The Music Scale

What is it that gives a music scale that special "color" of sound?

In this introduction to scales we will take a look at what scales really are and some of the scales that can be found in different musics of the world.

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What is a Scale?

A Scale [Scala in Greek/Italian means ladder or stairs] is a row of notes organized in a specific pattern of distances (intervals) between each step.

The Music Scale: Stepping stones

The common major scale, for example, is built with intervals of half and whole steps.

Between each note in a major scale, you'll find the following intervallic pattern (from the lowest to highest note):

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole whole, half.

Music scale in c major

Much like an artist who uses a palette of colors to paint, musicians and composers use scales as "frameworks" for creating music.

The scales give the characteristic sounds of different styles of music.

You may know how we sometimes think of major scales as having a "happy" sound and minor scales a "sad" sound.

How a Music Scale is Used

Throughout time, scales, tonalities, or modes have been used to compose music for different purposes. War, religious ceremonies, work songs, love songs, party songs...

The impact of the particular music on people’s feelings has at times been taken extremely seriously.

In ancient Greece for example, during the time of Aristotle and Plato, certain scales were encouraged and others were not- since the music was considered to have a huge impact on people’s ethics or morale!

In Indian classical music the scales are called “Ragas”.

Each Raga has a specific purpose, for example it should be played at a certain time of the day; like sunrise or sunset, or during different seasons.

In traditional music all over the world the music scale is often improvised over as an introduction to the piece, to introduce the mode or the tonality.

In Greece and Turkey this is called “taksimi or taksim”.

Tones, Semitones and Micro-intervals

There are numerous types of scales or modes throughout the world.

In the western musical tradition (as well as on the piano) we are limited to those scales that use steps no smaller than a ½ step.

But in many cultures the scales use “micro” intervals that are much, much smaller than a 1/2 step or semitone.

In for ex. Byzantine music, a half step can consist of many different micro steps. This can be a real challenge to be able to hear-or sing for that matter!

Listen to a beautiful singing technique using micro intervals:

The use of these “blue” or “bent” notes in traditional music is common all over the world.

The Blues scale is another such example.

Originally it used these “blue” notes as well- but to be able to play the Blues scale on the piano certain “compromises” were made. The result is great anyway and even though the real "blue notes" can not be played.

But here is a fantastic example on how to actually "bend" the blue notes on a piano:

Despite the pianos limitations regarding micro intervals, we still have plenty of scales to choose from.

The most common music scales played on the piano are major and minor scales, but make sure to explore other scales and modes as well, as you learn to play the piano! 

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