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What's a Scale?

A musical scale is simply a bunch of notes played in order. Got to a piano and play some notes making sure that each note is higher in pitch than the previous one. Congratulations, you just played a scale.

Of course, like most human endeavors, we strive to make things harder and really like to put names on things. Musical scales are no different.

If you are a history buff, you'll be interested to know that the scales used in western music evolved from the ancient Greeks and their concept of “modes”. For more reading, I suggest this Wikipedia article.

There are an awful lot of different scales. One reference I use, The Scale Omnibus has over 1000 different scales! And, each scale can be played in 17 (assuming that D# and Eb, etc. are unique) different keys. Gosh, that's a lot to learn. Way too much for my little brain!

Fortunately, most music only uses a small subset of all this: a Major scale and a few Minor scales. If you are into jazz and improvisation or composition you'll want to familiarize yourself with more. Our resources page has some handy PDF files of most of the common scales in common keys.

Common Scales

The easiest scale is the one we call Major. Play it on a piano ... it's just notes c, d, e, f, g, a and b. None of those funny black keys. Just seven white notes in order.

Now, if you play this a few times and then try to play it again starting on a different key ... well, it'll sound “off”. That's because you aren't following the rules. Rules? Yup. There are rules to all this (remember, humans like to codify and make things complicated!).

First off, a few definitions:

  • Degree - each note of the scale is a “degree”. The first note (in a C major scale it's the “C”) is the first degree. The second note is the second degree. Not so hard.

  • Interval - the tonal space between the notes. On a piano each note is separated by a half tone. The notes “C” and “C#” (that's the black note to the right of the “C” are half tone (or semitone) apart. The notes “C” and “D” are a full tone (or whole tone) apart.

In a major scale the first two notes are a whole tone apart, the next two are also a whole tone apart. But the next two are only a semi-tone apart. If we follow this up to the end of scale we get intervals of (note, we use “Whole” for “whole tone” and “Semi” for “semi-tone” or “half-tone”):

  • Whole, Whole, Semi, Whole, Whole, Whole, Semi

Look at this while playing your C major scale.

Now try starting on a different key. Just follow the formula and you'll end up playing a different major scale. Now you know what those silly black keys are for!

A minor scale (more properly called a Natural Minor scale) is just as easy. To play one start on the “a” key on your keyboard. Play the next seven white keys: a, b, c, d, e, f and g. That's it ... you just played a (natural) minor scale.

Of course, there is a rule for this as well:

  • Whole, Semi, Whole, Whole, Semi, Whole, Whole

If you have been paying attention, you'll notice that the C Major scale and the A Minor scale have exactly the same notes in it; the two scales just start on different notes. Another name for the natural minor scale is Aeolian minor ... which is derived from the Greek system of modes ... told you we like to have lots of complicated names for stuff.

What's The Point?

So why do we care? If you just want to play a piece of music do you need to know all this stuff? After all, it's all so theoretical. And, more than a bit confusing.

Well, yes it is important. Most western (and most other as well) music is based on some kind of scale. And if you practice various scales in various keys you will find that most of the “hard to play” stuff becomes much simpler. Really, it's true!

Practicing scales builds facility and execution speed. Practicing scales and making the sound musical makes you a better musician.

If you ever want to play jazz or do improvisation a good understanding of scales (and the chords derived from them) will be essential.

If you ever want to do some composition or arranging you'll have a difficult time without the basic knowledge we've been discussing.

Suggested Practice

Grab the various scales we have on the resources page and play them in keys you see most commonly in your music as part of your daily practice.

  • Try to see how fast you play them. Don't play any faster than you can without making mistakes. Practicing mistakes just teaches you how to make mistakes!

  • Try to play at a moderate rate and vary the volume up and down as you go up and down the scale. Start loud, end up soft. Start soft, end up loud. Try a crescendo or decrescendo up and down. Reverse that.

  • Try different articulations. Can you play the entire scale on one breath or bow and make it very legato? Staccato?

  • Repeat notes. Play each note two times as eight note pairs. Play them three times (triplets), four, etc.

  • Play very slowly to practice your “long tones”.

If it doesn't make a lot of sense at first, please persist. It will all come together after a short period of time. And you'll be a better musician because of it.

Need to know more? There are a lot of resources out there on the web, but you should have a few books in your library for reference as well. I like “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory” which is available in stores and on Amazon for less than $20. Great deal.

And let me know if this article helps.

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Web Design--Bob van der Poel This page was last modified on 2024-03-21