The Art of Piano Fingering

Chapter 1 - Major Scales

A major scale is a series of notes linked together by the following intervals:

tone   tone   semitone   tone   tone tone   semitone

The arrangement of these intervals remains the same in every key.

For purposes of fingering, the seven notes are grouped into two hand positions, one of three notes, the other of four, using the basic fingering sequence: 1 2 3     1 2 3 4

Example 1

Notice how, in order to join the two groups smoothly, the thumb passes under the last finger of each group, as if under a bridge. In this manual, this finger, circled above, is always called the 'bridge finger'.

This two-group fingering sequence is used for all major and minor scales. However, the scale does not always start at the beginning of the sequence, and in order to determine the starting finger for each scale, we must first consider the position of the hand in relation to the black notes on the keyboard.

Note that the black keys are shorter, and raised above the white notes. On resting your hand on the keyboard, you will find that the hand is in its most comfortable position when the thumb and fifth finger play white notes and the second, third and fourth fingers, which are longer, play black notes. Compare:

Example 2a

Example 2b

Ex 2b is more uncomfortable because the longer fingers are more curved than the thumb and fifth finger, making it more difficult to produce an even tone throughout.

PRINCIPLE 1: The thumb and fifth finger prefer white notes.

Note that, when the longer fingers play on black notes, such as in the scale of B major, the thumb passes more freely under the bridge fingers than, for instance, in C major.

Example 3

It is particularly important, therefore, that the bridge finger should be positioned on a black note wherever possible. Compare:

Example 4a

Example 4b

Notice how, in Ex 4a the bridge fingers play white notes. The bridge finger becomes unnecessarily curved, the thumb passes under less freely, and the hand has a greater tendency to make unnecessary twisting movements. Although many manuals do in fact recommend this fingering, it is obvious that Ex 4b is much more suitable as a basic fingering. Remember:

PRINCIPLE 2: Bridge fingers prefer black notes.
EXERCISE: work out the fingering for B♭ major by placing the bridge fingers (3 and 4) on black notes. Compare with fingering charts.

Note that in the descending scale in Ex 4b, the thumb plays the first white note after a black note. This is also true in the right hand, but only when ascending.

Example 5

This can best be remembered as follows:

PRINCIPLE 3: When travelling outwards the thumb prefers to follow a black note.

Or, in short: Outwards - thumb after black.

Note that when travelling inwards (i.e. right hand descending, left hand ascending), as in Ex 6, the reverse applies and the thumb prefers to precede a black note. (This obviously only applies to scales which do contain black notes!)

Example 6

Once you have found the position of the bridge fingers and the thumb by following these principles, you will easily be able to find the starting finger for each scale.

EXERCISE: Work out the thumb positions for E♭ major right hand and left hand, then find the starting finger for each hand.


Sometimes a small adjustment at the top or bottom of a scale or arpeggio will help to avoid unnecessary movements. This is particularly the case when the scale begins with the thumb.

Example 7

In the above example, the thumb at the extremity of the scale is replaced by the fifth finger.

Note, however, that these adjustments only serve to avoid unnecessary movements, and they do not fundamentally alter the fixed two-group fingering sequence of the rest of the scale.

In the fingering charts which follow, the recommended adjustments are shown in normal type. The original fingering is shown in brackets.

Playing hands together

When playing hands together in similar motion, the hands usually start at different points within the sequence, and the fingering for the two hands is rarely synchronized.

Example 8

In Ex 8 above, the right hand starts on the fourth finger, whereas the left hand starts on the third. It is therefore extremely important to be absolutely familiar with the alternating two-group fingering for each hand separately before attempting to play hands together, whether in similar or contrary motion.

EXERCISE: Play the scale of B♭ (Ex 8) hands separately, saying aloud the name of each bridge finger (circled) as you play it: (3..4...3..4...) This draws your attention to the bridge fingers, whilst also having the additional advantage of avoiding the tendency to accent the thumb. When you can do this easily, do the same with your eyes closed until you become so familiar with the alternating two-group fingering that you develop a subconscious ‘feel’ for the shape of the scale. Next practise the scale hands together, in the following rhythm , being very aware of the coordination of the fourth (right hand) and third (left hand) finger on each B♭ Then play the scale in even semiquavers.

Repeat with other scales.

Alternative fingerings

Traditionally, the major scales of G, D, A, and F have been taught beginning on the fifth finger in the left hand (as shown in Ex 4a). The main reason for this was that it was thought easier to remember fingerings which start with the fifth finger. For pianists who are very familiar with the traditional type of fingering, the new fingerings given in this manual may at first appear more ‘difficult’. But this is only a question of familiarity - to start the left-hand scale of F major with the third finger, or D major with the second, is no more ‘difficult’ than to start B♭ with the third, or B with the fourth, as pianists have always done. Changing long-established fingerings can take time, but once you become familiar with the type of fingering given in this manual, you will soon find that they actually feel easier and produce a much better result, because they fall more naturally under the hand.

Throughout this manual the emphasis is on finding and explaining the most natural fingerings, based on the fingering principles discussed above. When fingering pieces of music, however, we need to be flexible and consider every possible fingering in order to achieve the desired effect. Alternative fingerings are therefore discussed at the end of chapters and in the Postlude and are shown in the fingering charts in italics. Advanced pianists will obviously wish to extend their technique and be prepared for every possibility in pieces of music by practising all types of fingering. To avoid confusion, however, the alternative fingerings should only be practised once the standard fingerings are thoroughly familiar.

Musical example

Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor K491, 1st movement

Major Scale Fingering Charts

* Alternative fingerings (see above)


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