Scales, Arpeggios and Technical Work

Not experienced good things with scales and arpeggios? You are not alone. Let’s address some of their issues and reconsider their purpose, focusing on pianists.

Negative thoughts

  • Initial dread for ‘that part’ of the music lesson/exam.
  • Boring things without melody or substance.
  • Time consuming to learn SO MANY.
  • Why are there so many keys?!
  • I can’t see a reward paying off anyway.
  • They sound dreadful when they are incorrectly played so why bother practising?
  • They do everyone’s heads in who listen to the practising of them.

Listed above are all perfectly valid reasons. However, for a moment if you look beyond these negative barriers there are actually a lot more positive aspects to learning these things, whatever tuned instrument you learn them on.

Scales & Arpeggios Positives +

  • Like kettle balls at the gym, these warm ups help build core strengthening (for your fingers)
  • Warming up is important. Without stretches, going on a massive run could damage your joints and ache some muscles. Scales and arpeggios effectively warm-up the hands before you take into a learning a new Sonata.
  • Short cuts. Hard to see initially granted, but I now identify the short cut rewards in practising these technical exercises. Those who learn the suitable fingering and common fingering cross-overs will find it feels more natural and looks a lot tidier than those who avoid it. They will find it easier and faster to sight-read music and learn pieces than those who randomly plonk the fingers where s/he chooses only to be tripped up when running out of fingers for the last semiquaver in the bar.
  • Dexterity – including that non-writing hand’s ring finger that doesn’t like to work as hard. Since such intense movement of the fingers is required when playing a musical instrument, dexterity is important. We can all use our fingers at varying speeds to type on a computer keyboard but due to its design, we do not need to move our arms as much as is required certainly for keyboard musical instruments. Not just dexterity then but also exercising the moving our arms when practising on larger instruments such as piano, double bass.
  • Analysis and accuracy at speed reading. Skim reading is a useful skill. For example, absorbing the jist of the news is an asset to get to grips with the main points of day-to-day events more than just the bare headlines. Our brains have a lot of inforamtion to sift through all the time. I recall being shocked at the awesome speed in which my diploma piano teacher sight-read 2 movements of a Beethoven piano sonata with hardly a mistake as if he was reading a book. Who wouldn’t want to be that guy?
  • Mindfulness. I think this word has been over-used lately as it has been given a lot of clichés within social media. However, your brain cannot really allow itself to think about and process other thought distractions when learning F# major hands together at a presto speed. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that scales and arpeggios are a meditative practise in themselves alone, but I will later mention the effects they can have when developed into a melody.

Penny drops

That moment when the realisation of the need for these exercises becomes apparent. Like J.S.Bach’s first Clavier Prelude or Claude Debussy’s Dr Gradus ad Parnassum, the broken chords and scale patterns become woven in music that sounds like gentle waves of water flowing down a river (hopefully, with practise!)

I played those two pieces in succession yesterday and thought how similar they are not only in their tonality but the hand shapes required proved that playing arpeggios and scales are worth enduring for the distinctive pinnacles of both pieces.

Technical Exercises

Music examination boards appreciate growing resistance against scales and arpeggios in offering ‘technical exercises’ as an alternative in the starter to the music exams. Likewise, if you want to reap the positive of today’s topic without constant chromatic and contrary motion fatigue, I recommend purchasing some good technical exercises books. There should be plenty of scales, chords and arpeggios mixed into more melodic exercises. The books, like a learner’s tutor book should develop in technical difficulty level the further you explore and should build in a variety of strength building exercises rather than broken chords in every key in the same style.


Firstly, I cannot recommend technical exercise books without stating my overall preference is a scales and arpgeggios book which I think no pianist should be without.

Above is the ABRSM Manual of Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords. This will see you through to diploma level and includes diatonic scales, octaves, double thirds, chromatic scale, broken chords of major and minor common chords, arpeggios of the major, minor, dominant 7th and diminished 7th and staccato sixth scale of C major. Fingerings are clearly noted and instruction as how each should be played are included. Cannot go wrong really!

