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Music scales are what create the special color of sound in a piece. A scale creates a particular mood; like happy or sad, “oriental” or “bluesy” for example.
Musical scales, called “roads” in Greek traditional music or Ragas in Indian classical music, are like the soul of the music and give different styles of music their special character.
In the musical traditions of the western hemisphere, the most common scales today are major and minor scales. But they are actually only two out of many, many other fantastic scales!
Of course, all scales and modes can not be played on all instruments, because the scales may contain micro tones that might not be playable on a particular instrument like the piano for example.
Let's take a look at how a scale is built, and a few of the most common scale types in the western music tradition.
A scale consists of pitches organized in a certain pattern of distances between them. Each type of scale has its own specific pattern.
These distances between the pitches are called Intervals.
The two most common intervals that are used to "build" scales are the semitone (half step) and the whole tone (whole step).
So we first need to take a closer look at the semitone or half step, the smallest interval in the Western music tradition, to learn more about this little interval that is so important in a scale.
The whole tone is the distance of two semitones.
Semitones and whole tones, (or half and whole steps) are the building blocks of major and most minor scales as well as modes.
Normally the C major scale is the first scale we encounter.
Why? Well, for several reasons. If you learn piano it is the easiest scale to see the pattern of, as you first learn to play, because it uses only white keys.
And, for other instruments, since it uses no altered notes, it is easier not to have to think about sharps or flats at first!
All the 12 major scales that we can play are actually only one! Or are there 15...?
Now it is getting more interesting!
A minor scale is actually only one scale but with several alterations. So one minor scale can sound in three ways- lovely!
The three types of minor scales are:
The pentatonic scales are great scales for beginners. If you play the piano you can see the pattern of a pentatonic scale on the black keys.
This scale is common in traditional music all over the world.
Many famous songs are actually made from a pentatonic scale, like “Auld Lang Syne” for example. Try picking it out on the black keys! Easy!
As the name says, this is a scale made from only whole tones, or whole steps. This creates a characteristic “open” sound, used by for example Claude Debussy in “Voiles”.
The Chromatic scale, from the Greek word "chroma" meaning "color", is a scale made from only half steps or semitones.
You would probably not compose music using only a chromatic scale, but it is great to use as a bridge or to "color" a particular passage in a piece, like for example in "Fur Elise" by Beethoven.
The blues scale is one of the essentials in a blues.
Together with the particular chord sequence called a 12 bar blues pattern, and the three-part phrasing with a repeated A-part, it is the essential recipe for a beautiful, soulful blues…
Every scale in major and minor is represented in the start of each staff by a Key (or tonality) Signature.
Then you immediately know what notes you need to alter with sharps or flats already before you start playing the piece.
Read more about key signatures:
Have you heard about the Tonic, Subdominant and the Dominant?
Each step of the major and minor scale has a note with a specific name. These are called Scale Degree names and are used in music theory when analyzing scales, as well as harmonies and how they relate to each other.
The circle of fifths ties it all neatly together and is my favorite musical tool.
All the major and minor music scales are represented in this circle based on the mathematical and musical legacy of Mr. Pythagoras himself.