Introduction to scales

This lesson is an introduction to scales. We'll look at questions such as what is a scale? What are some common scales? What's so great about scales? And, how do I tell them apart?

What is a scale?
We will define a scale as a group of tones within an octave (and any octaves of that note), usually played one at a time with a definate step pattern.

For the sake of this lesson, let's look closer at this definition; it's larger than most definitions of scales.

A group of notes
it is a collection of pitches (this is the set-theory view). other pitches are excluded. It is a distinction of which pitches are included as well as which ones aren't by exclusion.

Within an octave
This part is usually not found in the definition of a scale, and we do findscales that are smaller than or larger than an octave. Theses are the exception and not the rule.

Usually played one at a time
in a set theory view of structures (scales, chords, progressions, etc.) one of the distinctions between structures is how they are used, but the lines do blur. It is possible to use scales to form harmonies, and it is possible to play harmonies one at a time, hence the word usually.

With a definate step pattern
This is the traditional definition of a scale. Whether ascending or descending, the collection of tones hasa pattern going from tone to tone that is consistent. We will look at step patterns as a way to classify scales.

What are some common scales?
In western music the 2 most common scales are the major and minor scales. We wil spend the next 2 lessons looking at these. Some other common scales include the harmonic minor, melodic minor, minor pentatonic, and chromatic scales.

Also certain musics are intimately related to certain scales. Some examples are jazz minor being used in jazz music, and the bop scale being used in bop music. that's not to say that these musics don't use other scales as well, but that it is common to hear particular scales in certain musics.

How do I tell them apart?
We'll assume you know your intervals (or can refer to a chart like the one in the last lesson if you don't). the main ways that we differentiate and describe scales are b ythe following methods/definitions:
* by their step patterns
* as sets of intervals
* by intervallic notations

We'll start with the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale contains all 12 tones contained in the western system we are using. that is to say the chromatic scale contains the tones:

By their step patterns
Looking at the distance between 2 adjacent tones one pair at a time. We see that each tone is 1/2 step away from the next tone. This gives the definition for the chromatic scale:
Chromatic scale = 1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2.

We can see this visually as:

A  A#/Bb  B   C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E   F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab  A
 1/2   1/2 1/2 1/2   1/2 1/2   1/2 1/2 1/2   1/2 1/2   1/2

As sets of intervals
Another way of noting a scale is to list the intervals it contains.
Chromatic scale = Tonic,m2,M2,m3,M3,P4,tritone,P5,m6,M6,m7,M7,octave.

So I will commonly write out a scale showing all 3 definitions.
Chromatic scale = 1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2-1/2.
Chromatic scale = 1,#1/b2,2,#2/b3,3,4,#4/b5,5,#5/b6,6,#6/b7,7,8.
Chromatic scale = A,A#/Bb,B,C,C#/Db,D,D#/Eb,E,F,F#/Gb,G,G#/Ab,A.

Now let's try that again with the natural scales. the natural scales are the scales where there are only natural notes (no sharps or flats). So we see (by comaparison with the chromatic scale):

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A
  W  1/2  W   W  1/2  W   W 

A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = w-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = 1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W-W
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2-W
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = 1/2-W-W-W-1/2-W-W
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = W-W-W-1/2-W-W-1/2
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = W-W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W

This grouping of scales using the same notes but starting on different places (and therefore different step patterns), are called "modes" of a scale.

It should also be noted that the natural scales are made up of only W and 1/2 steps, we call these kinds of scales "diatonic" whic means "across the tones".

We note that the chromatic scale contains only one type of interval continually, so trying to find modes only gives the same step pattern, we call such scales "symmetric". Another symmetric scale is the whole tone scale.

Whole tone = W-W-W-W-W-W.

Back to the natural scales, and comparing with a transposition grid or analyzing the intervals we find:

A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7,8
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = 1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7,8
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7,8
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7,8
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = 1,2,3,#4,5,6,7,8
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7,8

We consider 2 of the natural scles. The 1st one A to A is also known as the natural minor scale and we can say:
Natural minor = W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W.
Natural minor = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7,8.
Natural minor = A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A. (key of Am)

major scale = W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2.
major scale = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.
Major scale = C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C. (key of C)

We will discuss the major and minor scales, as well as the next 3 lessons.

What's so great about scales?

The melodic template
Scales are genarally used as a collection of tones that fit together and can be used to create melodies. the scale tells you which notesto include and which to avoid (by their non-inclusion).
It should be noted that the creative process of expression is something different than the tools used in the process.

Chord construction
Scales can be stacked to create chords. This will be covered 4 lessons from now, in a lesson called traids.

Next lesson is on Intro to scales.

Christopher Roberts

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Next lesson - Major Scales (Intro to theory, pt.7)
Previous lesson - Intervals (intro to theory, pt.5)

Last updated March 20, 2003
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