Tag Archives: scales & arpeggios

how to practice major and minor scales and arpeggios on the piano

🇫🇷 → comment pratiquer les gammes et arpèges majeurs et mineurs au piano


As recommended in the Japanese edition of the Hanon (listed under the references section below), the scales are to be practiced between 60 and 120 BPM. Start at 60 and increase incrementally (no more than 2 BPM by 2 BPM). When you get to a given tempo on a specific day, begin your practice 4 to 10 BPM slower on the next day.


The proper fingerings, provided by Alphonse Schotte (who revised and expanded the original edition of the Hanon), are listed under exercise 39 for major and (harmonic) minor scales and arpeggios, and exercise 43 for melodic minor scales in the French/Belgian edition. In the Japanese edition, major and all types of minor scales are grouped together under exercise 39, while fingerings for the arpeggios can be found under exercise 41.

The scales are listed in order following the circle of fifths in both editions. Interestingly however, the different keys ascend through the cycle (C, G, D, A…) in the French edition, whereas they descend (C, F, Bb, Eb…) in the Japanese edition.

Note that minor scales usually have the same fingerings in their harmonic and melodic versions. The only notable exceptions are in the keys of C# and F# minor. When practicing melodic minor scales, make sure to play melodic minor ascending and natural minor descending, as indicated in the Hanon. For a review of the theory behind harmonic, melodic, and natural minor scales, see this post.


All scales and arpeggios should be practiced hands separate first (right hand and left hand on their own) and then hands together, going through the following steps without interruption:

  • up and down the scale over one octave in quarter notes
  • up and down the scale over two octaves in eighth notes
  • up and down the scale over three octaves in triplets (preferably twice to build strength)
  • up and down the scale over four octaves in sixteenth notes (preferably twice to build strength)

Finally, after performing these steps, all scales can be followed with these simple harmonic progressions also provided in the Hanon: IV6-I/5-V7-I for major scales and IVmi6-Imi/5-V7-Imi for minor scales.


Hanon, Charles-Louis. Le pianiste virtuose en 60 exercices. Bruxelles, Paris : Schott Frères, 1923-1929.

Hanon. The Virtuoso Pianist. Tokyo: ZEN-ON Music Co., Ltd. 1955.

the three kinds of minor scales in Western tonal harmony

🇫🇷 → les trois types de gammes mineures dans l’harmonie tonale occidentale

Natural minor

The natural minor scale corresponds to mode VI of the major scale, also known as Aeolian (for a comprehensive review on modes, see this post). In other words, it has the exact same notes as the major scale, but it begins and ends on the 6th scale degree of the major scale.

For example, the A major scale has the following notes: A B C# D E F# G# A. The sixth scale degree here is the note F#. F# natural minor is thus: F# G# A B C# D E F# (the same as the F# Aeolian mode).

Another way to look at this is to think that the tonic in any given natural minor scale is to be found a minor third below the tonic of its relative major scale.

For example, the relative minor scale of C major (C D E F G A B C) is A minor (A B C D E F G A). Indeed, there is an interval of a descending minor third between the two tonics, C and A (for a comprehensive review of intervals, see this PDF).

Harmonic minor

Most music students know that harmonic minor is “natural minor with a raised seventh.” But why do we call it harmonic minor? What exactly is harmonic about it?

Consider this: the chord built on the fifth scale degree in natural minor is a minor seventh chord (Emi7 in the key of A minor). To get a dominant-tonic relationship akin to the one we have in major keys (G7 to C for instance, with the tritone F & B resolving to the notes E & C), that minor third in the V chord needs to be raised by a half step. Vmi7 now becomes V7: a dominant chord with a major third (which is called the leading tone because it resolves up a half step to the tonic). With the scale reflecting this change in the V chord, we now have harmonic minor. That is: A B C D E F G# A in the key of A (here, the G# is both the leading tone of the A harmonic minor scale and the major third of its fifth degree, the E7 chord). Does that make sense? I hope so! And if it does, we can now move on to melodic minor…

Melodic minor / jazz minor

In the harmonic minor scale, the raised seventh creates an interval of an augmented second, a melodic “gap” so to speak, between the sixth and seventh scale degrees (some might say this results in an “exotic” or “Middle-Eastern” feel). This “gap” can be somewhat discomforting, particularly to a Western ear that expects a series of major and minor seconds, i.e. whole steps and half steps (as is the case in the major and natural minor scales).

