A scale is a group of pitches organized in ascending or descending order. While technically this means there are an infinite number of scales, there are only a few commonly used in western music.
The main types of scales in music are:
We will describe each in this article.
Before we discuss the scales we need an efficient way to spell them out. We will use lists of intervals in this post.
The intervals are abbreviated:
m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 TT P5 m6 M6 m7 M7
- m2 = 1 half step
- M2 = 2 half steps (or a whole step)
- m3 = 3 half steps
In addition we will use half step (H) interchangeably with m2 and whole step (W) interchangeable with M2.
If you are uncomfortable with these abbreviations check out this article on intervals to refresh completely.
Example for defining a scale:
The C major scale is – C D E F G A B (C). The intervalic relationship between C and D is a M2 or a whole step (W); the intervalic relationship between D and E is a M2; between E and F is a m2; etc. This leaves us with the formula:
- M2, M2, m2, M2, M2, M2, m2 or
- W, W, H, W, W, W, H
The general feeling of a major scale is “happy” or “positive emotions.”
As we discovered above the formula for a major scale is:
- W W H W W W H
For example if we start on an E and apply the formula we move up a W to F♯, up a W to G♯, up an H to A, up a W to B, up a W to C♯, up a W to D♯, up an H to E. This leaves us with the E major scale:
- E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E
The general feeling of a minor scale is “sad” or “negative emotions.”
There are three types of minor scales – the natural, harmonic, and melodic. I go in more depth on the necessity for these three types in this post on major and minor scales. For this post I will just give the formulas.
The natural minor scale formula uses the same sequence of intervals as the major scale formula, just with a different starting point. The formula is:
- W H W W H W W
So if we start on A and apply the formula we create:
- A B C D E F G A
(Notice these are the same notes as the C major scale!)
The harmonic minor scale is like the natural minor scale, but the note before we reach the starting note again is sharped. So G becomes G♯ in the a harmonic minor scale.
- W H W W H m3 H
The A harmonic minor scale:
- A B C D E F G♯ A
The harmonic minor scale sounds edgier than the natural minor scale. I think the funky m3 followed by a half steps creates more tension.
The melodic minor scale is one of the strangest. It is the natural minor scale when descending, but when ascending the two notes before the starting note are sharped.
The ascending formula:
- W H W W W W H = A B C D E F♯ G♯ A
Again, the descending notes are the same as the natural minor scale.
Like the major and minor scales the modes have 7 notes per octave. They even use the same order of notes – just with a different starting point. In fact, the major scale is a mode (the Ionian mode), and the natural minor scale is the Aeolian mode. I’ve listed their names, formulas, and mood I associate with each mode below.
|Ionian (major scale)||W W H W W W H / C D E F G A B C||Happy|
|Dorian||W H W W W H W / D E F G A B C D||Melancholic|
|Phrygian||H W W W H W W / E F G A B C D E||Mysterious|
|Lydian||W W W H W W H / F G A B C D E F||Over-sweet|
|Mixolydian||W W H W W H W / G A B C D E F G||Content|
|Aeolian (minor scale)||W H W W H W W / A B C D E F G A||Sad|
|Locrian||H W W H W W W / B C D E F G A B||Bizarre|
Pentatonic scales are made from five notes. To me they sound simple, and melodic. Many folk songs have melodies based on the pentatonic scale.
The classic example of a pentatonic scale are the black keys of a piano.
- G♭ A♭ B♭ D♭ E♭
This leads to the formula for the major pentatonic scale:
- M2 M2 m3 M2 m3
There is also a minor pentatonic scale and an example of it is:
- E♭ G♭ A♭ B♭ D♭
The formula is:
- m3 M2 M2 m3 M2
The whole tone scale is composed of six notes. As you may have guessed this scale is composed entirely of whole steps.
- W W W W W W
- C D E F# G# A #
Notice that this uses half the notes in an octave. There is only one other set of notes that creates a whole tone scale and that is:
- D♭ E♭ F G A B.
All whole tone scales use notes from one of these two groupings.
Similar to the whole tone scale is the chromatic scale. However, instead of whole steps it is composed of half steps.
- C C♯ D D♯ E F F♯ G G♯ A A♯ B C
There are many scales used in music, however, these are the most common. Other scales include octatonic scales, and ragas (which are kinda like scales in traditional Indian music).
Scales are one of the building blocks of music. The most common scales are major, minor, pentatonic, modes, whole tone, and chromatic scales.
Once you learn a scale, try playing around with it, or look for it in your sheet music.