How Music Scales Work

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Understanding Music Scales – Cracking The Code

In practical terms, you can think of music scales as seasoning in food, where different types of spices and condiments provide different roles depending on what’s needed for that particular dish (which in this case would be a song or an improvisation piece). Each type of scale has a distinct musical sound which can lend itself to specific situations when that particular sound is needed. For example, a major scale tends to sound ‘happy’ and ‘bright’, whereas a natural minor scale will feel more ‘sad’ and ‘serious’. A harmonic minor scale sounds exotic, whereas a major pentatonic scale sounds bluesy. Therefore the purpose of understanding and learning different kinds of scales is to be able to use these different sounds depending on what’s needed in the music that you’re writing or even just jamming along to.

Theoretically, a scale is a sequence of notes arranged in a particular order of tone and semitone intervals. A scale can have five notes, seven notes, or even more, depending on what kind of scale it is. The formula of tone and semitone intervals will be exactly the same for all scales of that particular type, regardless of the key. So for example, an A Major scale and a Db Major scale will have the same tone and semitone intervals at their foundation, even if the actual notes that make up the scale are different. This specific formula gives each type of scale its own distinct and specific sound, or colour, which ultimately is the main musical purpose of having different kinds of scales in the first place.

If you would like to view the video version of this article, check it out below :

 

Table Of Contents

 

How Music Scales Work

Let’s take for example the Major Scale, which is what a lot of other scales are based on, and perhaps the scale that many start out with when learning an instrument. The formula for the Major scale is as follows (where T stands for tone and S stands for semitone) :

T T S T T T S

Each letter denotes the interval between one note in the scale and the next note in the scale. Using G Major as an example, the first note of this scale would be G itself. We start counting the T and S steps from the first to the second note, meaning that the first T denotes the jump from the first to the second note. Therefore, if the first note

is G, we call this the root note (or the home note). Then, the first T interval in the formula requires us to have a tone interval from the root note of G, which takes us to A (if you’re unsure how this works, refer to this article I wrote here about tones and semitones as they relate to the musical alphabet). The first two notes of the G Major scale are therefore G and A. Going from A, we come to the next interval in the formula, which is another T. Jumping up a semitone from A takes us to B, meaning that we now have G, A and B as the first three notes of the G Major Scale. The next interval is a semitone, which brings us from B to C. And so on and so forth until you have all the notes in the G Major scale. Once you complete the cycle of tones and semitones, you’ll come back to G, which will be an octave above the root G that we’ve started from. At this point, the intervals simply start again from the beginning, and the whole cycle repeats itself. Once you’ve applied the formula to the G Major Scale, you end up with the following notes :

 

G Major :

G A B C D E F# … G (octave)
T -> T-> S-> T-> T-> T-> S->

 

So the G major scale is made up of seven notes being G, A, B, C, D, E and F#. You can play these notes in any order over a G major scale and they will sound good (some more than others depending on the context, but that’s another topic).

You can take the principle above and apply it to any other type of music scale. For example, to get a minor scale, you use the interval formula T S T T S T T. Using a real life situation, if you wanted to build a C minor scale, you’d get the notes C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C (you can use the step by step process like we did above to verify this for yourself).

 

C Minor :

C D Eb F G Ab Bb … C (octave)
T -> S-> T-> T-> S-> T-> T->

 

 

Scale degrees

 

  • Numbering

All the different notes in a music scale can be referred to by their relationship to the root note. For example, in the G Major scale above, the root note is the G itself. The A is the second degree, the B the third, C fourth, and so on and so forth until the seventh (F#).  In musical notation, the different degrees are often referred to by their roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII). Different scale degrees tend to have different ‘weighting’, or importance in terms of how strongly they define and shape the sound of a particular scale. This is very important to know while improvising, since starting or landing (or stopping) on certain scale degrees will give you very specific results.

Without getting into too much scientific detail, we can quickly explore why this is. On a scientific/physics level, each and every note that you ‘hear’ is in actuality a physical waveform that vibrates through the air, travels via these vibrations to reach your eardrums, and is then converted into sound in your brain. Therefore each note has an actual pitch which is defined by a specific frequency.  The reason for different scale degrees having different weighting in a scale is due to the relationship that their particular frequency holds to the fundamental (root) frequency of that particular scale.

Usually, the root, third and fifth degrees of a scale are ‘resolved’. This means that if you play these degrees, the ear will be ‘satisfied’ and will not want these degrees to be followed by any other note in order to close out a particular musical phrase. Other degrees, however, are more ‘unstable’, typically want to resolve themselves to higher or lower degrees in order to give that ‘resolution’ effect. When I say resolve, I mean that the ear (or more accurately the brain) expects certain notes to act as gateways to other notes. This is what I mean when I say ‘unstable’. Other degrees, such as the root, third and fifth, are very stable, and if a musical phrase ends on any of these notes, the brain will not typically need to hear another note after it in order to be ‘satisfied’.

 

  • Musical application

Music is all about tension and release, sounds and silence. If you just use the stable, safe scale degrees all the time, you might not capture the attention and imagination of the listener as well as you would if you were to also use some of the more ‘exotic’ and unstable degrees, since there will be nothing to contrast them with. Using the second or sixth degrees in a piece of music, for example, will generally result in some musical tension, which when resolved to one of the stronger degrees will (subconsciously) create a pleasant sensation for the listener, since the tension has been resolved.

