5 Ways to expand a Simple Scale Exercise

Jack Keough Updated by Jack Keough

Learning scales is fundamental for any musician. After all, scales are the building blocks of music. Practicing them until they become second nature is important, but getting to that point takes a lot of repetition, which can be tiresome for students.

As a music teacher, you understand that scales are like palettes of paint.  At the surface level they appear to be a simple collection of color, but with them you can create worlds and evoke emotions that words can’t describe. 

Typically students are asked to play them in endless drills up and down every key in every octave. That's good for memorization but it might not show budding musicians how scales become songs.  You can give students new ways to think about scales by suggesting new ways to play them.

Expanding scale exercises to incorporate rhythm, melody, modes, and fingering skills makes them more challenging, more educational, and more fun. 


One engaging variation on scale drills is expanding a basic scale into exercises that follow different rhythmic patterns. Playing a scale in many different rhythms will give students a sense of how these patterns are used in melodies. 

A beginning rhythm exercise is playing the entire scale with Whole, Half, Quarter, or Eighth notes. After that, you can vary the rhythm within the scale. For example, play a Half note followed by a Quarter note or try the whole thing in Triplets. If your student is into jazz, have them swing the scale. Exercises like that add real-world depth to scales since those rhythms are similar to the kind used in the context of a song or composition.


Melodic patterns are also a great way to create variety in your scale exercises. These patterns can help teach the concept of moving a motif around a key. You can introduce this concept to students with these three patterns:

  1. Skip up, step down
  2. Step up three, step down one
  3. Step down, skip up

Backing Tracks

A really fun way to enhance your scale exercises is to use a backing track. For one thing, playing with a backing track will make your student feel like they're playing a solo in a performance. It's like karaoke for scale practice!

For another thing, backing tracks give young instrumentalists musical context for scales. They'll hear how the notes figure into harmony, rhythm, and timbre. On top of that, they add depth through the emotion evoked in a performance.

If you want more information about how to use backing tracks in lessons, check out our blog post called The Importance of Backing Tracks.


When students have mastered variations on rhythm and pattern, they can learn how to play their modes. Modes can be a daunting aspect of music theory. Try introducing it by having students start and end on the second note on a scale. This exercise can make them easier to grasp.

Technical Skills

Lastly, add a technical challenge for your students by assigning exercises in left-hand-only and right-hand-only versions. It's a good way to build muscle memory in both hands and encourage well-rounded fingering techniques. 

If you want to take the difficulty of this concept a step further, have students play the exercise with both hands at the same time. It's a challenge, but when a student gets it right, they'll feel like they've mastered playing a duet all by themselves!

There are many more ways to make scales more fun for music students. Try expanding your exercises, and see what you come up with! With a little imagination, you and your students can turn scale practice into beautiful music!

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