Music Scales: What They Do, and Why You Need Them

'm sure you have at least heard about music scales, or maybe you know what they are, but want to learn more about them. They're really one of the simplest things in music.

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A scale is a set of notes usually in sequential order that is used to play in a particular key or range.

Different songs will use different scales and different parts of the same song can use different scales. Simply put, a scale is a set of notes we work with in any music. Right now we'll just be working with major scales and chromatic scales. Minor scales will be covered in an intermediate aricle. 

Scales are usually presented to us in a sequential order from one note (C) up through the other notes in the scale to the next note of the same letter name (C). This is a one octave scale because it only goes up through one full set of the notes, or one full octave.

C D E F G A B C

This is a two octave scale:

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

These are the notes of the C major scale. The key of C has no sharps or flats. The key of D has two sharps.

D E F# G A B C# D

So how do you know which notes to make sharp or flat? There are two ways to tell. One way is to use a chart as a reference, such as this one . I actually don't prefer this way because it relies on either referring back to the chart every time, or simply brute force memorization of all of the key signatures. (While it is indeed a good idea to memorize all of them, it's better to do it in a way that makes sense.)

Whole Steps & Half Steps

That's why we have this way. This is also one way that we can use to actually build scales from scratch, and that is by counting up in whole steps and half steps.

A half step is the distance between one note and the next note up or down. So referring to the music alphabet, A to A# is a half step. B to C is a half step. E to Eb is a half step. So that means that means that whole step is two of these, so A to B is a whole step. F# to G# is a whole step. F to Eb is a whole step. Any major scale is made up of these steps:

w w h w w w h

That means that there is a whole step between the first note and the second note, a whole step between the second note and the third note, a half step between the third note and the fourth, and so on.

C w D w E h F w G w A w B h C

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

Remember this pattern. Get used to saying "whole whole half, whole whole whole half". This pattern will remain the same for all major scales. Say this pattern out loud several times until you memorize it.

When you play any music scales on an instrument or sing them, be sure to play/sing them forwards and backwards, or ascending and descending. This gives you a firmer understanding of how those scales are supposed to sound.

Numbering Scale Degrees

When we talk about scales, it's useful to be able to talk about individual components of those scales. We call those components 'degrees.' But rather than having to say "it's the F# in a D scale" and "it's the G in an Eb scale" we just call that degree the 3rd. This means that any major scale can be converted to these numbers:

R w 2 w 3 h 4 w 5 w 6 w 7 h R

That means that we can use this formula to make any major scale. Just start on a note, and use that "whole whole half, whole whole whole half" pattern.


Hope this helped to shine some light on what music scales are supposed to be. Again, if you want to learn more about minor scales, click here.


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