To get the best of both worlds, try and pick n mix between the solid scales and arpeggios and technical exercise tunes as well. It is like an effective workout. Running is great. Weights are great. Put them together and you might start wolf-whistling at yourself. 😉

Technical Exercise Books

  1. A Dozen A Day (best for beginners and intermediate level warm-ups)

Starting at the beginning, beginners will be more comfortable familiarising themselves with legato, staccato combinations, scales, chords and focusing on mixing up step and leap notes as in ‘A Dozen A Day’ books. Really 12 daily might be too much for the younger beginners or those of us with lacking attention. As the books progress, more tecnhnicalities are included such as accidentals, larger stretches between fingers, keys with sharps and flats and crossing over of hands.

The books are available to buy individually but my photo is of one I like to use for my pupils’ sight-reading as it brings together a sample of exercises from the mini book, preparatory book, book one and book two. With the anthology there is now an Audio Access link which means if you purchase the book it plays the exercises so you can hear how they should be done. A super idea for the all learners.

2. Tuneful Graded Studies (Graded level books available, although challenging for grade listed. You might want to try a level down.)

The Tuneful Graded Studies book has exercises written by various composers. I like this book because there is a specialised focus on what each exercise hopes to achieve. For example, in the Volume 4 book pictured (for grades 5-6)  some exercise names are titled; ‘agility in scales for left hand, extended broken chords right hand, brilliance and decision of touch, part-playing, quick repetitions with changing fingers, lateral wrist freedom. Although the book suggests grade 5-6, this would be hard for someone beginning grade 5 so I would select the level down in this series.

This book is equally suitable for sight reading practise (grade 5-6 book for grades 7-8) as there is such a variety of mirrored patterns which almost purposely try to catch you out and sight-reading is such an essential skill to build on. Not one for an early morning practise if you feel sleepy though! It also includes metronome markings for those who like to ensure their counting is steady and tempo is appropriately set.

3. Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist. TECHNICAL!

This book’s contents were originally printed in 1900 and exercises do not look too scary at first glance as right and left hands seem to move together in most exercises symmetrically. However, on closer inspection the fingering and notes within a repeated pattern change about regularly, making you feel after a while like you are looking for Wally in between all the semiquavers to see where to set that pinky finger! I haven’t completed this book yet when I do I hope to be the virtuosic as it suggests.

The introduction of the book opens with the words “The study of the piano is now-a-days so general, and good pianists are so numerous, that mediocrity on this instrument is no longer endured.” In determining where the composer is coming from, he prints his recommendation to directors of boarding schools that the studies are taught to pupils. I can imagine his lessons were not to permit display of joy in the pupil. Nonetheless, the studies are technical, and that’s what I am looking at in this line up.

4. Forty Daily Exercises- Carl Czerny

I admire Czerny’s brain power. It takes an artist to lure you seductively into thinking something is easily playable in the first 2 bars and once proceeding, sensing it will be impossible in the next 20. Then he writes things above the exercises such as “Each repeat 16 times” yet you’re counting one ‘exercise’ has already got 10 repeat signs marked! I have a suspicion he had not much time for a social life, Mr Czerny, expecting such time set aside daily for lengthy exercises.

Nonetheless, if you have been inspired by pianistic virtuosos and fancy yourself swinging your suit tails behind you atop the piano stool facing a Steinway grand in a concert hall…. You might want to get to grips with some of the contents here. I won’t lie though, I shall not be doing 40 of them daily with the repetitions marked. I quite like to play musical pieces as well as exercises and I doubt the average day would ever permit both.

5. The Art of Finger Dexterity- Czerny

You might wonder why I included 2 books by the same composer. Really, it would be wrong of me not to! This guy was a child prodigy, taught by Beethoven and performed Beethoven’s piano concertos as requested by the man himself. Czerny played piano from age 3 and composed from the age of 10. Another Austrian musical child genius. He taught Franz Liszt and his musical output was varied and numerous. He took time to write a great collection of technical exercises and document these for our benefit.

Similar to the tuneful graded studies, Czerny’s book on finger dexterity outlines various specific strength building exercises with terrific titles such as; ‘minor scales in rapid tempo, practise in passing under the thumbs, double-mordent exercise, the utmost velocity in chord passages and uniformity in raising the fingers’ (the latter of which you might feel like doing to the piano after practising this one, but bear with it!)

Having revised my familiarity with these latter books I now think scales and arpeggios are the easier way of going for warm ups than Hanon and Czerny would allow us. Mastering each would be the best in an ideal scenario.

What has been your experience with scales and arpeggios? If you have any tips or further recommendations of your own please do share.  

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