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What Are Music Scales? Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide

August 4, 2023
music scales

If you are new to music theory and getting your feet wet reading musical notation, you’re going to become very familiar with music scales, very fast.

Fun trivia for you – the word scale comes from the Latin word for ladder, which will help you visualize what a scale is and how it functions.

Let’s go scale a wall and ascend to some new heights. 

What Are Scales?

Corny humor aside, scales are central to music theory.

In the driest terms possible, a scale is a set of notes that ascend and descend by an order of pitch. When a scale ascends, each note is higher in pitch than the one that came before.

In a descending scale, each note is lower in pitch than the one that came before.

You know when you play every note on a piano from left to right or right to left just for kicks?

That right there?

That’s a scale.

The Degrees

Scales climb up or down the “ladder” by a matter of degrees, represented visually on a stave.

The stave is the space where the musical notation is recorded. 

In a traditional scale, each note has its own unique name. 

  • 1st degree: the tonic
  • 2nd degree: the supertonic
  • 3rd degree: the mediant
  • 4th degree: the subdominant
  • 5th degree: the dominant
  • 6th degree: the submediant
  • 7th degree: the leading note (or leading tone)
  • 8th degree: this degree is also known as the tonic but is one whole octave higher

Diatonic Scales

Diatonic scales follow a specific formula with specified intervals between each note.

Diatonic scales will be in a key, with the first base note being referred to as the tonic.

Diatonic scales use all seven-pitch letter names in a sequence without skipping a single one.

Diatonic scales must always have two semitone intervals (half steps) and five-tone intervals (whole steps) within one octave.

As a refresher, the semitone is the smallest interval on the piano.

It can be visualized by thinking of the interval between one key.

A whole tone is the second smallest interval between two keys.

Diatonic Scales

We are going to look at the two diatonic scales: the major and minor scales. 

Relative major and minor scales share the same notes but they start on different pitches.

They both have a different sequence of tones and semitones but the distance between the semitones will still be three tones.

Major Scale

A significant amount of popular music in the Western canon follows the major scale and it is what most beginners learn first.

Major scales typically sound happy and uplifting. 

Every major scale has eight notes, with the starting and ending notes being the same.

Major scales follow a prescriptive combination of semitones and tones (whole steps and half steps). You can use this combination to play a major scale on any note.

You can visualize it this way: Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

Or this way: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half

There are types of major scales you can play in different keys:

  • C Major Scale
  • G Major Scale
  • D Major Scale
  • A Major Scale
  • E Major Scale
  • B Major Scale
  • F Major Scale
  • F-Sharp Major Scale
  • C-Sharp Major Scale
  • B-Flat Major Scale
  • E-Flat Major Scale
  • A-Flat Major Scale
  • D-Flat Major Scale
  • G-Flat Major Scale
  • C-Flat Major Scale

C major is the only major scale that doesn’t need any sharp or flat notes.

Minor Scale

Minor scales often sound melancholy, emotive, and foreboding.

Minor scales also have seven notes, but they feature a flattened third note.

The third note of the scale is three semitones above the first note, compared to the four semitones above the first note in the major scale. 

There are three types of minor scales that each feature a flattened third note:

  • The natural minor
  • The harmonic minor
  • The melodic minor

Chromatic Scales

A chromatic scale is made up of 12 notes.

Each note in a chromatic scale is a half step or semitone apart from every other note.

To play a chromatic scale, you will choose a given note and keep playing the next note a semitone above it until you double back to the note you started on. 

We use the note that the scale starts on as the name of the scale, but we do not say that the chromatic scale is in the key of “C Minor” or “D” the way we would for a major or minor scale.

Whole Tone Scales

A whole-tone scale is the opposite of the chromatic scale, in which every note is a semitone apart.

For a whole-tone scale, each note played in an ascending or descending order is a whole tone apart from the note that preceded it. 

The whole tone scale is an example of a hexatonic scale, which means it only has six notes. Why?

Because there aren’t any half-step intervals in a whole-tone scale.

Pentatonic Scale

This scale comes from the Greek word for five – pente.

And, no surprises here, there are five noted in a pentatonic scale.

They are as follows:

  • The first degree – tonic
  • The second degree – supertonic
  • The third degree – mediant
  • The fifth degree – dominant
  • The sixth degree – submediant

Modes

Every scale that we have explored above has seven modes.

They have been around for thousands of years and are named after regions in Greece.

The modes are as follows:

Major Modes 

  • Ionian (i) – The cornerstone of Western music, with an uplifting, clear harmony.
  • The standard major scale.
  • Lydian (iv) – Has a bright and ethereal tone.
  • It differs from the Ionian mode in that it contains a raised or ‘sharpened’ fourth degree.
  • Mixolydian (v) – Also referred to as the dominant mode, it has a cheerful, bluesy character.
  • The Mixolydian features a lowered or ‘flattened’ seventh degree.

Minor Modes

  • Dorian (ii)– Has a bluesy, jazz-forward quality.
  • It is constructed by flattening the third and seventh degrees of the scale.
  • Phrygian (iii) – Has a darker, dissonant, moody quality.
  • To construct a Phrygian scale you will flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the major scale.
  • Aeolian (vi) – The natural minor scale, it has a potent emotional quality.
  • To construct it, you flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the major scale.
  • Locrian (vii) – Has a tense, spooky, dissonant quality, it is also known as the ‘half-diminished’ scale.
  • To form this scale, you take the major scale and flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th degrees.

What Are Music Scales – Final Thoughts

Feel like you have a better understanding of musical scales?

Know the difference between majors and minors and chromatics?

Ready to sell all your belongings and buy a grand piano? 

This guide was designed to be a comprehensive overview for beginners but is only the first step in your musical education.

There is so much more to music theory than meets the eye but lucky for you, we have guides galore to help you make sense of the unfamiliar territory.

You may also like: Types of Musical Notes

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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