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 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 musical scales create the characteristic sounds of different styles of music.

Perhaps you 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.

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

In Indian classical music, 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, a 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 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 intervals no smaller than a ½ step.

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

In for example 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 “blue” notes as well, but to be able to play the Blues scale on the piano, certain “compromises” had to be made. The result is great anyway even though the real "blue notes" can not be played on a piano keyboard.

But here is a fantastic example of how it's possible to actually "bend" the blue notes on a piano:

Despite the piano's 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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