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Methods for memorizing major and minor scales.

Mastering your major and minor scales is a foundational requirement for music theory and music performance. You can greatly assist your mastery of scales by devoting time to them every day. The more types of memory you engage, the better your retention and internalization of the scales. Here is a brief presentation of ways in which you can learn and memorize scales:

Kinetic and Visual Memory

Many musicians learn their scales first on their instruments. For instance, I first learned scales and arpeggios on piano. Later when I studied bassoon I practiced them on that instrument as well. The controlled finger motions I learned with each scale were similar to mastering a dance or gymnastic routine. With more and more practice, I became a “micro athlete” who could progressively reproduce the routine (the scale) with greater accuracy and speed. I made use of kinetic memory –the finger patterns were thoroughly memorized.

Playing scales on piano has the added benefit of encouraging visual memory . Watching fingers move over the landscape of white and black keys also reinforces the scale patterns. Even if you are not a pianist, you will enhance your memory of scales by practicing them at a keyboard. The keyboard is a great tool for visualizing scales.

Cognitive Memory

Cognitive memory and theoretical understanding overlap as categories, but it will be helpful to separate them here for the moment. Remember memorizing your multiplication tables? Rote memorization is also effective for learning your key signatures. Music majors need to rapidly recognize all key signatures and this speed only comes with memorization.

You should be able to immediately do the following:

1) Reproduce the order of sharps and flats. (F#, C#, G#, etc.; Bb, Eb, Ab, etc.)

2) Recognize or reproduce the number of sharps and flats for every key. For instance, you should be able to state quickly that Ab major has four flats, B major has five sharps.

3) Upon seeing a scale written out with accidentals (no key signature), you should immediately know the key.

The tonic (note name) of the relative minor key is a minor third (three half steps) below the tonic of the major key. A minor scale is termed a “relative minor” when it shares a key signature with its relative major. I find it simplest to identify the minor keys by their relationship to the major keys. Of course, I have memorized the more common minor key signatures simply through repeated usage. However, I use the relationship of the minor third for rapid recognition of the minor keys.

Examples of Relative Major and Minor

Figure 1 supplies the major and minor tonics of the given key signatures. The first example with two sharps has D as the tonic of the major scale and B as tonic of the minor scale. The two notes are separated by three half steps (D to C#, C# to C, C to B). You can also find the major to minor relationship by counting down three scale steps including the first note: D-C#-B. Try verifying the major to minor relationship in the other two examples by counting down by half steps and by scale steps.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Music fundamentals 3: minor scales and keys. OpenStax CNX. Jun 19, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10717/1.2
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