How to make scales engaging to students via phonology

How to make scales engaging to students via phonology 



mass noun

  • The system of contrastive relationships among the speech sounds that constitute the fundamental components of a language.


Oxford Dictionary



Whilst talking about phonology, esteemed musical educator Paul Harris said that, “a concern for sound and for learning to listen to it musically and intelligently will connect with all things we understand as ‘aural’”.


For me, this includes scales. Scales should also be listened to with a concern for sound and aural awareness, even though they are not as obviously classified as aural compared to other piano playing activities.


Having said that, during aural tests, candidates are expected to be able to recognise scales and arpeggios and sing them back as part of short bursts within melodies. Therefore, teaching scales and arpeggios through singing before applying it to piano playing is recommended.


Many teachers recommend the sing then play approach. Solfa and songs that make intervals explicit are useful when learning scales and the intervals and tetrachords that they are made up of.


I have always found the phonology of scales to be beautiful. In my early years of piano playing, I was particularly drawn to minor scales. These helped me to connect with the sound worlds depicted in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the Bach Inventions, and Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. The minor scales even helped me to connect with mellower sounding pianos than the brightness of the Kemble that I play today. As I progressed in my piano playing, I would fall in and out of love with minor and major sounds. These, days I have learned to appreciate many sound worlds in addition to those in which I learned about during my own professional development.


I advise teachers to help their students understand scales through their sound worlds as this then makes scales fun. Activities that help students improve their coordination, finger independence and stamina while playing scales can also make this activity more enjoyable.

I will explore co-ordination; finger independence; and stamina when playing scales in a separate blog in the future.


Spotlight Student

Timothy Sellers, who recently gained a distinction in his Grade 3 ABRSM piano exam, is the Spotlight Student highlighted in this blog. Timothy says that, “getting a distinction has made me more confident not only in playing the piano but also more confident in myself.” What Timothy says here, echoes what Susan Hallam says about The Power of Music.


Hallam, P. S. (2015). The Power of Music (p. 93). International Music Education Research Centre (Imerc) Press. 

Harris, P. (2008). Improve Your Teaching Teaching Beginners A New Approach For Instrumental And Singing Teachers (p. 8). Alfred Music Publishing. 

McLachlan, M. (2014). The Foundations of Technique (p. 16). Piano Professional Series.

Moonlight Sonata

Moonlight Sonata

Ijeoma Mbubaegbu