What are Music Scales?

Music scales are sequences of notes arranged in a specific order based on pitch. They serve as the foundation for melodies, harmonies, and chords in music.

Scales are tools for composers, musicians, and music theorists, providing a framework for creating and analyzing musical works.

They provide a structure for melodies and harmonies and help in defining the tonality or key of a piece of music, which in turn influences the mood and emotion conveyed by the piece.

Music Scale Key Elements

Modes: These are scales derived from the major scale by starting on a different note. The most common modes are Ionian (major scale), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (natural minor scale), and Locrian.

Intervals: The distance between two notes in a scale is called an interval. Intervals play a crucial role in defining the character and sound of a scale.

Scale Degrees: Each note in a scale has a specific position or degree. In the C major scale, C is the first degree, D is the second, and so on.

Transposition: This refers to shifting a scale (or piece of music) up or down in pitch by a consistent interval.

Ionian mode C major scale

Types of Scales

Major Scale

This is one of the most commonly used scales in Western music. The major scale is often associated with positive, bright, and happy emotions.

The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it consists of seven distinct notes (plus the octave). It is defined by a specific pattern of whole (W) and half (H) steps as follows:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H

The major scale is made up of the following intervals:

  • Unison (1st)
  • Major 2nd
  • Major 3rd
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th
  • Major 6th
  • Major 7th
  • Octave (8th)

Each note in the major scale has a specific name based on its position:

  • 1st: Tonic
  • 2nd: Supertonic
  • 3rd: Mediant
  • 4th: Subdominant
  • 5th: Dominant
  • 6th: Submediant
  • 7th: Leading Tone
  • 8th (or 1st): Tonic (Octave)

Every major scale has a relative minor scale that shares the same key signature. For the C major scale, the relative minor is A minor.

Here are the notes for each major scale:

KeyMajor Scales Notes

Minor Scale

There are three types of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Minor scales generally have a sadder or more somber sound compared to major scales. 

Natural Minor Scale

The structure of the Natural Minor Scale is defined by the following pattern of whole (W) and half (H) steps:

W – H – W – W – H – W – W

Using this pattern, here’s a table showing the Natural Minor Scale for each of the 12 keys:

KeyNatural Minor Scales Notes
EbmE♭FG♭A♭B♭C♭ (B)D♭E♭

Harmonic Minor Scale

The Harmonic Minor Scale is a variation of the Natural Minor Scale with a raised 7th degree. This alteration creates a unique sound, especially between the 6th and 7th notes, and it helps in forming a major V (dominant) chord, which is harmonically significant in many musical contexts.

The structure of the Harmonic Minor Scale is defined by the following pattern of whole (W) and half (H) steps, as well as an augmented second (A2) between the 6th and 7th degrees:

W – H – W – W – H – A2 – H

Using this pattern, here’s a table showing the Harmonic Minor Scale for each of the 12 keys:

KeyHarmonic Minor Scales Notes
C#mC♯D♯EF♯G♯AB♯ (C)C♯
EbmE♭FG♭A♭B♭C♭ (B)DE♭
F#mF♯G♯ABC♯DE♯ (F)F♯

Melodic Minor Scale

The Melodic Minor Scale is another variation of the Natural Minor Scale. It is unique in that it has a different sequence of notes when ascending compared to when descending. 

When ascending, the 6th and 7th degrees are raised, while when descending, it reverts to the Natural Minor Scale.

The Melodic Minor Scale is often used in classical music, especially in pieces where the raised 6th and 7th degrees can create smoother melodic lines when ascending.

The structure of the Ascending Melodic Minor Scale is:

W – H – W – W – W – W – H

For the Descending Melodic Minor Scale, it follows the Natural Minor pattern:

W – W – H – W – W – H – W

Using this pattern, here’s a table showing the Melodic Minor Scale for each of the 12 keys:

KeyMelodic Minor Scales Notes – Ascending
C#mC♯D♯EF♯G♯A♯B♯ (C)C♯
F#mF♯G♯ABC♯D♯E♯ (F)F♯
G#mG♯A♯BC♯D♯E♯ (F)GG♯
KeyMelodic Minor Scales Notes – Descending
EbmE♭FG♭A♭B♭C♭ (B)D♭E♭

Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic Scale is a five-note scale that is prevalent in many musical traditions around the world. Its simplicity and melodic charm make it a favorite in numerous genres, from rock and blues to jazz and traditional music from various cultures.

There are two primary types of pentatonic scales in Western music: the Major Pentatonic and the Minor Pentatonic.

Major Pentatonic Scale:

Pattern: Whole – Whole – Minor Third – Whole – Minor Third

Minor Pentatonic Scale:

Pattern: Minor Third – Whole – Whole – Minor Third – Whole

Chromatic Scale

The Chromatic Scale is a twelve-note scale that includes all the notes within an octave. It moves in consecutive semitones (half steps) from the starting note to the same note an octave higher. 

Because of its structure, the chromatic scale doesn’t have a specific key center, making it unique compared to other scales.

The chromatic scale is often used for exercises and technical development on musical instruments due to its coverage of all the notes.

In compositions, the chromatic scale can introduce tension, color, and complexity.

Here’s what the Chromatic Scale looks like starting on C:

C – C♯/D♭ – D – D♯/E♭ – E – F – F♯/G♭ – G – G♯/A♭ – A – A♯/B♭ – B – C

The chromatic scale can start on any note, and it will always follow the pattern of consecutive half steps until it reaches the starting note an octave higher.

Whole Tone Scale

The Whole Tone Scale is a six-note scale that is built entirely of whole steps (tones). 

Because of its structure, there are only two unique whole tone scales in the 12-tone Western music system. 

This scale has a dreamy and ambiguous sound, often associated with impressionist music, and lacks the sense of resolution found in more traditional scales.

The whole tone scale does not contain any semitones (half steps) or leading tones, which gives it a very open and unresolved sound.

Famous composers like Claude Debussy have used the whole tone scale to create a sense of ambiguity and to paint atmospheric soundscapes in their compositions.

The scale is also used in jazz and other genres for its unique tonal color.

Because of its symmetrical structure, any note in the whole tone scale can serve as the starting point, and the pattern of whole steps will remain consistent.

Here’s what the two Whole Tone Scale look like:

Starting on C:

C – D – E – F♯/G♭ – G♯/A♭ – A♯/B♭ – C

Starting on C♯/D♭:

C♯/D♭ – D♯/E♭ – F – G – A – B – C♯/D♭

Less Common Music Scales

Apart from the major and natural minor scales, there are numerous other scales used in various musical traditions and genres. 

You can find a whole list of scales on Wiki.

Of the lesser-used scales, here are some of the more well-known ones.

Blues Scale: A variation of the pentatonic scale with an added “blue” note, often used in blues music.

Example: C, E♭, F, F♯/G♭, G, B♭

Augmented Scale: A six-note symmetrical scale formed by alternating minor thirds and half steps.

Example: C, E♭, E, G, A♭, B, C

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Additional Resources: Wiki – Music Scales

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