaves.
Many piano students who can play four-octave scales mechanically cannot play any given scale just one octave harmonized slowly a third or tenth above or sixth below. This is really sad. It is a phenomenon analogous to a “book smart” student of a foreign language who can translate 1000 nouns and verbs with flash cards yet has trouble forming intelligible sentences in a real-world conversation. Many scale books, like Alfred’s popular Complete Book of Scales & Arpeggios, go to the trouble notating the major and minor scales in thirds, sixths, and tenths, however the majority of piano students never play them and the majority of piano teachers never teach them. This is an unfortunate situation. These types of scales, which I call “harmonized scales,” are in my opinion the most valuable and practical of all types of scale exercises, since they train pianists to think in two dimensions rather than just one. Most scale passages in real music use scales harmonized between the hands in thirds, sixths, or tenths, rather than just using them in the familiar “parallel octaves” fashion. Moreover, these passages are usually no more than one octave and very rarely two octaves or more. Hence, this is all the more reason to practice and master these types of scales just as a foreign language student should practice reciting complete sentences. I implore piano students and teachers to begin taking harmonized scales seriously rather than just ignoring them in all the scale books. Harmonized scales in thirds, sixths, and tenths in all keys (including all three forms of minor) played one and two octaves are of utmost importance in the BachScholar® Piano Method currently being developed. Harmonized scales played at a slow to moderate tempo are not as showy and impressive as scales in parallel octaves twice as fast; however, the benefits are far greater in that students build a solid foundation in musical harmony and theory, fully develop their listening skills, and significantly improve their sight-reading skills.
Many piano students who can easily play four-octave scales and arpeggios fail when trying to play any given scale just one or two octaves slowly in contrary motion. I have had transfer students begin lessons with me who are supposedly “advanced” and can play four-octave scales in the usual parallel motion fashion, yet when I ask for, say a G-sharp minor melodic minor scale slowly in contrary motion just two octaves, they almost always fail. This is a sad, sad situation. Students who are “Grade 5” and up should know every scale slowly in contrary motion, including the sometimes confusing melodic minor scales, which are almost always neglected by teachers and students. My “ultimate litmus test” for scales is the black key melodic minor scales in contrary motion. For example, if a pianist cannot play F-sharp, G-sharp, B-flat, C-sharp, and E-flat melodic minor scales slowly in contrary motion for just two octaves, then the pianist really does not know his/her scales, even if they all can be played mechanically at a fast tempo four octaves in parallel motion. Many students who think they are “advanced” really are not because they really do not know their scales inside and out. The BachScholar® Piano Method currently being developed places a high emphasis on contrary motion scales played at a slow to moderate speed and with a non-harsh, singing tone. This is the only way to really know all the scales without faking them.
Many piano students who can easily play four-octave scales cannot sight-read or play after a week of practice simple pieces with four-part harmonies, such as a church hymn or lesser difficult Bach chorale. This observation has me absolutely befuddled. Please explain how a pianist is able to play a difficult work like Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu yet cannot play in any sort of musical fashion a standard hymnal version of Amazing Grace or similar basic four-part hymn. You might be laughing at this, but I have experienced it with students who are supposedly “advanced” and who play “virtuoso” pieces (usually pre-teen and teen age boys). There is something very wrong if a student can play the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” at a fast tempo yet cannot sight-read or play with any kind of musicality after a week of practice a basic four-part church hymn or easier Bach chorale. This is simply unacceptable, and is why the BachScholar® Piano Method currently being developed places a high emphasis on reading and playing four-part hymns and chorales. Hymns and chorales are “functional” and “practical” music that should be obligatory for all serious piano students, but unfortunately they are ignored or neglected by the majority of piano teachers and students. Most piano music is in some way indebted to four-part (SATB) writing, which I regard as the “foundation” of most piano music. For example, Schumann’s popular Träumerei is in strict four-part style, so if a student cannot play a four-part hymn or chorale well he/she will not be able to play Träumerei. Cascading up and down the keyboard with fast four-octave scales has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the playing of Träumerei or any other piece dominated by four-part harmonies. A pianist can have the fastest four-octave scales in the world, but this is no guarantee that he/she can play a simple church hymn or a four-part piece like Träumerei.
