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MUSIC
THEORY
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What are Musical Scales? The different music scales explained!

What is a scale?
Welcome to our basic beginner's guide to scales. Let's first explore what a scale is and how it relates to music in general.

A scale is simply a pattern of notes (pitches) that are used to form the basis for a piece of music and all melodies. Knowing and understanding your music scales is vital to understanding music theory, particularly in relation to knowing the keys of your music. There are many different types of music scale, including diatonic scales, the chromatic scale, pentatonic scale, modes and many more, but the most important ones to learn first are the diatonic, major scale and minor scale.

If a piece of music is written in the C major scale then all of the notes will come from that scale. If the composer wants to include notes not in C major scale, then they will need to add extra sharps, flats or natural signs, these are called accidentals.

When playing a straight scale, for both major and minor, you will always start on the scale's tonic note. The tonic note simply means the first note of the scale (also called the first degree of the scale). This first note will give you the name of the scale. For example, if your scale starts on C, this will either be C major scale or C minor scale depending on what is in your key signature.

The pattern of notes that make up a scale, either move up or down in pitch. When we move up in pitch, this is an ascending scale, and when we move down in pitch, this is a descending scale.
These notes of the scale can then be repeated up or down an octave. This makes it possible for each scale to be played as high or low as you like and either ascending or descending - as long as you use the same notes!

Each scale has their own musical flavour and can be used to convey a range of moods and emotions in your music. Major and minor scales have their own different unique characteristics. Minor scales also divide up into three different types: harmonic minor, melodic minor and natural minor.

Why are they important in music theory?
Scales are vital to the melodic structure of a piece of music. If a piece predominantly uses notes from the scale of C major, we say that the piece is 'in the key of C Major'. This is shown at the start of the music by the key signature (highlighted below). For more on how to write different key signatures check out this blog post.
What type of scales are there?
Diatonic Scales
Scales are vital to the melodic structure of a piece of music. If a piece predominantly uses notes from the scale of C major, we say that the piece is 'in the key of C Major'. This is shown at the start of the music by the key signature (highlighted below). For more on how to write different key signatures check out this blog post.
Major scales
Relative Major and Minor scales
Firstly, let's look at the Major scale. This scale is made up of seven different notes, with a pattern of different intervals (tones and semitones). This pattern is as follows:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

Whole step, W, Half step, W, W, W, H

If you apply this to any note and move up in this pattern of intervals you will create a major scale on the note you started with!

Please note that a Whole step is the same as a tone and Half step is the same as a semitone.

As you can see, if we start this pattern on C we get the major scale starting on C (C major). This also corresponds to all the white keys on the piano.

However we can apply the same starting on any note and get a different major scale. If we start the pattern on G we get the major scale starting on G (G major). Below is the G Major scale, notice that it contains an F#.

The Major scales typically have a happy, upbeat sound.

To read more about major scales and their characteristics make sure to click here.

Minor scale
Once comfortable with the major scale then it is important to move swiftly onto the minor scales. There are three different types of minor scale. All three of these different types will always start the same but then have slight differences.

 

  • Natural Minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor
Natural Minor scale

The Natural Minor Scale has the following pattern:

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone

 

If you prefer to think in Whole Steps and Half Steps the pattern would be:

W, H, W, W, H, W, W

The Natural Minor is essentially your major scale but starting on a different note.

 

Harmonic Minor scale

The Harmonic Minor scale has the following pattern:

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone and a half, Semitone

If you prefer to think in Whole Steps and Half Steps the pattern would be:

W, H, W, W, H, W 1/2, H

The harmonic minor requires you to sharpen the seventh note, also known as the leading note, both on the way up and on the way down. This is how we end up with a tone and a half (or a whole step and a half).

Melodic Minor scale

The Melodic Minor scale has the following pattern:

Ascending:

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

W, H, W, W, W, W, H

Descending:

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone

W, H, W, W, H, W, W

The Melodic minor is different on the way up as it is on the way down. On the way up you are required to raise the 6th degree and the 7th degree. On the way down these are both lowered again, this is why the pattern of intervals is different both on the way up and the way down.

