The C major scale is a major stepping stone when you are learning piano. It usually the first scale that beginner pianists learn. Today I am going to teach you how to play a C major scale on the piano! I’ll show you which notes you need to play, which fingers to use, and what it looks like on the staff too.
Why Learn Piano Scales?
Scales are just one of those things. You need to learn them. But they can be boring to practice. So why learn them anyway? If you’re going to put the time in, you might as know why they are so helpful.
First, scales build finger dexterity. You may not be able to tell now, but scales will help you in the future when you go to learn harder songs. Because you’ve done scales, your hands and fingers will be more prepared.
Second, they will you get a much better feel for the piano overall. The piano is not just 88 keys lined up in a row. No. It is a language of different keys—keys with 1 sharp, keys with 5 sharps, keys with flats…and the list goes on!
Learning your scales will help you also learn the keys practically, rather than just having head knowledge from doing a written music theory book.
So, are you ready to get started with your first scale?
Starting with C
C scale is typically the first scale we learn because it is all white notes. You don’t have to worry about finding any black notes. Once you get this first scale down, we can move onto other ones that use 1 sharp, then 2, then 3, etc. But C is the perfect place to begin.
Getting Used to Finger Numbers
Before you play the C scale, it is important to know your finger numbers. In the diagram below, you can see the piano finger numbers. They are pretty straightforward! Your thumb is finger #1, pointer finger is #2, etc. until you get to your pinky which is #5.
Make sure you master these numbers before moving onto the next step.
C Scale Piano Notes & Fingering
Now we can really get started by looking at the c scale notes on the piano. Below is a diagram that shows which notes are in the C scale. You’ll start out on C (surprise!) and work your way all the way up until you get to the next C!
Interestingly, C major is the only scale that uses all white notes. That is usually why it is the first scale you learn.
Now, you might’ve noticed in that diagram that I have the fingerings underneath the notes. This is where those finger numbers we just looked at come into play.
I also included little x’s to show where to cross your fingers. Because we don’t have 8 fingers, we have to cross some fingers over and under to play all 8 notes.
In the right hand, you’ll play your 1 (thumb) on C, your 2 (pointer) on D, and 3 (middle) on E. Then, tuck your thumb under your 3rd finger and play F. Now you’ve repositioned your hand so you can finish the scale! Continue as the diagram shows.
In the left hand, you’ll play all 5 fingers before you get to the cross. Once you get there, cross your third finger OVER your thumb so that your 3 plays A. Then, reposition your hand to finish with 2 and 1 on B and C.
When you come down the scale, you can follow the same fingerings provided on the diagram, just in reverse! The crossing/tucking will be opposite as well. The right hand will cross the 3 over on the way down, and the left hand will tuck the thumb under on the way down.
How do you know when to cross your middle finger or tuck your thumb? Well, if the finger number 3 comes first, you’ll be tucking your thumb under. But if the finger number 1 comes first, you’ll be crossing your middle finger over. Its as simple as that!
C Major Scale on the Staff
If you prefer reading music, here is what the C scale looks like in both treble and bass clef. You’ll want to practice each hand separately until you have each one down super well. Then, you can try playing them at the same time!
Some Scale Tips
If you are trying out the notes above and having some trouble, here are a few tips I’ve learned from helping students over the years:
- Don’t just use your fingers. I know this may sound strange, but it’s true: you need to let your wrist and arm help you! Everytime you play a note, bounce your wrist slightly instead of keeping it tight. This will make the whole scale sound better, and it will also make the finger crosses easier.
- Speaking of finger crosses, you really want to use your wrist to help with these. Some students try to use their elbow to thrust their thumb under, or lift half of their hand up very high—but trust me, this is not necessary. Do not life your fingers high off the piano when doing the crosses. Instead, just flick your wrist slightly in the direction you’re going, while making the crossing movement.
- Pay attention to fingerings. Seriously. There is no point in learning scales unless you are doing the correct fingerings. If you’re just guessing or doing it however you feel like it, the scales won’t actually help you progress.
All major scales follow a formula as far as intervals go. Here is this formula: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. The W’s stand for “whole step” and the H’s stand for “half step.
So written out the long way, the formula is: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step.
You can use this formula any time to figure out a major scale!
When you use this formula, it also creates a relationship between the tonic (the very first note) and all the other notes. An interval can be formed between the tonic and each note of the scale. Here’s what that looks like for C major:
- Tonic: C
- Major 2nd: D
- Major 3rd: E
- Perfect 4th: F
- Perfect 5th: G
- Major 6th: A
- Major 7th: B
- Perfect 8th: C
Another way to look at a scale is by “degrees.” Here are the scale degrees for the key of C:
- Tonic: C
- Supertonic: D
- Mediant: E
- Subdominant: F
- Dominant: G
- Submediant: A
- Leading tone: B
- Octave: C
Triad chords in the key of C
Did you know a chord can also be built off of EVERY note in the C scale? That’s right! It is a great exercise to practice finding these chords in each key. For C it is pretty easy since there are no sharps and flats:
- Chord I: C major (notes are C – E – G)
- Chord ii: D minor (notes are D – F – A)
- Chord iii: E minor (notes are E – G – B)
- Chord IV: F major (notes are F – A – C)
- Chord V: G major (notes are G – B – D)
- Chord vi: A minor (notes are A – C – E)
- Chord vii: B diminished (notes are B – D – F)
How to Get Better At Playing the C Scale
When you first try out the C scale, it may be harder than it looks. You may see videos of people playing it quickly and easily. But the truth is, this will take time.
The C Scale may not come naturally to you at first, and that is totally okay. Sometimes I spend a few weeks working on just the C scale with my students before the notes and the crossing of the fingers finally clicks.
So take your time and practice slowly! Do your hands separately and focus hard on the notes and the fingerings. You can do it!
Scales to Learn Next:
Once you’re done learning the C scale, you can move on to more difficult scales with flats and sharps! Here’s a master list you can work through one by one. These are not in chronological order, but rather in order of progressively more sharps and then flats.
More Music Theory:
- How Many Beats Are in a Whole Note
- Learn the Order of Flats & Sharps
- F# Major Chord
- G# Major Chord
- D# Major Chord
Practicing the C scale is a wonderful first step to take when you are learning piano! Scales are a great way to warm up your hands and get down technique. Make sure to always run some scales before practicing any kind of song you’re working on!