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why practice guitar scales

What’s the point of practicing scales on guitar?

Why bother with classical guitar scales, when I have so much else to practice?

Oftentimes in lessons, people ask why they should practice major scales on guitar. They wonder what they’re good for, and how they’ll be used.

It’s natural to want to know the payoff of whatever work we’re doing.

Scales take a lot of time and energy (especially on classical guitar), so it’s reasonable to want why we toil.  That’s what this article is about.

There are number of benefits gained from playing scales, from the physical abilities they promote, to the musical, theoretical and interpretive insights they can give to the music we play.

 

However, people at the beginning and intermediate levels of their classical guitar playing, especially if they do not know very much music theory, cannot actively use scales in learning and interpreting pieces. So scales can seem like a lot of work with no (or little) payoff. They seem just like a “busy work” chore that has been passed along through the ages (i.e. “My teacher made me do it, so you have to do it too.”).

Technical benefits of scales in learning classical guitar

At beginning to intermediate levels, or without knowing much music theory, the benefits are largely technical.  But these are huge.  Here are some benefits on the technical level:

Practicing your scales:

1. Develops muscle memory of common patterns. This is a great benefit. And learning classical guitar pieces, we frequently find very similar “shapes”or material. Having a reference in which to put these facilitates faster learning and better memorization.

2.Improves right-hand and left-hand synchronization. This allows notes to flow smoothly from one to the next, instead of being choppy or halting.

3. Leads to greater facility with right hand index and middle finger alternation. This skill is widely used in classical guitar music, especially in melodic lines.

4. Enhances string crossing using alternating index and middle fingers.  String  crossings are one of the most frequent stumbling blocks in getting pieces up to speed and in playing in a beautiful, flowing fashion. (It’s also one of the most frequent mishaps when playing for others.)

5. Provides aural training of how major scale harmonies sound. Many players find it easier to play by ear than to read notes, and some find the opposite to be true. Being able to hear and recognize what sounds correct allows us to bring this important sense into our learning process.  Scales help with that.

6. Builds speed and velocity, leading to dexterity and greater facility. As we practice our basic major scale shapes on the guitar, we are able to increase the speed with which we play them. This allows us to acclimate to “driving fast”.  This in turn helps us to bring the music we play up to tempo as well.  (If you can play your scales at 120, then playing this piece at 90 is not so big of a deal.)

7. Develops the ability to visualize complex patterns and shapes. One method of memorization that we use on the guitar is visual.  As we memorize and practice complex scale shapes, we get better at the process of recognizing and memorizing shapes. This skill directly transfers over to learning and memorizing new pieces.

8. Provides a measurable and definable goal, which leads to incremental successes and encouragement. We can quantifiably measure how fast we are playing or what we have memorized. If we track our progress, we can document and witness our results. Whereas in much of our practice, it becomes like watching grass grow (you know it’s happening but you can’t see it or notice it on a daily basis), quantifiable results allow us to track our progress and celebrate our incremental triumphs.

There are probably more that could join this list, but these benefits alone make it worthwhile to practice scales on a daily basis in your guitar practice.  However, even greater benefit comes when you use scales as a basis for learning practical music theory on the classical guitar.

The Strange Language of Music Theory

All western music is built around the basic structure of the major scale. Everything we think of as being music comes from major scales. They are the building blocks of our entire musical system.

Just as the alphabet is the basis of our system of reading and writing, major scales are the “alphabet” of music in the traditional Western sense.

  • Melodies and tunes are created using notes from the major scale.
  • Chords are made from certain notes in the major scale.
  • Harmonies are created from the progression of chords.
  • Songs or pieces are created from a combination of melodies and/or harmonies.

Most everything we do on the classical guitar basically comes down (theoretically) to scales.

Parallels of music theory and the alphabet

There is a definite parallel between major scales and the alphabet. There is no inherent value in being able to write the B or the letter C. But there is benefit in being able to convey an idea using words that are written using the alphabet.

One main challenge for beginning and intermediate classical guitar players is bridging the gap between being able to play scales and actually knowing what to do with them and how to use them as a tool.

To continue with the language analogy, it’s like knowing the alphabet but not being able to read or spell, form sentences, write poetry or tell stories.

