Fundamentals & Theory - Theory - Scales

Theory - Scales


Scales are one of the most fundamental and useful concepts in western music. They are often used as a basic technique exercise for pitched instruments, but scales also serve a more important purpose. Knowing how to form scales (major, harmonic minor, etc.) is essential to gaining a true understanding of how and why tonal music works. Although there are only twelve unique tones in western music, there are fifteen scales because of enharmonic spellings. For instance, C# and Db represent the same scale in terms of pitch, but the notes within the scale are written differently. This is also true for F# and Gb, and B and Cb for major scales. (See scale notation for more details).






Major Scales

Major scales are comprised of eight notes; seven are unique notes, the eighth note is exactly one octave higher than the original note. Major scales are called "major" because they contain a major third; that is, the interval that is two whole steps away from the tonic. The terms major and minor do not refer to importance, rather to distance. A major third is simply larger than a minor third (four half steps instead of three half steps). Major scales are generally associated with happy or bright sounding music; in classical music, major is often used to sound heroic and grandiose.

Even if you do not know any scales, it is possible to construct a major scale using the following method. Begin on any note you like and advance upward in the following order. (Whole step = two tones up, Half step = one tone up)

Whole step - Whole Step - Half Step - Whole Step - Whole Step - Whole Step - Half Step

You should now be on the same note you started on, only one octave higher. You can, of course, continue up another octave or go back down to where you started. Since you can start on any note and construct a major scale using this method, it should be apparent that every major scale is the same scale, only starting from a different point.

Imagine sitting at a table and eating dinner - you have a certain view of the table from where you are seated. The next night, you sit on the opposite end of the table, and although you are looking at the same table, you still have a different view of it because you sitting in a different place. The same holds true for scales - they are fifteen different ways of looking at the same thing.

Psychologically, this is a very important concept to understand. There is no such thing as one scale being harder than another - a C major scale is not easier than an F# major scale. You only think it is harder, and hereby you make it harder to learn the F# major scale. If you have not yet learned scales to the point where they are second nature, do not stop with the "easier" scales that only have one or two sharps or flats in the key signature. All scales are equally important, and the more you understand, the more tools you give yourself to accomplish your goals in music.

One important note: traditional major and minor scales have a different letter associated with each note of the scale. Since a C major scale contains the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, a C# major scale contains the notes: C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#, C#. You may ask why E# and B# are spelled in this fashion when they are really just F and C, respectively. In any scale, the note names must ascend and descend stepwise and alphabetically, with their respective accidentals. If you spell C# major without using this logic, you get C#, D#, F, F#, G#, A#, C, C#. This scale contains two scale degrees of "F" and of "C". It is incorrect to give more value to one note name over another. The real importance of this issue is discussed in the intervals section if you have further interest.





Minor Scales

Minor scales are also comprised of eight notes - seven unique notes, with the eighth being an octave higher than the starting note. Minor scales are usually associated with sad or melancholy feelings. Minor keys are often used to relay the darker emotions. Since most people learn major scales first, it is usually easier to understand minor scales by comparing them to major scales. There are three types of minor scales: Natural minor, Harmonic minor, and Melodic minor.

Natural Minor Scale

You can turn any major scale into a natural minor scale by lowering the third, sixth, and seventh notes of the scale by one half step. For example, let's look at a C major scale. The third, sixth, and seventh notes are E, A, and B, respectively; therefore, to make C natural minor these notes are lowered to Eb, Ab, and Bb. Hence, the notes in C natural minor are: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Again, you can do this with any scale - they are all the same.

If you want to construct a natural minor scale from scratch, use the formula: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. (W=whole step, H=half step)

Harmonic Minor Scale

Once you understand natural minor scales, it is very easy to learn harmonic minor scales. Begin with any natural minor scale, and raise the seventh note up one half step. If you wish to compare harmonic minor with major scales, simply lower the third and sixth notes by one half step. Therefore, a C natural minor scale - C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C - becomes - C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B, C - a C harmonic minor scale. This scale is easily distinguishable to the ear because of the minor third interval (three half steps) between the Ab and the B. This is the largest interval present in any common scale; most intervals are either whole steps or half steps. The minor third gives the harmonic minor scale an Arabian flavor that's very unique when compared to the other minor or major scales.

Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is often the most confusing minor scale for most people because the notes on the way up are different from the notes on the way down. Let's examine the rising scale first. If you think of a natural minor scale, raise the sixth and seventh notes by one half step. If you think of a major scale, lower only the third note by one half step. Either way, for a C melodic minor scale (on the way up), the notes are - C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B, C. This should still sound like a minor scale if you play these notes up; however, if you were to play these notes starting from the top down, the scale would sound major until you played the Eb. This is the reason why melodic minor changes on the way down - the scale is meant to sound minor the entire time. Hence, once you reach the top, you play a natural minor scale on the way down. In other words, the entire C melodic minor scale is - C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B - C - Bb, Ab, G, F, Eb, D, C.

Minor Scales (Continued)



One important concept to note while learning these scales - when you are playing a song that is in a minor key, you do not necessarily use only one of these forms of minor. Many songs use combinations of the minor scales. (See example) If you were to take all the possible notes from all three forms of minor, (based on C), you would end up with the notes - C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C. Although all of these notes are not present in any one of the minor scales, every one of these notes can and probably would be considered diatonic within the key of C minor. I will explain this in greater detail under Chords and Functionality.



Advanced Minor Scales

Although these three scales are not technically minor, I am including them in under minor scales because both contain a minor third (that is, C to Eb, if you start on C). These scales are only recommended if you know all the other scales and are provided as an extra resource.

Blues Scale

The blues scale is not really a scale so much as a possible outline for soloing in jazz and rock music. As shown in several of the improvisation examples provided on this site (link), using blues scales while soloing can add a jazzy feel to what may otherwise be a bland solo.

Blues scales contain only seven notes as opposed to the traditional eight. A blues scale can be constructed with the following outline:

Begin with any note, then move up:
Minor third - Whole Step - Half Step - Half Step - Minor Third - Whole Step

This pattern should get you back to the note where you started. So, if you were to start on C, the scale would be spelled:

C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C (note: The second scale degree must be named Eb, not it's enharmonic equivalent, D# because from the Tonic to the 2nd scale degree is a minor 3rd, not an augmented 2nd)

If you play around with this scale a bit, you should hear how parts of it are used in many jazz and rock solos. If you are looking for more direction, check out some of Jordan's improvisation exercises and examine how he incorporates the blues scale into his solos.

Hungarian Scale

The Hungarian scale is closest to the harmonic minor scale except for a one note difference. If you start with a harmonic minor scale, raise the fourth note by one half step. Therefore, a C Hungarian scale is - C, D, Eb, F#, G, Ab, B, C. Note that this scale has two minor third intervals (Eb to F#, and Ab to B) instead of one. Another way of looking at this is that you have the normal outline of a minor scale (minor third, minor sixth) with leading tones going to the fifth (dominant) and the root (tonic); in this case, the leading tones are F# and B.

Other Scales

There are, of course, other types of scales that do not fit within the major and minor categories. These scales do not clearly establish any type of tonality; in other words, it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine where the scale ends or begins. As music has progressed through the twentieth century, composers have generally moved away from writing clearly tonal music. Some of them (Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, for example) use the following scales to mask or even remove tonality from their pieces.

Octatonic Scale

This scale is aptly named because unlike the other scales the octatonic scale contains eight (oct) unique notes instead of seven. The octatonic scale is also loosely referred to as the diminished scale because every other note in the scale (no matter where you start) outlines a fully diminished seventh chord. In fact, four notes of the scale outline one fully diminished seventh chord, while the other four outline a different one. There are only three unique octatonic scales, but of course, there are numerous ways to look at them. The simplest way to construct an octatonic scale is through the following method: Pick any note (in our example, we will use C), then advance:

Whole Step - Half Step - Whole Step - Half Step - Whole Step - Half Step - Whole Step - Half Step

Example: C, D, Eb, F, F#, G#, A, B, C

You can start on the same note and reverse the process, which results in an entirely different scale:

Half Step - Whole Step - Half Step - Whole Step - etc.

