Playing In All 12 Keys

Learning To Play In All 12 Keys.  A Practice Tip For Beginning To Intermediate Players.

Every instrument has keys that are mechanically easier to play in than others.  Also keeping track of sharps and flats makes some keys seem more complicated than others.  Reading the scales out of a book is not the same as internalizing them.  To build familiarity and fluidity with these keys, it helps to transfer phrases and patterns that you know from familiar keys into the remaining keys.

Circle of 5ths & 4ths.  Use this cycle to move from familiar keys with fewer sharps or flats into less familiar territory.

Chromatic movement.  When you move a pattern up or down chromatically it still sounds familiar to your ear.  This can help your fingers adapt to the kinesthetic changes (the different “feel” of the pattern in the new key).

Random movement.  This requires your brain to place the pattern in a new key.  If you know how the pattern sits in the new key, your fingers can find it more easily.  For example, if you know the first note is the third of the key, and then the pattern moves scale-wise up… A good mental picture of the pattern helps your fingers find it more easily.

Moving in a variety of ways keeps your attention fresh and helps you fit the jigsaw puzzle pieces together.  There are common scale patterns, rhythmic patterns and chord progressions that you can practice as etudes and then plug into actual songs.  But the exercise of discovering or creating new patterns also helps your ability to look for and recognize patterns.  This will help you become a better sight reader, improviser, and overall musical person.


Play Sailor’s Hornpipe phrase in key of C.  Then play it a half-step up, in C#.  Then play it a half-step down, in B.  These keys may seem difficult and unfamiliar, but by telling yourself each note is just a half-step higher or lower than the one you know well, the newly transferred phrase has a familar association and is easier to learn.

Playing familar phrases and patterns trains your fingers to play in less familiar keys without overloading your concentration.  You already have these phrases in your longterm memory, so it’s just a matter of teaching your fingers to play them in new keys.  This is more intuitive than just reading down a page of scales in all 12 keys.  Try playing the first phrase of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a familiar key like C.  You move from the tonic to the fifth, up a step to the sixth, back to the fifth, then down the scale from the fourth back to the tonic.  You have played every scale tone except the seventh.  If you can play this phrase fluidly in all 12 keys, then you can play all 12 major scales with more confidence.