Musical Scales


This is the second part in my series about music theory. In the  previous post, we covered musical notes and how consecutive notes are grouped in an octave. In this part, we'll cover scales.

You'll find that there's an incredible amount of ways to group notes in music theory, but aside from an octave a scale is one of the most fundamental methods of grouping. Notes within a scale have beautiful musical relationships, and scales are the basis of concepts like chords and melodies.

Remember: You can hit the notes to play their sounds. If you're on iPhone, turn your ringer on to enable sound.

Note Distance

Note distance or, more commonly, "distance" is the distance in steps, or tones, between any two notes on a piano. Last time we covered the notes that comprise an octave. As a refresher, we have the 7 white keys and 5 black keys that each play a unique note.

C
C# / Db
D
D# / Eb
E
F
F# / Gb
G
G# / Ab
A
A# / Bb
B

Each of these notes has a distance of one half-step, or one semitone, from the two notes beside it. So, C# is one half-step, or semitone, away from the C and D right next to it.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

E is one half-step away from the D# and F next to it.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

A# is one half-step away from the A and B next to it.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

Et cetera.

And, one whole step is two half steps. One whole step is the same as one tone, therefore a tone is two semitones. With this being said, D# is a whole step away from C# and F.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

G# is a whole step away from F# and A#.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

D is a whole step away from C and E.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B

Et cetera. Sometimes, you'll see people say things like D Sharp Sharp (meaning E), B Flat Flat (meaning A), or even C Flat (meaning B) or E Sharp (meaning F). This is because the sharps and flats actually indicate moving a half-step in one direction. So, two sharps indicate a whole step forwards, and two flats indicate a whole step backwards. Since "step" and "tone" can be used interchangeably, I'll be using "step" from now on. Note distances are more commonly referred to as intervals.

The Scale

A scale is a set of notes, called degrees in the scale, ordered by their pitch. Typically, notes in a scale have a type of musical cohesion where they just sound good together. Scales are typically identified by their root note, or tonic, and the sequence of steps from the tonic that leads to the other notes in the scale.

Some of the most common scales in modern western music consist of 8 notes. 7 of the 8 notes are unique, as the tonic note appears at the bottom of the scale and again an octave up at the top of the scale. One of the most common types of these scales is the major scale, which we'll cover in this post.

The Major Scale

A major scale is a group of notes that consists of a root, or tonic, and notes that follow the root in the following sequence: W-W-H-W-W-W-H, where W is a whole step and H is a half step. A specific major scale is named after its root / tonic, so the C major scale is a major scale with a C as the root / tonic.

C Major

A simple way to understand the major scale is to start on the first note in the conventional octave, C. The C major scale looks like this.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C

Here, we start on C, because it's our tonic. Then, one whole step to the right is D. One whole step after D is E. One half step after E is F. One whole step after F is G. One whole step after G is A. One whole step after A is B, and one half step after B is the C in the next octave!

With this, we follow the major scale form of W-W-H-W-W-W-H! And, a cool observation is that the C major scale is all of the white keys between any C and a C next to it.

If you play the notes sequentially from left to right, you'll find that the notes sound pleasent together.

D# Major

D# major is a major scale with D# as the tonic. It looks like this.

D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C
C#
D
D#
E

Where we start with D# and whole step to F. One whole step after F is G. One half step after G is G#. One whole step after G# is A#. One whole step after A# is C. A whole step after C is D. And, one half step after D is the D# in the next octave.

Again, we followed the form W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

Minor Scales

There are three different types of minor scales: natural, melodic, and harmonic. For the sake of simplicity, we'll cover the natural minor. You can read about the other minor scales in the additional reading at the end of the post.

Like the major scale, the natural minor scale is a sequence of 8 notes consisting of the tonic in addition to 7 notes in a sequence of steps in distance from the tonic. The minor scale follows the form W-H-W-W-H-W-W. Minor scales are also named after their tonic, like major scales.

C Natural Minor

The C Natural Minor scale looks like this.

C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C

Where we start with C and move a whole step to the D. One half step after D is D#. One whole step after D# is F. One whole step after F is G. One half step after G is G#. One whole step after G# is A#. One whole step after A# is the C in the next octave.

D# Natural Minor

The D# Natural Minor looks like this.

D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C
C#
D
D#
E

Where D# is the tonic, and F is one whole step after it. F# is one half step after F. G# is one whole step after F#. A# is one whole step after G#. B is one half step after A#. C# is one whole step after B, and D# is one whole step after C#.

Other Scales

While the major and minor scales are the most common scales, there are more than 24,000 possible scales in music, and some scales are more common in certain genres, like Blues and Jazz scales.

FAQs

What are scale degrees again?

Degrees in a scale are just the notes that comprise the scale. So, all the white keys from C to the next C are degrees in the C Major scale. In all scales, the tonic is called the first degree, the second note is called the second degree, the third is the third degree, and so on.

In most 8-note scales, the 1st through the 7th degrees in the scale are unique, and the 8th is the same note as the first. Sometimes, you'll even hear people refer to things like the 9th or 12th. To find these, just keep walking up the steps in the scale from the 8th (so the 9th is the same note as the 2nd but on the next octave, etc).

Do major and minor scales sound different?

I'm assuming you're asking this, because you can't hear the difference between them. Yes! Major scales typically have a happy, cheerful sound to them, while minor scales typically have a sadder sound.

What's next?

In the next post, we'll cover key.

Additional Reading

Major and Minor Scales - Dr. Barbara Murphy