Except for some etudes or studies, scale passages of more than two octaves are very rare in the standard works of the piano literature. Peruse through complete collections of the most popular piano music, like the Chopin Nocturnes or Beethoven Sonatas, and count the number of times scale passages of more than two octaves occur. They are so rare, they can be counted on one hand. Now, take the same music and count the number of times chords and arpeggios occur. They are so frequent, you need over 100 hands to count them. This is why chord and arpeggio practice is much more valuable and practical than scale practice, and it perhaps explains the phenomenon in #4 above. Our current piano culture places too high of an emphasis on four-octave scales, yet they never occur in actual piano music. On the other hand, our current piano culture places too low of an emphasis on chords and arpeggios, which occur very frequently in actual piano music. Case in point: the most popular and beloved piano piece in history — Debussy’s Clair de lune. Spend an hour practicing four-octave scales in all the keys and then play through Clair de lune. Did all that scale practice relate in any way to any of the passages in Clair de lune? Absolutely not. Clair de lune, as well as Träumerei discussed above, do not contain one scale. A pianist can have the fastest four-octave scales in the world, but this is no guarantee that he/she can play Clair de lune.
Practicing scales and arpeggios four octaves takes two times longer than practicing them two octaves, and four times longer than practicing them one octave. Let me emphasize that I am not advocating eliminating scale practice, but simply the requirement of playing scales “four octaves” because it is unnecessary and superfluous use of practice time. Much otherwise valuable time could be dedicated to learning new music if the four-octave scale requirement was lessened to one or two octaves. In the BachScholar® Piano Method currently being developed, beginning through intermediate level students play one octave major, minor, and chromatic scales, while upper intermediate to advanced students play the same scales at two octaves (in parallel and contrary motion plus in thirds, sixths, and tenths).
The most beneficial aspect of scales and arpeggio practice is that of learning and solidifying concepts of music theory rather than “strengthening the fingers.” Ask most students and teachers why scale practice is important, and they will almost always refer to “technique” and “finger strength.” Almost never, though, do they refer to music theory. This makes no sense, since the primary objective for scale practice is to learn the theory or the “nuts and bolts” of all the music pianists desire to play. Scales constitute the “recipe” for chords, and hence, musical compositions. One learns scales because chords are all built or derived from scales, and most piano music consists predominantly of chords (either blocked, broken, or arpeggio style). In other words, scales consist of “horizontal” successions of notes, while chords consist of “vertical” stack ups of these notes. Since each scale note functions as a potential tonic note for a triad, practicing scales is really more harmonic (vertical) than melodic (horizontal). This is why I advocate practicing scales at a slow to moderate tempo and only one or two octaves, so that students hear and process each note in a more deliberate fashion. Scales should be practiced as if each single note were actually a complete four-part harmony like in a hymn or chorale. When practicing four-octave scales in the traditional fast and mechanical fashion, individual notes lose their meaning because the practice has become mindless and the pianist has become a “machine.”
Four-octave scales at fast tempi practiced ocassionally as “speed work” is far more beneficial than four-octave scales practiced all the time as a rule. Sprinters work on speed most of the time with some slower distance running added to increase endurance. Conversely, distance runners work on distance and endurance most of the time with some added speed work. I have a similar approach and philosophy to piano practice. Practicing four-octave scales at fast tempi must be understood as simply one “component” added to the main foundation of scale practice, which should be slower, more deliberate, and more harmonically oriented. This is because 95% of the music in the standard piano repertoire, as pointed out earlier, is based on chords rather than scales. The foundation of most piano music is vertical four-part harmonies, not horizontal scales. Why spend all the time on four-octave scales if it is not relevant to actual piano music? Why spend all the time on four-octave scales if this does not prepare one to play a basic four-part church hymn or Bach chorale, which is after all, the foundation of most piano music?
Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) — December 2018