Raising the sixth a half step (from F to F# in the key of A) makes the augmented interval disappear and “smooths out” the scale from an intervallic point of view. The result is what we call melodic or jazz minor. In A, we have: A B C D E F# G# A.

Looking at the scale from a different angle, one might notice that a given melodic minor scale would feature all the same notes as its parallel major counterpart, except for the third, which, of course, has to be minor (lowered by a half step when going from the parallel major scale to the melodic minor scale).

A note of caution: in classical music, the melodic minor scale is viewed as having distinct ascending and descending forms. Indeed, composers used to have recourse to one or the other, depending on the direction of their melodic lines. The ascending form (with both the major sixth and major seventh scale degrees) corresponds to what we simply call melodic minor — or jazz minor — in the jazz world. The descending form, on the other hand, corresponds to the natural minor scale (with its minor sixth and minor seventh). Thus we have, in A minor: A B C D E F# G# A G F E D C B A.


NameExample (in A)Remarks
Natural minorA B C D E F G AEquivalent to the Aeolian mode. Relative of C major (both scales share all of the same notes).
Harmonic minorA B C D E F G# APresence of the leading tone (raised seventh), which creates harmonic tension and yields the V7-Imi progression.
Melodic minorA B C D E F# G# AEquivalent to playing the parallel A major scale with a lowered third (minor instead of major).

These three different types of minor scales are commonly found in the Western tonal system. There are, however, myriad other minor sounding modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian for example) and scales (such as the Hungarian minor scale or the minor pentatonic).

pentatonics: the basics

🇫🇷 → pentatoniques : les bases

The term “pentatonic” comes from the Greek language: the prefix penta-, “five,” and the word tonos, “tone,” are associated to bring forth the idea of a five-tone scale.

There are of course many five-tone scale possibilities within the twelve-tone equal temperament system. We’ll focus on the most common pentatonic scale here and call it the “global” pentatonic¹ (this particular scale is indeed encountered in the musics of many cultures around the world).

[1] The global pentatonic is based on a succession of ascending fifths: C G D A E.

[2] Reordered within the range of a single octave, we have: C D E G A.

[3] The intervals formed by the tones of this scale relative to its root (C) are as follows:

  • a major second between C and D;
  • a major third between C and E;
  • a perfect fifth between C and G;
  • a major sixth between C and A .

Since all the intervals in this scale are major (except the perfect fifth), it is often referred to as the major pentatonic. What I call the scale’s “formula,” based on Arabic numerals² representing its scale degrees (as opposed to Roman numerals commonly used to represent chords that are built on each scale degree), is: 1 2 3 5 6.

[4] Just like the diatonic seven-note major scale (C D E F G A B), the major pentatonic’s relative minor scale can be built by playing all the notes that comprise the major pentatonic, beginning on the tone located a minor third below the latter scale’s root: A C D E G.

[5] The intervals formed by the tones of this new scale relative to its root (A) are as follows:

  • a minor third between A and C;
  • a perfect fourth between A and D;
  • a perfect fifth between A and E;
  • a minor seventh between A and G.

Since all the intervals in this scale are minor (except the perfect fourth and fifth), it is often called the minor pentatonic. Its “formula” is: 1 b3 4 5 b7.

To sum up, here are the important formulas again below (accompanied by examples with the note C as the tonic in both cases, for ease of comparison):

Major pentatonic1 2 3 5 6C D E G A
Minor pentatonic1 b3 4 5 b7C Eb F G Bb


¹ This terminology is used by Michael Hewitt in his book Musical Scales of the World (see Hewitt 2013).

² More accurately speaking, these are the numerals commonly used in Europe that stem from the Hindu-Arabic numeral system.


Hewitt, Michael. “Section 5: Pentatonic Scales.” In Musical Scales of the World, 125-134. The Note Tree, 2013.