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Scale Practice Patterns

Scale practice motivation - a recap

Dexterity means finger swiftness and accuracy. Good musicians, whether pop, jazz or classical, practice playing up and down the notes of their instruments quickly and evenly - so that they can play the notes they want, when they want.

Playing scales is also an essential part of learning keys. Efficient scale practice should accustom the musician to the ‘look and feel’ of the advanced keys, and knowing the keys is essential is you want to be a ‘really useful’ musician.

Musicarta scale practice patterns are a way of learning and practicing scales efficiently, so you won’t spend hours slogging mechanically through the scales without getting what’s useful to you as a musician out of it – from the word go.

If you are coming back to the piano later in life, Musicarta’s new and scientific approach will show what it was you were learning in your early lessons, and help you reap the benefit of the hours you invested.

If you’re a young(ish) Musicarta fan and can’t see the point of practicing scales, try to let Musicarta’s different approach persuade you to look again. Nearly every proficient musician will tell you that, in the end, scale work was an essential part of their success. If in your musical day you have time for absolutely nothing else, ten minutes’ patterned scale practice will "keep the dots connecting".

This module

The first part of this module addresses key signature.The second part of the module explains (skip to) scale fingering.

This material is in the key of D because it also forms part of the Musicarta Canon Project digital download, and Pachelbel’s Canon is in the key of D major.

D major shares the same fingering pattern as the C, G, A and E scales (the 'Group One' scales). Scale practice pattern work in D major applies to all these other scales.

The bulk of the module presents a basic collection of (skip to) scale practice patterns. Adding rhythm and contour to scale practice hugely multiplies its value - and enjoyability.

The scale practice patterns are presented as line-diagram ‘cues’ for note-free practice, and are intended to be used to practice scales in all other keys.

The key signature

The black keys necessary for playing ‘in a key’ are indicated in the key signature.

In D, all notes written on the lines or in the spaces shaded in the diagram above (any F or C, in fact) are played on black keys F sharp and C sharp, which replace white keys F and C.

For clarity, only two sharps are shown on each clef. The rest are understood.

This diagram shows one octave of D major scale-tones. It could be anywhere on the keyboard.

The replaced white keys F and C have been greyed out, along with the black keys you do not use. This is how the well-schooled keyboard player sees the keyboard as soon as he or she sees the two-sharp key signature.

(Note that, if a key signature shows two sharps, they are always F sharp and C sharp.)

D major scale fingering

The main reason for learning scales in keyboard playing is to learn keys. If you know your D major scale, you know what the key of D major ‘looks like’, and you will be much less likely to play wrong notes.

Here is our sample octave of D major showing which fingers play which notes. (Use keys in the middle of your keyboard if you want to experiment.)

There are eight notes in the octave but only five fingers on the hand, so we have to play a group of three fingers as well as the handful of five:

This means you have to pass the thumb under or the third finger over to play the full octave.

In the scale practice patterns that follow, you will use these piano keys and fingers, around middle C.

Scale practice patterns

The thumb-under movement, hands separately

Practice the right hand thumb-under movement three times, then complete the octave.

Practice the left hand thumb-under movement in the same way. You will play from the top.

Thumb under, hands together

The main challenge when playing scales with both hands together is that there is a third-finger-over or thumb-under movement in one hand while the other hand is playing simple 1–2–3–4–5 or 5–4–3–2–1.

This is something that needs practice. Here is a study for this challenging movement.

You run up and down the first five notes of the D major scale, hands together, using the actual scale fingering. The right hand practices the thumb-under and third-finger-over movement (complicated) while the left hand just plays from one side of the hand to the other (simple).

Note: You can practice the right hand on its own first if you need to.

The thumb-under/third-finger-over movements are still boxed, but the black key F sharp is not circled. Both third fingers play an F sharp.

Practice until the fingering is ‘in your hand’.

Next, we use a similar study for the top five notes of the scale, where the left hand does the ‘complicated’ movement and the right hand is ‘simple’.

The black key in this part of the scale is C sharp – right hand finger 4 (RH4) and left hand finger 2 (LH2).

Rehearse thumb under, then all the way

Rehearse the first five fingers, then run up to the top of the octave. You will run out of left hand fingers – this is where you bring your third finger over.

Play from the bottom first.

Practice the pattern from the top down as well.