Relative Major and Minor scales

Each minor scale has a relative major scale. Both the major and the minor will share the same key signature with the use of accidentals helping us to see the difference between the different types of minor scale as well as distinguishing it away from the major scale.

Make sure to check out the key signatures blog to understand this in more depth.

The circle of fifths is another really useful tool in understanding your relative major and minor scales. Be sure to check out more information here.

There are some other slightly less common musical scales that we have listed below.

Chromatic Scales

The chromatic scale is opposite to our diatonic scales, major scale and minor scale, as rather than following a set pattern of tones and semitones, it includes all 12 notes, meaning it moves only in semitones. This scale can start on any of the 12 available notes, meaning you can have a chromatic scale starting on C, D, E, F etc as well as the flat or sharp notes. To find out more information on the chromatic music scales click here.

Whole Tone Scales

Opposite to our chromatic scale, is the Whole Tone scale. This scale does what it says on the tin! We move in tones, remember a tone is the same as two semitones. There are always six different notes in a whole tone scale, half as many as in the chromatic scale. More detailed information available here.

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are slightly different. A pentatonic scale is made up of a sequence of five different notes within each octave. There are two common pentatonic scales and these are the major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic.

A major pentatonic is a collection of different notes from the major scale. The major pentatonic scale has five notes and follows the following pattern from the tonic note:

Tonic, Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th, Major 6th

A minor pentatonic is a collection of different notes from the minor scale. The minor pentatonic scale has five notes and follows the following pattern from the tonic note:

Tonic, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Minor 7th

Make sure to click here for more information on the pentatonic scale.

Blues Scales

This scale is commonly used in blues music! This scale is a six note progression and is essentially the pentatonic scale with one extra chromatic note, the 'blue note'.

To find out more about this scale make sure to check out this blog post.

Modes

The final stop on our music scale tour is to a slightly more obscure scale, the mode! So what are modes and how do they relate to the other scales? Well believe it or not they orginate from Ancient Greece. There are seven different modes, each starting with a different note and each with its own unique name and characteristic. The first mode is called the Ionian mode. This mode uses only the white notes on the piano and is simply just the same as the C major scale. The modes are named as below:

  • Ionian Mode
  • Dorian Mode
  • Phrygian Mode
  • Lydian Mode
  • Mixolydian Mode
  • Aeolian Mode
  • Locrian Mode

To find out more about these, do make sure to check out our post on them here.

Arpeggios

Although not a scale, it is important to include arpeggios in this post as they are closely related to our musical scales. An arpeggio is a type of broken chord and is typically made out of the diatonic scale degrees, first, third and fifth.

As with our diatonic scales, arpeggios can also be major or minor. The basic difference between a major arpeggio and a minor arpeggio is the interval of a third. A major arpeggio has a major third and the minor arpeggio has a minor third.

Some other scales linked to arpeggios are the diminished seventh and the dominant seventh. More information can be found here.

There are more scales but these are not used in classical Western music. They can include the gamma scale, bebop scale amongst others.

FAQ's
How do you use scales to create music?

By using a scale (key) to help you create music you are giving yourself clear and certain rules to stick to when composing, meaning that there will be set notes, chords and patterns that you can stick to. Using a scale allows you to create music that makes sense to the listener.

Can you improvise music with scales?

Improvising in music simply means creating and performing something spontaneously without prior preparation. Using a scale to do this actually makes the task much easier as it gives you a base of certain notes you can use. It will ensure that you will not play any 'wrong' notes!

Is music only in one scale at a time?

When playing a piece of music you will often find that it travels through different keys. We may start the music in the tonic key and maybe move to the dominant key (fifth note) or perhaps even the relative minor. When writing a piece of music you can travel through as many keys as you like!

Does each note in a scale have a name?

 Yes! The notes are labelled as below:

Tonic

Supertonic

Mediant

Subdominant

Dominant

Submediant

Leading Note

Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.

She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.

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Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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