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Understanding and Building Musical Scales: Definitions & Types of Scales

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  • 1:52 Half Steps and Whole Steps
  • 3:25 Building a Scale
  • 4:04 The Major Scale
  • 5:33 The Minor Scale
  • 8:56 Non-Diatonic Scales
  • 11:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

What is a 'scale' in music? How do tonality, pitch, and accidentals play a role in making a scale? What kinds of notes make up a scale? What is the difference between a Major scale, minor scale, blues scale, and pentatonic scale? Learn all about scales in this lesson!

Scales: Definition

You now know some of the building blocks of music, like pitch is how high or low a note sounds and is referred to with a letter note. And, you know that accidentals are sharps and flats, sharp being a raised pitch and flat being a lowered pitch. You also know that tonality is the character of the tones and harmonies heard in a piece of music, where Major is happy and cheerful and minor is serious and dramatic. But, tonality, pitch, and accidentals are not generally independent of one another, and they are most often found working together in the context of a scale.

For centuries, scales have been used to arrange and give context to pitches. A scale is simply a set of pitches. They are usually arranged according to pitch in ascending or descending order. Pretty much all of the music you listen to is based on scales, and the song 'Do-Re-Mi' from The Sound of Music is literally based on singing a scale. The different scales provide different tonalities but rely on the same basic pitches. It's the arrangement of these pitches that determines the scale's tonality and function. You can think of it like a racing game. Each character gets from point A to point B, but their cars and driving style change the feel of the game. So, how are scales made? How does the musician know what pitches are in a scale?

Half Steps and Whole Steps

Most scales are based on the intervals between pitches. You can think of this like the distance you travel on the Monopoly board depending on the number that you roll. In Western music, the smallest interval is called a half step. Half steps are pitches that are adjacent to one another, like C and Db or E and F, where there is no pitch in between. On a guitar, a half step can be found easily because the neck is broken up into half steps. So, when you're shredding the green and red buttons in Guitar Hero, you're technically shredding half steps!

The other common interval is a whole step. A whole step is really just two half steps put together. An example would be C and D or A and B. Pitches that are a whole step apart tend to have the same accidentals, like C# and D# or F natural and G natural. Because whole steps are just two half steps put together, whole steps on the guitar are one fret apart. On the Guitar Hero guitar, this would be the green button to the yellow button.

Building a Scale

When we start linking whole steps and half steps together in sequence, we get different types of scales. This can become somewhat confusing or even annoying, but it's really just like learning how to play a new game. Like our racing game characters, each scale has its own set of characteristics. In this case, the characteristics are a set pattern of whole steps and half steps. Each scale follows its own pattern of whole steps and half steps. So, no matter what note you start on, you can always figure out a scale based on its pattern.

The Major Scale

The Major scale pattern is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half (W-W-H-W-W-W-H). It includes one of each letter of the musical alphabet. In Western music theory, scales tend to be measured or compared to the Major scale, so this is an important one to know.

Let's examine how this pattern works. If you start on C and go a whole step, you land on D. From D to the next whole step is E. The next distance of a half step takes us from E to F, another whole step brings us to G, another to A, another to B, and finally a half step brings us to the original pitch C. This particular scale is called the C Major scale since the pattern starts on and revolves around the pitch C. If you wanted to build the F Major scale, you just start on F and apply the same whole and half step pattern. This time, you have F moving a whole step to G, G moving a whole step to A, A going a half step to Bb, Bb to C, C to D, D to E, and E going a half step to F.

Minor Scale

Another scale you hear frequently is the minor scale. Since the minor scale has a different tonality than the Major scale, it has a different pattern. There are actually three types of minor scales, but we'll start with the most common, the natural minor scale. The natural minor scale pattern is W-H-W-W-H-W-W. So, if you found the A natural minor scale, you would have A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. If you found the C natural minor scale, you would have C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C. Here, you can see that compared to the Major scale, the natural minor has a lowered 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degree.

The two other minor scales are similar to the natural minor, but have slight variations on the pattern. The harmonic minor scale pattern has a 1.5-step jump between the 6th and the 7th pitches. So, the harmonic minor pattern is W-H-W-W-H-1.5-H. If we start this pattern with A again, we get A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A. When compared with the natural minor scale, you can see that only the 7th note is different. In the harmonic minor scale, the 7th scale degree is raised.

The third type of minor scale is the melodic minor scale. The melodic minor scale is an anomaly when it comes to scales because it has different ascending and descending pitches. The ascending pattern is W-H-W-W-W-W-H, where the 6th and 7th pitch are raised. The descending pattern follows the same as the natural minor scale, so overall, the scale sounds like this (please see the video at 07:52 to hear this scale).

Diatonic and Non-Diatonic Scales

Both the Major and minor scales are diatonic, in that they use each letter name once, A B C D E F G, with the repetition of the first pitch. The patterns for Major and minor scales - which are both diatonic - are virtually the same - it's just that they start in different places. However, not all scales are diatonic.

Some scales are non-diatonic in that they don't use each letter name or they use pitches which are not normally within the scale, like we saw in the harmonic minor scale with 1.5 steps. Non-diatonic scales have like a secret weapon to spice up the sound. Besides the harmonic minor scale, some common examples of non-diatonic scales are the chromatic scale and the blues scale.

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