The Key-a-Day Approach to Scales, Patterns and Melody

A Key a Day

This guest post is from saxophone and multi-reed player, composer, recording artist, and educator Sam Sadigursky of

Whether you ever plan to improvise or not, to develop as a musician you have to be comfortable playing in all 12 major and minor keys. I know we’ve all heard this before, but this not only means that you need to conquer them technically on the instrument, but I tell students that each key has to to eventually exist as a miniature “sound world” that you can recognize, enter and play inside and be just as relaxed and at ease as if you never left the key of C. You can’t think that by knowing a scale that you know a key – you need to feel that key and hear every interval within it, know its modes and related chords and untangle its knots in every part of your instrument.

Nowhere to Hide

And… it’s not enough to be fluid in 10 keys and hope that your unfamiliarity in F# and Db is never exposed. At some point they will be, and by not working them out you’re holding yourself back as a musician in a major way (pardon the pun). Think of it this way: it’s not that any keys are actually harder than the others, it’s more a question of familiarity.

We don’t play as well in concert E major because we might not see it very often, but go play a rock or blues gig and you’ll encounter plenty of it. You need to do everything you can to become familiar with every key, and there’s no easy way to do this. However, there is an approach described below that I like to use myself and with students that I think is very effective and creative-minded that hopefully won’t lead you to some of the usual boredom or frustration that most of us associate with learning our keys.

Pick a Key and Stick with It

Rather than mind-numbingly work out scales and endless intervals and patterns in every key (as most books lay out), I often will pick one key, major or minor, and make that the key of the day, or maybe even the key of the week if you’re just starting out. I’ll play the scales and patterns that I know it that key, possibly even make up some new ones, and then just improvise in that key, playing whatever comes to mind. So much of the great improvising that we hear is based on simple, diatonic melody, whether it’s Lester Young, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Joe Lovano, that there’s a lot to be gained by doing this. Perhaps in the process you’ll uncover a new pattern or even think of a melody for a new song.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, maybe you want to work out a blues or rhythm changes in that key, or work on a simple ii-V-I progression. Whatever you do, just stick with that one key, to the point where it’s so deeply embedded in your consciousness that you can’t escape it even if you try. When you think you’ve run out of ideas, just keep going – this is often the point where things will start to get really interesting!

Work Smarter – Not Harder

This might be difficult to do at first if you are accustomed to working out small things in all twelve keys, but stick with it and see what it does for you. The great pianist Bill Evans was once asked what he practices in an interview, and he answered, “I practice the minimum“.  In just four words he really lays it out for all of us: work on the minimum amount of material so that you can reap the maximum benefit. This approach can be a great first step for you.