Are scales really necessary?

Somebody recently wrote to me asking, “Are scales necessary to learn if all you play is old-time music?”

The short answer is no

…but scales will help you tremendously. And you might be surprised by how fun they can be.
Maybe you had a bad experience with a draconian music teacher. And now you fear and despise scale practice.
In theory, there is no reason why you couldn’t learn tune after tune without ever playing a scale. You could even become a master with very little scale practice.
Here are some things you could do to make that happen:
  • Play every day
    • Of course, you also have to practice well. But you’ll get nowhere if you don’t actually play regularly, right?
  • Micro-practice
    • Play small bits of a tune in a continuous loop until you master them.
  • Listen deeply
    • Listen to a tune until you can hear it in your head.
    • Hearing a tune in this way is called audiation.
    • You can actively practice it by playing something, and then pausing to “hear it in your head.”

Do it anyway, but make it fun

All that said, I highly recommend scale practice to fiddlers of all levels. Working with scales helps you to learn faster, pick up tunes more easily, sound better and have a deeper understanding of music.
A lot of fiddlers and young violinists get turned off to scales. It just doesn’t seem like fun! Having to read pages of scales until you go cross-eyed:
But if you approach scales like a fiddler, they become fun. Treat scales as simple tunes that you come to know really, really well. And when you get bored of them, do something to reinvent them and make the process fun.
  • Play with a drone.
  • Add a rhythm.
  • Play a melodic pattern up and down the scale.
    • Scales start to sound like tunes when you add patterns.
  • Practice your double stops.
  • Alternate between a scale and different tunes that use the scale.
This last practice will help you to hear the scale in the tune. And if you can do that, then when you hear a new tune, you’ll eventually be able to figure out what scale that tune is in. This will help you to learn the tune more easily. It will also help you to play the back-up chords for the tune.
Everyone is different. Different interests, habits, opinions, lifestyles, etc. What works for me in my practice may not work for you. Somehow, find a way to make the process of learning and practicing music joyful. If you do this, then you naturally play every day and instantly reach the goal of being a musician.


How To Make Scales Fun

What are the best scales to learn on the fiddle?

How To Make Fiddle Practice Fun


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11 responses to “Are scales really necessary?

  1. Jason, I’d like to start from the beginning again. I am pretty proficient in first position but I’d like to go through all the basics again. I’ve been away from my fiddle too long.
    Thanks, Cynthia Tuck

  2. Thanks for this post, Jason. I like to just work on tunes, but I know scales are important to my learning, so try to do both. What has kept me playing scales are all you scale variations. They help to take away the boredom and make the scales much more fun.

    Sometimes, I make up silly 8 word (or 8 syllable) “songs” that I sing as I do my scales. i.e. “To-day is go-ing to be great” or “Scales are fun to prac-tice each day” or “I can’t scratch my nose when I play” or “Ja-son is a sil-ly teach-er”. I sing them up and then back down the scale. Then when I bring in variations, it gets a bit crazy. i.e. triplets…I-don’t-know | what-to-do | when-I-go | to-the-zoo | should-I-free | all-I-see | so-there-can | be-care-free. Yes! A little crazy, but fun.

  3. Newsflash: this morning, before reading these comments, I trimmed my beard.

    Also, I can’t emphasize enough that i LOVE scales. Really. Some days i just play scales with a drone.

    But what works for me doesn’t work for everyone. There may be some jaw-dropping old-time fiddler who learned to play by mastering tunes and who didn’t really play scales.

    But if you can find a way to make scales interesting and fun, they accelerate your learning. They help you make connections between tunes. They help your fingers, ears and brain map out new tunes.

    How can you make scale practice fun?

  4. I play scales every morning for half hour before starting real practice on tunes, bow strokes etc. scales make you more versatile in any type of music I think. Good way to work on bow strokes And different rhythms.

  5. RE: Playing with a drone.

    Darol Anger has a cd of shruti box drones in all the keys. As I was not happy with my intonation, I practiced by setting one of the tracks for one of the keys on repeat and for a full hour did nothing but play the notes in the scale and listening to the interval between the drone and what I was playing. I’ve done this in the major keys for fiddle tunes: G, D, and A.

    The best exercise I’ve ever done for intonation.