Just mentioning flute scales to a student can make them shudder! It’s a shame, but so many players waste valuable practise time blundering through their scales as quickly as possible. But given the right care and attention, scales have the power to contribute to your flute playing in a way you never knew possible! By learning scales you are learning the language of music. And by making your flute scales beautiful, the pieces you play will automatically reflect this beauty. This article will explain how scales help to create music as well as the specific benefits they can provide in developing flute tone, a flexible flute embouchure, intonation and smooth, accurate fingering. Watch as I walk you through an example of how to approach learning scales in my video below…
What are scales?
Scales are simply collections of notes in each octave, and are the building blocks of music. In Western music, each octave contains 12 notes but typically only seven are used at a time in a piece of music. This is called the heptatonic system. Composers use a given scale to create melodies and harmonies. You can see the seven-note scale a piece is based on by looking at the key signature at the beginning. The collection of flats or sharps written in the key signature shows all (or most) of the notes that are contained within the piece (of course you need to watch out for exceptions!). Scales are usually written and played first in ascending order (each note increasing stepwise in pitch) and then back down again in descending order. Scales can be played within just one octave or repeated over two or even three octaves.
Types of scales
The spaces between notes used in heptatonic scales can either be whole steps or half steps which are known as tones and semitones. A tone is equal to two semitones. An example of two notes that are a tone apart are the notes G and A. The first semitone is G to G# and the second semitone is G# to A. the 12 notes in each octave are all one semitone apart from one another. Playing each of these notes in sequence is known as the chromatic scale. The patterns of gaps between the notes (called intervals) help to create different categories of heptatonic scales. There are many categories however for simplicity I will mention the two you will most likely encounter as beginner players – major and minor.
Major scales are often thought of as the ‘happy’ sounding scales. They are constructed based on the following pattern of tones (T) and semitones (S): T-T-S-T-T-T-S. There are 12 major scales (that begin on each of the 12 notes in any octave). The simplest major scale is C major, which has no sharps or flats in the key signature and is one of the first scales that beginners learn.
Minor scales are often thought of as the ‘sad’ sounding scales. The minor scales are a little more complex than major scales, as there are three separate variations of them – Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor. Each of these minor scales has a different pattern of intervals that they are constructed upon. The natural minor interval pattern is T-S-T-T-S-T-T. Hang on, you say… that looks familiar! You’re right – the natural minor scales follow the same interval pattern of major scales, but just starting on the 6th note. The A minor scale is the relative minor of the C major scale and vice versa, C major is the relative major of the A minor scale. They both share the same collection of sharps and flats, their key signature is the same and you’ve just learnt two scales at once!
C major – c d e f g a b c (the 6th note is A)
A minor – a b c d e f g a (starting on the A, we use the same pattern of tones and semitones to play the A minor scale)
The harmonic minor interval pattern is T-S-T-T-S-A2-S. Just to confuse you, this scale includes an augmented second (A2) interval (which is a gap of three semitones). The melodic minor scale is even more complex, having one interval pattern on the ascending notes (T-S-T-T-T-T-S), and a second interval pattern on the descending notes (T-S-T-T-S-T-T).
Technically, once you know the interval patterns of each type of scale, you can work out the notes you need to play. A handy resource that visualises the relationships between the 12 notes on the chromatic scale, their relative major and minor scales and their key signatures is called the ‘Circle of Fifths.’ (Google to have a look, but we won’t cover that in this article).
Variations on flute scales
Once we know a scale we can modify how we play it by leaping from note to note. Arpeggios, broken chords and scales in thirds are three ways we can do this.
Arpeggio is an Italian word that means ‘to play on a harp’. In a sense we ‘pluck’ selected notes from a scale that make up a chord – usually the first, third, fifth note (and eighth note or octave). Being a flute we can’t play chords like a piano or guitar – we can only play the notes one by one. Using C major scale as our example again, the arpeggio would be played as follows. C major – c d e f g a b c (the first, third, fifth and eighth notes that make up the C major chord are highlighted)
Broken chords go one step further and play the arpeggio notes over and over again, beginning on each step of the arpeggio – so cegc, egce, gceg, cegc. For scales in thirds, an interval called a ‘third’ is inserted between each note of the scale ce, df, eg and so on…
These variations of the scales really make us think of the scales in different ways, and prepare us for the leaps we would likely find in our music. As beginners these scale variations are slightly more advanced so we will first concentrate on learning the base scales themselves. If you plan on progressing through flute exams, these will be gradually introduced into the technical work you will be assessed on.
What are the benefits to practising your flute scales?
Because all (or most) of a piece of music is based on a scale, practising your flute scales and arpeggios means that you are practising the patterns of notes that you will find in your pieces. Don’t view scales as a burden on top of pieces that you are learning, but each scale is assisting you in playing your pieces better. Specific benefits include
- Learning new music will take you less time and sight-reading (playing an unknown piece ‘on the spot’) becomes easier.
- Ear training – as you learn the intervals between notes, you’ll be able to tell when they aren’t played correctly. For example if you make a mistake (accidently playing a sharp/ flat instead of a natural note) or if you are playing out of tune, which you can correct by adjusting either your playing technique of the configuration of the flute
- Muscle memory – by playing flute scales over and over again you will be able to make the finger movements almost unconsciously. All the little individual details you once had to think of when you were first learning to play notes in sequence (which fingers are up or down, balancing the flute, tonguing the note, timing of moving multiple fingers on both hands simultaneously) will morph into one fluid movement
- Co-ordination – scales allow you to bring multiple musical concepts together such as rhythm, articulation patterns, vibrato and dynamics. Once again, essential in making beautiful music.
- Improved sense of internal rhythm – by practicing to a metronome and by rewriting scales to include lots of different rhythms, counting will become second nature
- Improved flute tone – particularly by practising scales slowly you will learn which notes require more attention to produce better tone. This goes hand in hand with working on your embouchure shape and size over the scale. You will learn the adjustments you need to make to maintain good tone over the entire range of notes (from very low to very high).
How to approach practising flute scales
There are really no ‘rules’ when it comes to practising scales. Whatever your method, the outcome should always be to produce your best sound and to link in other musical concepts to make them more like a piece of music. Quite often it’s the mechanical way scales are practised that can make people dislike them so much! I’ve collated some of the methods used by players that may help you tackle them in a way that’s melodic, enjoyable and most productive. Watch below as I give an example of learning the F major scale. I recommend spending up to 20 minutes of your practise time on scales to get the most out of them.
Gill KZ, Purves D (2009) A Biological Rationale for Musical Scales. PLoS ONE 4(12): e8144. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008144