Music Scales: A beginner’s guide

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If you’re learning any instrument, be it guitar, piano, or any other musical instrument or you’re just a music enthusiast wanting to learn and explore things in music then you’ll surely have this question that what really a scale is, how to play them and how to actually form them on your own.

In this post you’ll learn all the above mentioned things, different types of scales and where they are used or can be used. So without any further delay let’s get started.

Definition of a Music Scales

In music, a scale is a set or a combination of notes organized in a particular pitch or frequency. On an ascending scale, the pitch increases as we go to the next note. And in a descending scale, the pitch decreases as we go to the next note. In simpler words, a scale is a collection of notes from low to high or high to low.

Degrees of scale

So what is a degree of a scale? Each note in a particular scale is called a degree of that scale depending on how many pitches it is away from the first note or the starting note of the scale. The different names of degrees are-

  • 1st Degree- The Tonic
  • 2nd Degree- The Supertonic
  • 3rd Degree- The Mediant
  • 4th Degree- The Subdominant
  • 5th Degree- The Dominant
  • 6th Degree- The Submediant
  • 7th Degree- The Leading tone/note
  • 8th Degree- It is actually the Tonic but of higher octave

* In most of the cases the tonic note is the key in which we are playing or singing.

Types of scales

1. Diatonic scale

A diatonic scale is a heptatonic scale that is the combination of seven notes with two half steps(semitones) and five whole steps(tones) in each octave. The two half steps are separated by two or three whole steps depending on the type of the scale.

Types of Diatonic scale

Major scale- A major scale is a type of diatonic scale with seven notes where these notes are obtained by a specific formula or combination of tones and semitones. These scales sound bright and happy as compared to the minor scales. The formula to obtain a major scale is-

Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half, where whole means a gap of a whole step or whole tone and half means a gap of half step or a semitone.

major scale music sheet

Minor scale– Like major scales, the minor scale also has seven notes but the formula or combination of tones and semitones to get those seven notes are different. These scales sound dark and intense. So the formula is-

Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole

minor scale music sheet

Types of Minor scale

Minor scales are of three types-

  • Natural minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor

a) Natural minor– The natural minor scale is the exact scale that we discussed above in the minor scale.

b) Harmonic minor– It is a type of minor scale with the only difference in the seventh note, just increase the seventh note of any scale by a half step(semitone) and you’ll get the harmonic minor of that scale. The formula to get a harmonic minor scale becomes-

Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole + half (1 1\2) – Half

c) Melodic minor– This is a type of minor scale in which we use different combinations of notes while going up(ascending scale) and different notes while coming back(descending scale). While going up we raise the 6th and 7th note by half step, and while coming back we use the same path that is in the natural minor scale(while coming back). See the formula for better understanding.

Formula while going up-

Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half

Formula while coming back-

Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole

2. Chromatic Scale

The word chromatic came from the word chroma, meaning color. This means the chromatic scale uses notes outside the major and minor scales to add color to the melody or scale. So, the chromatic scale has 12 notes with a gap of half step or a semitone between two consecutive notes. Note that the chromatic scale is not in any particular key as it uses all the notes in an octave, instead we just use the note in which the chromatic scale starts. The formula so obtained is-

Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half – Half (12 times)

diatonic scales

3. Whole tone scale

The whole tone scale, as its name suggests has a gap of a whole tone(whole-step) between two consecutive notes. Thus, a whole tone scale has sic notes and is a type of hexatonic scale. The formula to obtain the scale becomes-

Whole – Whole – Whole – Whole – Whole – Whole

whole tone scale on music sheet

4. Pentatonic Scale

Similar to a pentagon, the pentatonic scale has five notes. They are mainly of two types though there can be many types as these five notes can be arranged in any manner or position according to the permutations and form different scales. So the main types are the major and minor pentatonic scale. These are mainly used in blues and modern rock nowadays.