Obviously the amount of tension that needs to be built before it’s resolved (if it is resolved at all) depends very much on each individual piece of music and the style that it’s being played in. Pop music for example tends to feature musical phrases that start and finish with many of the ‘safer’ tones such as thirds and fifths. Jazz on the other hand tends to feature a lot of the more unstable tones such as seconds and sixths. A lot of the times, phrases might even start and finish with these degrees. Whenever a typically unresolved degree is used at the end of a phrase (what’s called a landing note), the tension lingers on and can create a very strong effect. Again this all depends on the sound that’s required. The vast science and musical theory behind the use of different scale degrees is too vast to cover in detail here, but hopefully that’s given you an insight into the importance of all the different notes of a particular scale.

 

Changing scale degrees to create new scales

You can often create a new music scale by changing some of the degrees in another. For example, you can turn a G Major scale into a G minor scale by adjusting a few of the note degrees in the scale. Namely, you’d need to flatten (or bring down by one semitone) the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the major scale. So using the G Major example above, you need to flatten the third degree (B becomes Bb), the sixth degree (E becomes Eb), and the seventh degree (F# becomes F). You can see this illustrated in the diagram below (I’ve put {} underneath the changed degrees) :

G Major G A B C D E F#
{} {} {} {}
G Minor G A Bb C D Eb F
  I II III IV V VI VII

 

In practical terms, there aren’t that many situations where you’d need to change a major scale into a minor form in the same key. However, I find this conversion useful to understand simply because it can give you another perspective on how to look at building one scale from another. Using this method, you can generate a lot of different scales just using one type of scale as the foundation (in this case the major scale). If you had to get into modes, which are basically scales with different kinds of sounds and intervallic formulas, you’d realise that you can extract any of these modes using just the major or minor scale as a basis. We won’t get into that here, but know that it’s quite powerful to realise that the difference between two very different sounding scales, such as major (happy) and minor (sad) happens by simply changing a few notes by just one semitone.

 

Relative Major/Minor Scales

A term or concept you might bump into is the relative major/minor. This is not the same thing as the major to minor conversion I showed in the example above, and would like to clarify the difference. The key of the relative minor scale is always the name of the sixth degree of the major scale. So for example, the relative minor of G major is E minor (since E is the sixth degree in the G major scale). Conversely, the key of a relative major scale in relation to its minor counterpart is always the name of the third degree of the minor scale. So for example, the relative minor of C minor is Eb major (since Eb is the third degree in the C minor scale).

Basically, the relative minor of a major scale consists of the same exact notes as the major scale, but with the degrees being shifted around. To get the relative minor from a major scale, you turn the sixth degree in the major scale into the root note (first degree) of the minor scale, meaning that what was the seventh of the major becomes the minor, the first of the major becomes the third of the minor, and so and so forth

G Major G A B C D E F#
  I II III IV V VI VII
E Minor E F# G A B C D
  I II III IV V VI VII

 

As you can see, the relative major and minor scales contain the same notes, but the degree (relationship to the root) of these notes has changed. This gives each note a different weighting (or importance) between one scale and the other. In musical terms, what this ultimately means is that you can actually play in G Major while the underlying harmony (chord) is in E minor, and conversely you can play in E minor while the harmony is implying G Major. You might be thinking, “if they use the same notes, what’s the difference?”. Fair question.

Basically, by thinking in E minor while playing over G major, you might play certain patterns and ideas that feature the stronger, bolder scale degrees in E minor, such as E (root), G (third) and B (V). In G major, the E is the sixth degree, meaning that playing in E minor over E major might give you more ‘exotic’ and interesting colourings than if you had to simply play from the perspective of G major all the time. I hope this makes sense!

 

Different Types Of Music Scales

There are other types of music scales with different intervallic formulas which can also be derived simply by changing around some aspects of an already known scale. Some scales contain seven notes. Examples would be the major, minor (also called the natural minor), harmonic minor and melodic minor. The major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales all have seven modes (or derivatives) that can be extracted from them, all of which contain seven notes with different intervallic formulas. Another example is the chromatic scale (which basically contains all twelve notes in the musical alphabet). One of the most important and widely used examples of this would be the pentatonic scale. There are different kinds of pentatonic scales, but the most common ones are the major and minor pentatonic. These scales are often used in blues and country due to their distinct, versatile and ‘open’ sound.

 

The pentatonic scale

 

Simply put, a pentatonic scale is (typically) a simplified major or minor scale which has had some of the notes emitted. As the name implies, a pentatonic scale contains five notes. A major pentatonic scale is basically a major scale without the fourth and the seventh scale degrees. So in the example above (using G Major), the G Major pentatonic scale is comprised of G, A, B, D and E. The C and F# are omitted, giving this scale a distinctly different sound to the full major scale.

 

The minor pentatonic scale, on the other hand, is a minor scale without the second and sixth degrees of that scale. So from the C minor example above, a C minor pentatonic scale contains the notes C, Eb, F, G and Bb. The D and Ab are omitted. Once again, this gives this scale a very particular and widely applicable kind of sound.

 

Summary

There are as many different kinds of scales as the imagination will allow. Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of scales is to serve a musical purpose, and not simply to act as a theoretical placeholder. Practising scales can also be of great technical benefit, since it helps you unlock the full potential of your chosen instrument and allows you to discover note placement in a very efficient and practical way. But the most important takeaway from this article should be that if you understand scales and the underlying principles on which they’re built, you’ll have more options and tools at your disposal when it comes to actually playing and making music, in whatever way you choose to do so!

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