Example: C, Db, Eb, E, F#, G, A, Bb, C

Notice that the four main notes of these two scales: C, Eb, F#, and A (also known as a C fully diminished seventh chord) are exactly the same; however, the notes in between are off by one half step.

The final octatonic scale can be found if you start up a half step from the previous example (C#) and repeat the second process - Half, Whole, Half, Whole, etc:

Example: C#, D, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, B, C#

Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale simply outlines all twelve tones of western music. Begin on any note and advance one half step at a time until you reach the note you started (twelve notes later). For example, if you start on C, you get:

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

The chromatic scale is not really a scale; most of the time, you will hear chromatic used as a term to describe notes (or chords) that are not diatonic within a certain key or scale. In other words, D# is not a normal note within a C major scale, so it is a chromatic note. There is much more information on chromatic notes and chords in the chords and functionality section.

Whole-tone Scale

This scale is unique because the only interval present anywhere in the scale is a whole step; hence, the name, "Whole-tone ." This scale has only six unique notes instead of seven, and there are only two unique whole-tone scales. For example:

Example 1: C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C

Example 2: C#, D#, F, G, A, B, C#

It is impossible to classify a whole-tone scale as either major or minor because there is usually no way to tell where the root of a whole-tone scale lies. By looking at example 1, it may appear that C is the root of the scale, but you could just as easily start on E and end up with the same scale. Think of trying to pick out a point on a circle that represents the beginning of the circle. In general, it is impossible. The whole-tone scale is more closely related to the major scale than minor because every other note is a major third apart. Also, augmented triads are the only chord that fits diatonically within a whole-tone scale.


The simplest way to understand modes is to play an octave of all naturals (or white keys), starting on any note. For instance, you could play a C major scale but play from D to D rather than C to C. In other words:

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

You have just played a mode that is based off the C major scale. To understand how modes sound, try playing an octave of every natural note, starting on C.

Mode Name: Relationship to Major or Minor Scales

(note: in this list, minor scale always refers to a natural minor scale)

C to C - Ionian: Same as a major scale
D to D - Dorian: Minor scale with a raised 6th

E to E - Phrygian: Minor scale with a lowered 2nd
F to F - Lydian: Major scale with a raised 4th
G to G - Mixolydian: Major scale with a lowered 7th
A to A - Aeolian: Same as a natural minor scale
B to B - Locrian: Minor scale with a lowered 2nd and 5th

The modes can be divided into two major categories - major modes and minor modes. Ionian, lydian, and mixolydian are the three major modes because they most closely resemble a major scale (they all contain a major third). Dorian, phrygian, and aeolian are the three minor modes because they each contain a minor third.

You can use this shortcut list above to understand and play any mode from any note.

Let's play an F# Dorian mode. To refresh your memory, a Dorian is a minor scale with a raised 6th. Let's first make an F# natural minor scale - F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#. Now, raise the 6th to get - F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E, F#.

You may have noticed that the locrian mode is not included in either of these categories. Locrian is an exception to the rule because the scale cannot function the same way as the others. At first, it would appear to be a minor mode because of the minor third, but locrian also contains a diminished fifth, unlike the others which all contain perfect fifths. If you played a root triad in locrian, you would end up with a diminished triad, which is not normally used as the base chord for a piece of music. Likewise, since there is no perfect fifth, you cannot construct a dominant chord, which will successfully get you back to the root; hence, writing a piece centered around locrian requires that you go beyond the boundaries of traditional western music. But, for the sake of the shortcut list above, we classify its relationship with a minor scale for ease of understanding. If you are lost reading this paragraph, go read more about chords and functionality to better understand the concepts contained herein.