The major pentatonic scale can be obtained by the major scale itself, just remove the fourth and seventh note of the major scale. The fourth and seventh notes together are called a tritone, and because the tritone is missing on this scale, it sounds happy and lively. So the five notes or degrees in the major pentatonic scale are- tonic, supertonic, mediant, dominant, and submediant.

major pentatonic scales position for guitarists
For guitarists

The minor pentatonic scale is relatively easy to find, you just have to know the relative minor of the major scale. To make it easier for you let’s take an example, the C major pentatonic scale’s relative minor is A as it is three semi-tones down from C (B, A#, A), so the A minor pentatonic scale will have the same notes which are in the C major pentatonic scale, the only difference is that it will start from A. See below.

  • C major pentatonic scale- C D E G A
  • A minor pentatonic scale- A C D E G (same notes but starting from A)

If you want to find minor pentatonic scales from the notes/degrees then they are 1- b3- 4- 5- b7(*note these are based on major scales). So if you want to find C minor pentatonic scale, then first consider the major scale i.e C-D-E-F-G-A-B then find these five notes, 1=C, b3= Eb, 4= F, 5= G, b7= Bb, so this is the C minor pentatonic scale.

minor pentatonic scales position for guitarists
For guitarists

Music modes

You must have heard the term modes if you are into music, so what are they? They are nothing but seven different types of diatonic scales which means they use seven notes with two semitones and five whole tones. These modes are as follow:-

  • Ionian mode
  • Dorian mode
  • Phrygian mode
  • Lydian mode
  • Mixolydian mode
  • Aeolian mode
  • Locrian mode
music modes sheet
Note these modes are similar to the original scale but starting from a different degree/note, thus have a different sound and feel.

Depending on the notes used and the feel of these modes the modes can be minor or major. The three major modes are- Ionian mode, Lydian mode, and Mixolydian mode. They are major modes as the third note used is a major third. The minor modes are- Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian mode. They are minor modes as the third note used is a minor third.

Ionian mode

Ionian mode is the easiest mode to understand and learn as it is exactly the same as the major scale. So the formula to get an Ionian mode of any scale is W – W – H – W – W – W – H.

Dorian mode

A Dorian mode is a minor scale due to its minor third. We obtain the Dorian scale by flattening the third and the seventh note. The formula to obtain the Dorian scale is W – H – W – W – W – H – W.

Phrygian mode

Like Dorian mode, it is also a type of minor scale due to its minor third. By flattening the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes, we get the Phrygian mode which is very dark and tense. Formula to obtain Phrygian mode- H – W – W – W – H – W – W.

Lydian mode

Lydian mode is a type of major scale because of which it sounds brighter than the other modes. To get Lydian mode we just sharpen the fourth note of a major scale. The formula so obtained is- W – W – W – H – W – W – H.

Mixolydian mode

Mixolydian mode is another type of major scale mode also known as a dominant scale because it is the 5th major mode and the 5th degree of a major scale is known as a dominant. To get Mixolydian mode just reduce the 7th note of any major scale by half step. The formula becomes- W – W – H – W – W – H – W.

Aeolian mode

The Aeolian mode is a type of minor scale. In fact, it is exactly the same as the natural minor scale i.e with the flattened 3rd, 6th, and 7th note. The formula as you all know is- W – H – W – W – H – W – W.

Locrian mode

And the last type of mode is the Locrian mode, it is the darkest among the minor modes as it also uses a diminished 5th note because of which sometimes it is also named as a half-diminished mode. To get the Locrian mode we flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes. The formula is- H – W – W – H – W – W – W.

Conclusion

So I’ve covered all the types of scales that are mainly used in music with necessary details. I’ll be posting more about scales, their history, and music theory stuff so stay tuned. To know about chords and chord formation, refer to this post. Hope you gained some knowledge about music scales. Apply them practically on your instruments, be it piano, guitar, or any other instrument.

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