Using Musical Context to Approach Viola Scale Work

Most viola methods and fingerings for scales are based on violin playing, but why are there so few dedicated scale or study materials for the viola?

By Roger Benedict | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine

When I told friends and colleagues that I was publishing a new scale method for viola, I was greeted with some blank faces and a few raised eyebrows. “What’s wrong with Flesch or Galamian?” some asked. There’s no doubt that the scale books of Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian are omnipresent in teaching studios around the world, and there are others, of course, by such established names as Leonard Mogill and Otakar Ševčík, or more recent ones by Barbara Barber and Simon Fischer. But they all have one thing in common: they are violin methods that have been adapted for the viola.

A small number of dedicated viola methods, such as those by William Primrose and Watson Forbes, do exist, but they by and large adopt a similar methodology and approach to fingering as their violin cousins. I often wonder why there are so few dedicated scale or study materials for the viola. Are we so in thrall of violinists that we have to copy everything they do?

Moreover, the scale books I have mentioned make little or no mention of harmony, suggesting that, in the minds of their authors, the main goals of scale practice are facility and fluency. Yet every scale we play has a harmonic context, and favoring a purely horizontal approach over a vertical one when playing scales can be dangerous.

Primrose states “Scales are essential to a complete knowledge of the fingerboard, which is, in turn, the basis of finger technique” (though his method includes no arpeggios and omits the scales of A, B-flat, and B-natural). Galamian does allude to the importance of harmonic context, though it isn’t mentioned explicitly. For example, he adds the names of all the different chords in his arpeggio sequence (e.g., “flat submediant six,” “E-flat with 4-3 suspension”), and the turn that he employs at the start of each scale—though I suspect its intended purpose is for fluency—is a good way to check the tuning of the interval of a third.


Many pedagogues talk about “melodic” or “expressive” intonation. Helen Callus says, “There is a step beyond just playing in tune and that is to play expressively—with expressive intonation. This is where you might lean higher or lower on a pitch dependent upon the musical moment,” though she doesn’t give examples of where and why that might be done. But it is commonly advocated that we should treat major thirds and major sevenths as leading notes and play them on the high side.

Good intonation relies on an intimate knowledge of the harmony that underpins the music, and this theory of “expressive intonation” ignores some basic harmonic truths. For example, the seventh in a major scale often acts as the major third in the dominant key and therefore, in that case, needs to be played low. And in their usual harmonic context, minor thirds will be problematic if played on the low side.

There is no doubt that we do need to use “melodic” intonation at times, but certainly not all the time. Maybe we can argue that violists, embedded as they are in the middle of the harmonic landscape, are more aware of the harmonic context than their violinist colleagues, and therefore more alert to the pitfalls of favoring melodic over harmonic intonation. Good intonation is a balance between culture (our musical intuition and taste) and nature (acoustical characteristics), and is influenced by many factors, including the speed, character, and instrumentation of the piece or passage we are playing. Whether we play in an orchestra, a string quartet, in a duo with piano, or even on our own, we have to learn to be flexible and to be able to compromise when it comes to intonation.

Context is everything. Perhaps for that reason the best approach could be that of Atar Arad, who doesn’t believe in a structured scale method at all. He says “at the risk of damaging my reputation as a teacher… I recommend extracting scales from actual repertoire, allowing tuning and intonation choices to be based on the specific excerpt.” I am very sympathetic to this approach and agree that the more we can connect our study of scales and arpeggios to real music the better! But daily practice of a prescribed scale routine is, I think, unavoidable, especially as students commonly have to prepare such a routine for examinations.


To work on both intonation and harmonic context, I suggest playing scales and arpeggios with a drone—a sustained note on a tuner or, ideally, a recording of the note played on the viola (because it’s more enjoyable being accompanied by our own sound than by an electronically generated one). Playing with a drone makes it easier to feel that we are playing a series of intervals rather than a series of steps.

I also include an exercise (see Ex. 1, below) to play scales along with a series of simple chords (which can be recorded on the piano) in order to tune notes within a specific harmonic context. When working on intonation, attention needs to be paid to speed—we need to be aware of the acoustic phenomenon that the faster we play a passage, the closer the semitones need to be to sound “in tune.” So, at slow speeds we may need to play major thirds and sevenths on the low side to match the harmony, but the faster we play, the emphasis can be more on so-called “melodic” intonation, with closer semitones.

Ex. 1 is also an exercise in aligning rhythm to the harmony to the octave span; practicing scales like this helps reinforce the sense of key. I also include scales that are unaligned with the octave span, but in some methods, this is the default. For example, Watson Forbes organizes nearly all of his scales in groups of three—good for developing fluency but not necessarily harmonic awareness.


I place chromatic scales in the frames of diminished and augmented arpeggios, which divide the octave into four minor thirds and three major thirds respectively (see Exs. 2 & 3). There are three semitones between each note in the diminished arpeggio, and four between each note in the augmented arpeggio—they are tuned in this context.

I can’t promise that my scale method will satisfy everyone, but I hope that violists will enjoy knowing that for once they are not an afterthought and that this book has been created from the outset with the viola fingerboard in mind.

This article was adapted from Roger Benedict’s book Scale Up!, available at