What is a musical scale? Anyone playing an instrument is accustomed to practicing with scales, but the concept of a scale has much broader implications than just technique. In this lesson, we look at scales of five to eight sounds in general, in particular the major, minor and pentatonic scales.
- What is a scale?
- The major scale, the centre of the Western musical system
- Other musical scales of seven sounds: the minor scales
- The modal scales
- Pentatonic and hexatonic scales
- Chromatic scale, diminished scale, bebop scale, blues scale
- Final remarks: learning the scales helps you play better
What is a scale?
Let's start with a concise answer: the musical scale is a series of sounds arranged in ascending or descending order, which sound to our ear ordered and logically connected to each other.
The first scale we consider is the major scale, which is the most important because it is at the centre of the tonal music system, i.e. the way we have conceived of music for at least three hundred years.
The major scale, the centre of the Western musical system
The major scale is the basis of the tonal musical system, the starting point for the most common chords and harmonic progressions in both classical music and jazz. The major scale is also the source of some of the most common modal scales used in jazz and rock music. Without exaggeration, we can say that a large part of the music of the last three centuries has been conceived on the major scale.
The major scale is composed of a defined series of intervals. Given a starting note (called the tonic), the subsequent intervals are: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Consequently, we notice that the semitone intervals are found in only two positions: between degrees III and IV and between degrees VII and VIII. All the other degrees of the scale are one tone apart. The piano keyboard can help us visualise the position of tones and semitones on the musical scale.
The tone and semitone interval
The semitone is the minimum distance between two notes within the tempered music system. Other musical cultures also use more complex scales consisting of smaller intervals.
On the piano, two keys immediately adjacent to each other are one semitone apart. To be more precise:
- One white key and the adjacent black key (C D♭ in the example)
- One black key and the adjacent white key (B♭ B♮ in the example)
- Two white keys between which there is no black key (E F in the example)
A tone is composed of two semitones. On the piano, they are one tone apart:
- Two white keys between which there is a black key (C D in the example)
- Two black keys with a white key between them (G♭ A♭ in the example)
- A white key and a black key between which there is another white key (B C# in the example). This occurs between the following pairs: B C#, E♭ F, E F#, B♭ C
Let's now look at how the C major scale is written on the staff:
We can see that the C major scale written on the staff has no alteration: it does not use any sharps or flats, and consequently does not use any black keys on the piano keyboard.
If you want to start studying harmony more in detail, you may be interested in the functional harmony video course on this website.
Further reading: the natural scale
Both wikipedia and the Garzanti music encyclopaedia identify the concept of scale with the major scale, confirming how important it is in our musical system.
The term 'natural scale' is tricky, as the sounds we hear in nature are often not in tune (i.e. they are noises) and listening to sounds is always conditioned by the listener's habits.
We can perhaps say that the major scale is the one that comes closest to the natural scale, as it is derived from an acoustic phenomenon that the ancient Greeks had already discovered, that of harmonic sounds.
Scholars debate and argue against the very existence of a natural scale. In fact, just as the concept of light and colour is dependent on the functioning of the human eye, the idea of sound and scale are also linked to our perception.
Without a human ear to hear sounds, there is no natural scale in nature, just as there is no light… if there is no eye.
The jazz musician and composer George Russell has an even different point of view. In his Lydian Chromatic Concept he presents very strong arguments in support of one thesis: the true natural scale would be a scale with F# instead of F, known as the lydian scale.
We will now analyse other musical scales of seven sounds.
Other musical scales of seven sounds: the minor scales
The major scale is composed of seven different sounds, and many of the most important scales respect this same form, i.e. they are scales of seven sounds. It is then common practice to "close" the scale by repeating the same initial sound, an octave higher.
We are now going to examine three minor scales that are derived from the major scale: the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale.
Natural minor scale
The natural minor scale is formed from the sixth degree of the major scale, and uses the same notes as the major scale. For example, the C major scale is formed by C D E F G A B C, the natural minor A scale is formed by the same notes, but starting from the sixth degree of the major scale: A B C D E F G A.
Harmonic minor scale
The harmonic minor scale is derived from the natural minor scale and is obtained by altering the seventh degree by an ascending semitone. In practice, by placing a sharp (#) on the last note of the natural minor scale, we obtain a different scale, which is called the harmonic minor scale.
We have already said that the natural A minor scale is formed by A B C D E F G A, the harmonic A minor scale is formed by A B C D E F G#.
Melodic minor scale
Finally, from the harmonic minor scale comes the melodic minor scale, which also adds a sharp (#) on the sixth degree. The A melodic minor scale is therefore formed by A B C D E F# G# A.
Next we see the three A minor scales written on the stave
The modal scales
Also derived from the major scale are the modal scales, which use the same notes as the major scale, but start from a different note each time. Here we see the seven modal scales derived from the C major scale.
The English name for the seven scales is: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. For more information see the lesson on the difference between tonal and modal music.
Using the same procedure we used on the major scale, we can also derive seven different modes from the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale. There are therefore numerous seven-tone scales, 21 in total if we limit ourselves to those derived from the major scale and the three minor scales.
However, there are also scales made up of a different number of sounds. We will now examine scales with fewer than seven sounds, in particular the hexatonic scale and the pentatonic scale.
Pentatonic and hexatonic scales
Although seven-sound scales are the basis of the tonal music system, there are scales with fewer or more sounds. For example, the pentatonic scale has only five sounds, while the hexatonic scale uses six. Let's take a look at them one by one.
