A scale is a set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale is usually ordered by increasing pitch and is called an ascending scale. Scales generally span a single octave.
Scales help you understand music, how to solo, improvise, analyse chords, chord progressions and songs among many other aspects of music.
Types of Scales
Based around the number of notes, scales can be:
- Octatonic (eight notes): used in jazz and modern classical music
- Heptatonic (seven notes): the most common modern Western scale
- Hexatonic (six notes): Western folk music
- Pentatonic (five notes): common in folk music, oriental music
- Tetratonic (four notes): prehistoric music
- Monotonic (one note): liturgy
Half Step and Whole Step
Two keys side by side are one half step apart. Two keys separated by one other key are a whole step apart.
Building a Scale
You can build any scale starting on any root note simply by applying the correct scale pattern, or combination of whole (W) and half (H) steps.
Major scale: Tonic, W, W, H, W, W, W, H
Minor scale: Tonic, W, H, W, W, H, W, W
In Western music, mode refers to a type of scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviours. Modes have a tradition in Middle Ages and inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music.
Pop, Rock, Electronic
These are usually traditional Western seven-note or five-note scales. Composers also use different modes of scales such as Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian. The tonality and chord usage can also be more simpler than classical music. Simplicity is key to reach more people with these type of musics.
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
C Major Pentatonic
C, D, E, G, A
A Minor Pentatonic
A, C, D, E, G
Jazz and Blues
Jazz scales are usually common scales drawn from Western European classical music.
Other jazz scales, like the bebop scales, add additional chromatic tones to the basic scales.
C, D, E, G, A
A, C, D, E, G
A, C, D, D♯, E, G, A
Harmonic Minor Scale
C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B, C
Altered Dominant Scale
C, D♭, E♭, F♭, G♭, A♭, B♭
An easy trick to use Flamenco scale is to change all G notes to G#. The flamenco scale is interesting because it changes the basic pattern that we’ve gotten used to.
C, D♭, E, F, G, A♭, B, C
To match the emotions this is the list starting from C major.
Ethnic Groups and Geographical Places
Hungarian Minor Scale
B, C♯, D, E♯, F♯, G, A♯, B
C, D♭, E, F, G♭, A♭, B, C
C, D♭, E, F, G, A♭, B♭, C
C, D♭, F, G, B♭, C
The complexity of scales increased as time went by.
- Prehistoric: 3 to 5 notes per octave
- Ancient and Middle Ages: 5 to 7 notes per octave
- Modern: 5 to 13 notes
Most Popular Scales of All Music on Spotify
The secret behind G major is the convenience for being easy on both guitar and piano. You can read the The Most Popular Keys of All Music on Spotify article on Spotify’s website.
- G major
- C major
- D major
- A major
- C# major
- F major
- A minor
- G# major
- E minor
- B minor
Deciding on a Scale for Composition
When I compose music usually I have an early idea in my head about a melody, bass line or chords. Before writing a single note I try to find a scale to use. The scale is often based on a mood, otherwise I just default to the common C minor.
It is interesting because most of the time, when I hear a new idea I automatically hear it in C minor in my head. At the composition phase I may modify that to a major scale or choose a more exotic one like a Hungarian or a Gypsy scale.
- use the scale I default to in my head which is C minor
- use a scale based on a mood
- improvise freely in a random scale (that is also many times C minor or some other minor)
- choose a scale according to a plan
- find an exotic scale if I want something special like Egyptian or Japanese
In this article about scales, I explained a scale, how to build a major or minor version of it and how to choose it based upon genre, mood or places.
There are many more scales to explore. It is always exciting to try out new ones and write a song around it. Last time I used the Egyptian scale and it worked out fantastically.