Ribbons for Scales: A Motivational Tool

by Stephanie K.

Music teachers, choral directors, and band directors understand the importance that scales play in making students better musicians and music programs more successful. Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to convince students of the fact. Musicians, especially young musicians, seem to dread learning and playing scales. Why? Well, it is definitely not the most fun part of a music class; and, usually, there is little to no motivation for them to do so. I have found a motivational tool that is working in my band program, and I would like to share it. It is working so well that my band students are now eager and excited to learn and play scales for me.

Here is a little background: I am in my fourth year of teaching band at the middle school level. During my first year, we honestly only covered three scales: Bb concert, Eb concert, and F concert. In my second year, we added two more: Ab concert and C concert. By year three, I had developed a program I call “Ribbons for Scales” and we began working on all twelve major scales. The program is motivational because the students earn a ribbon for each scale they play and finger correctly. Hence, the name “Ribbons for Scales.” They can, then, tie the ribbon on their instrument case to show off their progress. It is similar to Recorder Karate. In my first year trying this program, I even had fourth grade students earn all twelve ribbons.

If you are reading this and are not a music educator, you might be asking yourself, “What are the benefits of learning scales?” or “Why are they important?” Well, for starters, if you can play your scales, then you can play just about anything on your instrument. Why? Because you know all of the notes! Music is made of scales. They are the building blocks of music. The notes might be in a different order, but the scale is there in just about any piece of music you try to play. Scales also help you become a better musician. Knowing your scales means you know your instrument better. Scales are a large part of speaking the language of music. When you learn your scales, you are more successful at speaking that language. In addition, scales make it easier to sight-read music and play by ear. They can even help with memorization. These are just a few of the benefits. In case you are interested in another perspective, I have listed a couple sites listed below.

Check out the below site. It is about the importance of scales from a guitarist’s point of view. You do not have to be in band or music class to understand and appreciate the importance of scales. Scales are valuable and beneficial to all musicians.


Here is another site. Although the focus in this one is on the piano, the application is similar for all instruments. Here is a short quote from the site: “Learning the scales is like learning the ABC’s when learning to read: not so exciting, and it doesn’t get a lot of practical use in everyday life, but trying to learn piano without learning the scales is like trying to learn to read without first learning the alphabet.”


So, how can you set up the program “Ribbons for Scales” for your band program? Well, it is pretty easy and it does not cost much. I started by going to Wal-Mart and buying twelve different colors of ribbon. You will need one color of ribbon for each major scale. I use Offray “Spool O’ Ribbon,” which runs in lengths of 10 yards (9.14 meters) per spool for between 0.44 and 0.97 cents. I buy the ribbon in a width of 1/8” (3 mm), and I cut the ribbon in lengths of about 8 or 9 inches.

Next, you need to decide what order you want your students to learn the scales in and assign a ribbon to that scale. I have my order listed below. Please note that I allow the students to do the first five scales in any order because some scales are easier than others on certain instruments. However, if they can do the first five successfully, then they should be able to do the remaining ones in order. This is just what works for me because it aligns with the most common keys of our band pieces.

You also need to decide tempo and rhythmic expectations. I require that my students play a “quarter-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-quarter-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-quarter” note pattern. Basically, the first (lowest) note of the scale, the eighth (highest), and the last (again, lowest) receive the value of a quarter note. These three quarter note values share the name of the scale, which is referred to as the tonic. All other notes in the scale receive only the value of an eighth note. The second part is deciding on the tempo. Again, I have my tempo expectations listed below.

Finally, you need to get organized. It is just a good idea to have it all mapped out. The students need to know and see what they are working towards. If they want to earn a certain color of ribbon, they can see what expectations they must meet to achieve their goal.

“Ribbons for Scales” has been such an asset to my band program that I just wanted to share it. If it helps even just one other person, then it is worth it. I know our time with students is limited. Still, I now have students enter my band room for a lesson or sectional and the first thing they ask is, “Can I check off on a scale?” When students have earned all twelve ribbons, they ask, “What’s next?” In my band program, it is the chromatic scale; and, yes, I even have a ribbon for that. Scales reinforce so much of what we do in our music programs. They are invaluable tools, and this program is just one way to, perhaps, make better use of those tools.

♫ Ribbons for Scales ♫











































Red, White, & Blue


***Scales 1-5 may be done in any order, but 6-12 must be done in the order listed.


Tempo (BPM)












2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. amyfatek
    Oct 24, 2011 @ 00:18:35

    I love this idea! I have used this method one year with my Jr. High band. My problem was I ran out of time and found myself worrying more about the ribbons and keeping track of paperwork than actually playing the scales and repertoire. I think it is a great idea and maybe a good job for a student worker to help with?



  2. amyfatek
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 18:48:29

    My co-workers had already been using a system similar to this when I was hired in their district. We decided to add a rhythm exercise, theory, music history, and solo performance requirements for each ribbon also. This ribbon was highly caught after. At the final concert of the year we had a ceremony for the students who achieved the highest level. They got a special t-shirt that they got to wear on the band tour day. This was a great way to keep students practicing and working hard. Great ideas!


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