The hexatonic scale
The hexatonic scale is very particular in that it is always formed by intervals of one tone. This makes it different from all the other scales mentioned so far because it uses intervals that are all the same (we said intervals of one tone) and is therefore a symmetrical scale. For this reason, it is also called a whole-tone scale.
This characteristic is very special, as all the other scales we have mentioned use a different combination of tone and semitone intervals, so none of the other scales are symmetrical, only the hexatonal scale is.
If you try playing it on the piano or another instrument, you will hear that it sounds unusual, dissonant and interesting at the same time. In soundtracks it is often used to communicate an effect of surprise, it is not unusual to find it associated with a spell, for example in the soundtrack of a cartoon.
However, the hexatonic scale has also been used in a more serious way, to make very important music. This is the case of the French composer Claude Debussy, master of Impressionism, as well as jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Although they belonged to very different historical periods and musical styles, both Debussy and Monk made the hexatonic scale a hallmark of their style.
Let's now take a closer look at the other musical scale mentioned earlier, the five-sound scale known as the pentatonic scale.
Musical scale of five sounds: the pentatonic scale
While the major diatonic scale is made up of seven sounds and narrow intervals (tone, semitone), the pentatonic scale is made up of five sounds and wide intervals (one tone, one and a half tone), which is why it sounds more open and consonant. Below are the two most common versions of the pentatonic scale:
Major pentatonic scale
Minor pentatonic scale
We can see that the major pentatonic scale corresponds to a major scale without the 4th and 7th degrees, while the minor pentatonic scale corresponds to the natural minor scale without the 2nd and 6th degrees.
Let's now look at some pieces of music that use the pentatonic scale.
Some examples of the pentatonic scale
The pentatonic scale has been used in very different and distant musical cultures. Let us listen to an excerpt from the Suite Chui Si Diao, performed by the Traditional Music Ensemble of the Beijing National Music Academy conducted by Hu Zhihou. The suite dates from the Ming dynasty period (1368-1644).
African music also makes extensive use of the pentatonic scale. Here is the beginning of Ntsikana's Bell, a traditional South African piece performed by the duo Dollar Brand (piano, vocals) and Johnny Dyani (bass, vocals, bells).
The pentatonic scale can also be heard a lot in blues, jazz and rock, and is certainly one of the most widely used scales, especially for improvisation. Let us now look at some musical scales composed of more than seven sounds.
Chromatic scale, diminished scale, bebop scale, blues scale
Let's now move on to some musical scales that employ more than seven sounds. The scales that use more than seven sounds are the chromatic scale, the two diminished scales, the bebop scale and the blues scale.
The chromatic scale is easy to form, as it uses all twelve notes in the tempered music system. On a piano keyboard, for example, it is sufficient to play all the black and white keys in sequence. The chromatic scale is often used to create melodic passages called chromaticisms.
The other scales are more complex and are very much part of a specific repertoire. We will limit ourselves here to a few notes:
- Diminished scales are symmetrical scales because they are composed of a semitone/tone pattern that is repeated in identical fashion. They are especially used in the jazz repertoire.
- The bebop scale was introduced into the jazz repertoire in the 1940s, and has since become one of the scales used for improvisation.
- The blues scale obviously originated with the blues, but is also used in jazz and rock music.
To learn more about these and other concepts, you may be interested in the functional harmony video course. In particular, the third part of the course deals in detail with diminished, altered, hexatonic and other scales.
More in-depth study: how to practice the major scale and the other scales
If you play an instrument, you need to learn the scales a little at a time, while studying technique and harmony. If you've never done this before, do it in an orderly and methodical way, because it won't do you any good to go through the scales all at once.
Here are some tips for studying scales
- Study scales slowly. Try to memorise the notes and fingerings, don't worry about speed but about sound quality.
- Study each musical scale in all twelve keys.
- Proceed in order: learn the major scale, then the minor scales, then the modal scales. The other scales will come later.
- Try to recognise the musical scales you are studying in songs. Especially for the less common scales (diminished, hexatonic etc.) it is essential to have references from authentic pieces.
- Once you have learned them, use the musical scales in your daily warm-up exercises so that you will not forget them. Of course, always try to play them from memory, and not by reading them off the music sheet.
Some exercises on the major scale
Here are some exercises for learning to play scales. These exercises are based on the major scale, but you can also apply them to all other scales.
Play the first five notes of the scale as in the example below. Perform the exercise in all keys following the descending circle of fifths (i.e. in this order: C, F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, B, E, A, D, G).
Play the ascending scale as in the example below. Perform the exercise in all keys following the descending circle of fifths (C, F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, B, E, A, D, G).
Play the descending scale as in the example below. Perform the exercise in all keys following the descending circle of fifths (C, F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, B, E, A, D, G).
This exercise will help you become more familiar with the notes of the scale even when they are not arranged one after the other (i.e. by step motion). Play the ascending scale in broken thirds, as in the example. As usual, do the exercise in all twelve keys.
Now play the descending scale in broken thirds, as in the example and in all twelve keys.
Final remarks: learning the scales helps you play better
Mastering scales from a technical point of view is one of the basic skills of playing a musical instrument. If you haven't done so yet, sooner or later you will have to learn to play all common scales in all keys. For jazz players, scales are even more important as an essential tool for improvisation.
In this lesson I have tried to explain what scales are and how to study them. If you would like more information and exercises, please consider the harmony course and the improvisation course available on this website. If you have any questions or additions to this lesson, please post them in the comments below. Thank you and all the best!