Tip: Major Scale Patterns on Piano

We’re continuing our lesson series Playing Guitar by Ear, which is geared to newbies.

Last time out we talked about the helpfulness of learning at least on major scale pattern when you learn melodies by ear. Now let’s talk a bit about major scale patterns in reference to the instrument that’s best suited to learning to play by ear: piano.

When you play a tune by ear on the piano, and that tune is in C major without drifting off into other keys, you don’t need to learn any patterns: all you have to do is hit the white keys. If this isn’t the best-kept secret in making music, I don’t know what is. And I sure wish that all guitar teachers would take students who’ve never made music before, and show them how to pick out a melody on a simple keyboard first, before they even lay a finger on the frets or even think the word “theory,” or even crack open a music book.

I want to prove to you how easy it is to play a tune by ear on piano. We’re now going to play a simple Christmas melody, which I’ve arranged to stay within one octave, and within C major. That means you only have to work with seven different notes. These notes occur only on the piano’s white keys, and that means you can ignore the black keys. (To be totally honest, we’ll be using a total of eight white keys: the note C occurs in two different octaves in this melody.)

Here’s the melody.

Obviously, we’re going to need a piano to do this exercise. Don’t worry: if you don’t have a synthesizer, organ, or piano, you can use a simulated piano. There’s one online here.

Once you have the piano in front of you, it’s time to play by ear. Start by listening to the song several times, and singing along with it.

Now that you’ve listened to the tune a couple of times, let’s begin finding its notes on the piano. Remember we only have to play with the white keys, and there are only eight different white keys we’ll make use of. In fact, I’ll show you the specific piano key for the first note of the melody. Here’s an illustration that shows you the starting note.

Now that you have the first note, find the next one. How to do it? Sing the melody again to yourself. Sing slowly. Ask, “is this next note higher or lower than the previous note?” If it’s higher, you’ll try out a white piano key that’s somewhere to the right of the last note you played. If the note sounds lower, that key will be located somewhere to the left of the last note you played. The more text you read about how to do this, the more confusing this truly simple process will seem. If I were sitting next to you showing you how to do this, you’d get it in a second. As Gloria Estefan once observed in that beautiful tune, “The words get in the way.”

So, I’m going to shut up, and let you figure out the tune. Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – October 1, 2007 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.