One octave hands together

You have rehearsed the thumb-under component of the one-octave scales. Now play one-octave scales, hands together, from the bottom to the top.

Stop at the top briefly before playing again.

Play from the top down.

Play one octave up-and-then-down.

Play one octave down-and-then-up.

 Revise your motivation for learning scales

All music is in a certain key. On the piano keyboard, this means using some of the black piano keys instead of some of the white piano keys. These black keys are indicated in the key signature at the start of a line of keyboard music.

To play the pieces or songs you want, you will need to be able to play in lots of keys – certainly C, G, D, A, and E majors (the ‘sharp’ keys), and also in F, B flat and E flat (the ‘flat’ keys).

Playing scales is a tried-and-tested way of learning keys – avoiding the ‘wrong note’ white piano keys and playing the necessary black keys instead. Learning scales is not a ‘jumping through the hoops’ task – it’s about becoming a better musician.

Top musicians can play the notes on their chosen instrument quickly, one after another. Practicing scales and finger exercises (lots) is part of acquiring this finger dexterity. Do it for yourself – and put the hours in early on in your musical career, if you can!

Playing scale practice patterns by shape

The idea behind scale practice for the modern popular music keyboard player is the get the keys into the fingers, and the less written music involved, the better. It is therefore a good idea to learn to practice scales from scale practice pattern ‘shapes’, rather than from notes.

Look at this scale practice pattern (which you have already played):

The pattern can be represented by this line diagram:

The pattern runs up and down the first five notes three times, then all the way to the top. Play the audio performance again to see how the line diagram represents the pattern.

The next practice pattern does the same thing, but upside down – from the top.

As a line diagram, it will look like this:

Play the audio and/or the MIDI file again to see how the line diagram represents the pattern.

Other scale practice shapes

As line diagrams, other scale practice patterns you have encountered in this module so far will look like this:

NB: RH and LH mean ‘Play with the right hand (or left hand) alone’. LH/RH means ‘Play with hands together’.

Play the scale practice patterns in D major from the line diagrams alone. You yourself have to remember two things:

  • The black keys, F sharp and C sharp, and
  • The scale fingering – where the thumb passes under or the third finger over, in each hand.

Check, using the audio and MIDI performance files, that you have got it right. If necessary, scroll back and check the scale practice patterns music.

Here is the next set of scale practice patterns:

You want to be ‘seeing the key of D in the keyboard’ – no white key F’s of C’s, but black-key F sharps and C sharps instead. Here’s the ‘virtual D’ keyboard again:

Check your scale fingering

If you’re working on your own, only you can say if you’re using the right fingers or not. You know you’ve gone wrong with the fingering somewhere if you:

  • Run out of fingers with notes of the scale still left to play, or
  • Finish the scale with fingers to spare (that is, not on finger 5 or 1 in the key of D), or
  • Find you’re trying to play a black key with the thumb.

If that is the case:

  • Back-track until you identify your mistake – so you can correct it.
  • Practice the right way at least twice as many times as you played it wrong, to correct your muscle memory.

Collected scale practice pattern shapes

Here are the collected scale practice pattern shapes. RH or LH mean ‘Play with the right hand (or left hand) alone’. LH/RH means ‘Play with hands together’.

Playing scales from these patterns will reinforce your knowledge of the keys and improve your ability to see shape and pattern in music generally.

Written-out music for the last two line diagrams in this collection hasn’t been presented. To check your understanding, play the patterns from the line diagram alone, and then check against these audio performances.

You can use these scale practice patterns to practice any major or minor scale. Getting away from written-out scale music will greatly increase the value of your scale practice.

The D major fingering you have learned works for C major and the sharp keys G, D, A and E. All you have to do is start on the tonic (the name-note of the scale), and substitute black keys for white keys as shown in the key signature.

Download the practice pattern line diagrams here.

These scale practice patterns are in the key of D because that is the key of Johann Pachelbel's famous 'Canon'. Learning to play the Canon is an excellent springboard into keyboard creativity. Check out the Musicarta Canon Project, and see if it's the home study course for you.


Pachelbel’s Canon in D is perhaps the most famous chord sequence of all time, and the basis of dozens of popular hits. If you can play and understand the Canon chord sequence, there isn’t much in popular music harmony you won’t be able to figure out! Its regular structure also makes it a great springboard for improvising and composition.

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