Clarinet Scales

A scale is a run of all seven notes in a key in order, finishing with the 8th note which is the same as the first but an octave higher. When you reach the top note you can either carry on to the next note or go back down the scale to the bottom note.

Scales make up the building blocks of music, equipping you with the skills to tackle any piece.

Clarinet Scale

Learners of any instrument should recognize the importance of scales to their musical development. The clarinet is no exception, and you should practise your scales frequently.

Mastering scales will improve the fluidity of your playing and your breath control, which are both essential in becoming a quality musician. 

There are many different types of scales, from standard major and minor scales, to dominant and diminished 7ths. The higher you progress in your instrument, the more complex scales you will come across. Here, we discuss some of the common scales that clarinetists use and how to play them.

What Are Some Beginner Clarinet Scales?

Major Scales

Major scales follow the pattern WWHWWWH, where W represents a whole tone and H a half tone. For example, in C major, the notes are C D E F G A B C, because there is half a tone from E to F and from B to C. Major keys can be used to make music that sounds happy and bright.

C major scale is seen as the universal first scale to learn, as there are no sharps or flats in the key signature. This means that you only have to concentrate on the natural notes and play them all in succession.

You will likely learn sharps and flats once you have the naturals in place, which means that C major will be the only scale available to you at first. 

For a clarinet specifically, F major is perhaps even simpler for beginners, because the finger pattern is very intuitive. The first octave begins on the second-lowest note of the clarinet’s range, and then it is just a matter of releasing the fingers one at a time until you hit the next F.

When you get to the higher levels, it is definitely the easiest of the 3-octave scales you should know, and many clarinetists would choose F major as their favorite scale to play. 

G major has only one sharp (F sharp), making it pretty easy to play. The advantage here is that the bottom B is played with your right hand middle finger, which is the same way you play F sharp in the second octave. This gives it a sense of consistency and aids memory. 

Minor Scales

It is a good idea to move on to minor scales once you are familiar with some major ones. Minor scales sound more melancholy than the jovial major scales, and can often be heard in sad or eerie music such as funeral marches. 

There are 3 different variations of a minor scale: natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor. These perform a range of musical functions. The melodic minor is not the same on the way up as on the way down, and the descent is identical to a natural minor scale.

Melodic minors form the basis of many melodies in minor keys, while the harmonic minor commonly acts as a foundation for harmonies and chords. Minors are prevalent in all sorts of music, from classical to jazz.

Every major scale has a relative minor, which starts on its sixth note and has the same key signature. For example, the relative minor of C major is A minor, because A is the sixth note of the C major scale.

Therefore, A minor, D minor and E minor are ideal starter minors, as they are the relative minors of C, F and G major. 

To form the harmonic minor, play in the same key as the relative major, but sharpen the 7th note. The A minor harmonic scale is as follows: A B C D E F G# A. Notice how it sounds darker than the major.

D minor harmonic: D E F G A Bb C# D

E minor harmonic: E F# G A B C D# E

Be particularly careful with the Bb/C# transition in D minor, as this requires an awkward stretch that doesn’t sit easily under the fingers.

Arpeggios

An arpeggio consists of all the notes of a chord in that key, played in succession.. There are 3 different notes to each, which are the 1st, 3rd and 5th steps of the scale – for C major these are C E and G, and for C minor they are C Eb and G. 

Arpeggios are simple to learn once you know the relevant scales, as you just need to cut out the notes you don’t need. As with the standard 7-note scales, these should be as smooth as possible up and down.

What Are Some More Complex Scales?

Chromatic Scales

Chromatic scales are very useful for clarinetists to learn, as they contain every single note. Each step is an interval of one half tone, so the only difference is which note you start on.

Chromatic scales ensure that you really know the geography of your clarinet, and they can prepare you for impressive chromatic runs in your pieces.

Whole-Tone Scales

At some point you may be required to know how to play whole-tone scales. These are fairly self-explanatory; instead of following the usual major scale pattern, there is exactly a tone in between every note played. A whole-tone scale on C would go like this: C D E F# G# A# C. 

Whole-tone scales sound strange at first, as they do not seem to belong to a particular key and all the notes blur into one another. The good news is, there are a limited number of whole-tone scales to learn, as they all use one of 2 sets of notes.

The other set, e.g. starting on F, would be F G A B C# D# F. 

Whole-tone scales are frequently seen in impressionist music, and they are also useful for jazz improvisation.

Dominant 7th

A dominant 7th is similar to an arpeggio, but adds in the 7th note of the scale as well. Since the 5th note of a scale is called the dominant, that’s where you build your dominant 7th from, so a dominant 7th in the key of C would start on G.

You would then need a B, D and F to finish – it sounds just like a G major arpeggio, but is actually in C as the 7th note follows that key signature.

The dominant 7th creates a dissonance between the 7th and the tonic note, and was the first 7th chord to be used in classical music. When you hear a dominant 7th, you feel a strong urge for it to return to the tonic, so the resolution creates a sense of satisfaction for the listener.

Diminished 7th

A diminished 7th scale is more complicated, consisting of the root note, minor 3rd, diminished 5th and diminished 7th. If this sounds confusing, you can work out what notes you need by counting 3 half tones between each interval. For example, starting on C, the next note would be Eb, then F#, A and C again.

Diminished 7ths are used in music to create tension in a chord progression, or to transition into a key change. The chord usually resolves to the dominant, giving a sense of direction and pushing forward.

Fortunately, there are only 3 different diminished 7th patterns to learn. These are: 

  • C Eb F# A 
  • C# E G Bb
  • D F Ab B

How Can I Learn Scales Effectively?

The first thing you should do is write down every note of the scale in order. If you have access to a clarinet scale book, they should all be written down individually so you can just read from there.

Play up and down the scale a few times to get used to the order, while still reading the notes. It is easier to memorize the finger patterns than try and remember which note comes next in your head.

When you are confident that you know the pattern, try looking away and playing from memory. You may stumble over some notes, but you’ll soon find you can play them without any problems. 

A common mistake clarinet players make is to assume that they need to be able to play scales at top speed. This is not the case, and it is far more important to play them fluidly than rapidly.

You will naturally speed up over time, but if you start off too quickly, you will not be able to iron out any creases or conquer the difficult parts.

You should practise at least a few scales every day to keep them ticking along smoothly. Ask a friend or family member to test you by calling out scales one by one. You might also find it useful to play along with a metronome set at a reasonable tempo, which will help keep your scales even.

Use a lower BPM at first, then gradually increase as you gain confidence. 

David Williams
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