Benefits of having an understanding and practical use of music theory:

  1.  The ability to see groups of notes as a logical group, as opposed to a string of separate entities
  2. Music theory is a tool by which to see the larger structures involved in a piece.
  3. Allows for greater ease in memorizing large pieces or sections of music
  4. A common language with which to communicate with other musicians, regardless of language or culture
  5. Music Theory helps you learn pieces faster on guitar
  6. Understanding music theory allows us to appreciate the complexity, sophistication, creativity, or simplicity of a piece of music
  7. Allows us to make connections between phrases or chord progressions in different songs. For instance, “This passage is similar to or identical to this passage in another song that I already know.”  This allows us to generalize our knowledge and experience.
  8. The theoretical structure of a piece  gives clues as to the phrasing and perhaps articulation. This allows for more effective musical expression.
  9. Overall, understanding music theory and its practical uses on the classical guitar allows us deeper insight and understanding of music in general.  It deepens our relationship with each piece of music that we choose to play.

The issue of how to learn music theory is beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that it’s a necessary part of a well-rounded musical knowledge, and worth the sustained effort it takes.

A valuable part of making theoretical knowledge useful in our classical guitar practice is simply ingraining the major scales into our hands and minds.  Knowledge alone doesn’t amount to much.  If it did, anyone who was proficient on any instrument could easily play classical guitar as well.  And this clearly isn’t the case.  It takes time and repetition to ingrain the patterns and techniques used to play scales.

So practicing scales, even without knowing why, provides you with valuable skills that can be built upon later.

The bottom line on guitar scales

So to sum up the question of why to practice your scales, it really just comes down to the simple answer of, “because it’s good for you”.

Do we really need to learn long division or how to spell, now that we have tools that will do it for us?  Yes, because it gives us a deeper understanding of our world and how it works.

In the musical sense, it’s like brushing our teeth or eating our peas and carrots. We do it because we know that we become healthier and stronger for it.  

If we can approach our scales with a good attitude and with specific challenges in mind (such as speed, smoothness, or dynamic shaping, etc.), then we progress more quickly and enjoy a richer musical experience.

Super-charging your guitar practice

If you also put a little daily time into studying music theory as well, then the technical benefits begin combining with the more intellectual benefits,and you become a much more well-rounded musician.

You learn pieces more efficiently and memorize them more quickly. You’re able to phrase your music more intelligently and have a tool with which to connect more deeply with both the music and with listeners.

Classical Guitar Scale Resources

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8 Responses to What’s the point of practicing scales on guitar?

  1. Margreet de Brie (Netherlands) May 28, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    Thanks for the excellent article, Allen. It’s so true what you write. I’d like to share a personal story. When I was in music school, my teacher never made me play scales. I dreamed of playing Bach’s Chaconne one day, but hardly made any progress. My teacher then recommended that I take a masterclass with John Mills (student of Segovia). The first thing he did each morning was making us play one of the Segovia scales together. After that I took lessons from a concert guitarist (Juun Voorhoeve, Nederlands Gitaarduo), who also made me play scales.
    Within a year I could play most of the Chaconne variations! I recognized the major and harmonic/melodic minor scale patternwhich helped me enormously to memorize the variations and helped so much understanding the music better.

    • Allen May 28, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks so much for the story, Margreet!

  2. Patrick May 28, 2016 at 3:29 am #

    Very glad to have subscribed to this course “alla carta” and I feel it is a really good plan for many of the raisons and benefits you explored so well ! It is also a warm up, the way to place correctly the left hand and to learn firstly the shapes, then all the keys little by little… Morover this course learn us on many others tips, advises, music theory ( fifth’s ) … A great deal, but a great treasure for life also ! I was won with this exellent course, patrick

    • Allen May 28, 2016 at 7:55 am #

      Thanks Patrick, that’s great to hear! I love them, too.

  3. patrick February 27, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    hi Allen, very interesting topic about technical benifs when we practise scales …. as mentionned in your eight points of view …..For numerous years, there has always had for me a very bad will to work on them…. but one month ago , i decided to question myself and to follow books scales on these practise.
    As always the way you explain things is very convincing, and invite us to put into assiduous practice….because you open us eyes.
    So thanks a lot for your sharing ! patrick

    • Allen February 27, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

      Thanks Patrick,
      Good luck with them! I’m sure if you give them a bit of time, you’ll see a big difference in your playing.
      All the best,
      Allen

  4. mark June 21, 2015 at 4:59 am #

    Thank you Maestro Matthews! It’s all starting to make sense a lot better now. You really have a great knack for explaining things… especially when there’s so much to explain! I nominate you for the Best Guitar Instructor in the World Award!!!

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