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Music Scales: A Beginner’s Guide

Regardless of which musical instrument you are learning to play, scales are important. They are one of the first things you will need to understand and master. 

Most of us start off by learning a simple major scale like C, for instance. But, that is just your starting point for entry into the magical world of scales. Boring as they are often portrayed, they are the foundation of music. And the building blocks for everything you play and, of course, write.


More Scales Than you Might Imagine

If you are a newcomer to music, then you should be aware that there are lots of scales. All with their own attributes, and most sound very different from each other. You will hear some that sound happy, whilst others a little sad.

The varieties are interesting in that some scales only have five notes, but others have twelve. Some scales create a lively atmosphere, and others can create a dark feel to the music.

You Might Already Know More Than you Think

Many of us have been exposed to some form of music since we were young. Because of that, we might already know more than we think. If someone begins to sing the first couple of notes of a scale, you might be able to carry on. Maybe at school, you did do-re-mi- etc. You may well be able to sing the fa-so-la ti-do notes that follow. That is a scale.

In this article, I am going to look at many of these scales and some modes of scales. I am going to try and define them for you, and teach you how to learn musical scales by yourself

So, let’s get started with my Music Scales: A Beginner’s Guide.

What is a Scale in Music

What is a Scale in Music

The basic concept of a scale is not difficult to understand. They are just a group of notes. These notes can be arranged in an order that is either ascending or descending. 

On an ascending scale, the pitch of every note is higher than the last one. The same applies on a descending scale but in reverse. Each note in a descending scale must be lower than the previous.

Scale Degrees

If you look at a scale written on a musical stave, you will see there is a note in every space and on every line. These are known as degrees within the Diatonic scale, and they all have a specific name for reference. 

The first note of the scale is always known as the tonic, wherever the scale starts. The names of scales degrees are as follows.

  • 1st degree, or first note of the scale – The Tonic.
  • 2nd degree – The Supertonic.
  • 3rd Degree – The Mediant.
  • 4th Degree – The Subdominant.
  • 5th Degree – The Dominant.
  • 6th Degree – The Submediant.
  • 7th Degree – The Leading Tone or Note.
  • 8th Degree – Tonic, but one octave higher.

Because there are two tonics, the first and the eighth degree, you should always refer to the first as the “1st degree”.

Seven Tones or Notes

What I have described are the degrees for a Diatonic scale. That is a scale with seven notes. (The eighth being the same as the first, just an octave higher). Degrees are applicable for every type of scale and fixed. 

As an example, the Pentatonic scale only has five notes and not seven. But the degrees are not listed as one to five. They are degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 of the Major or Diatonic Scale. I shall return to the pentatonic scale later.

The Major Scale

There are in total 12 different major scales, one for each of the 12 notes in western music. The major scales are probably the most common you will come across. They can be defined by how the notes combine and relate with each other. 

There is a set formula for making a major scale that applies wherever you start. Meaning that the formula for creating a major scale is the same if you started on C or Ab. So let’s look at the formula so you can work out a major scale for yourself.

A Combination Of Tones and Semitones

A major scale is defined by its use of tones and semitones, or half steps and steps, as they are sometimes known. This combination of notes and their placement on the stave lines we call the scale formula.

By using this formula, you can create any of the twelve major scales. It doesn’t matter where you start; the formula will always be the same. The formula is:

  • Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, and Semitone.

As an example, to create the scale of C, you start on the root note, which is C. Then go up a tone to D, a tone to E, a semitone to F, etc.

Or described in whole steps and half steps:

  • Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, and Half.

As I say, this formula applies to creating any of the twelve major scales.

Minor Scales

As with the major scales, there are also twelve minor scales. Each Major scale has its minor option. Minor scales all have seven notes, just like the major scale. But there is a defining rule with minor chords that makes them easy to recognize. That rule is that the third note of the scale is always flattened by a semitone.

Counting up from the root note, C in a scale of C, the third note is three semitones above the root note. So, the note of E in the C major scale, which is the 4th, becomes Eb in the C minor scale, which is the 3rd.

The Formula for the minor scale then reads:

  • Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, and Tone.

Or put another way in steps:

  • Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Semitone, Whole, and Whole.

Three Kinds of Minor Scales

Three Kinds of Minor Scales

There are three types of the minor scale.

  • Natural minor (which we have just looked at).
  • Harmonic Minor.
  • Melodic Minor.

These are all different from each other. Each type of minor scale has its own formula of tones and semitones. The common thing to them all is that within their construction, they all have a minor or flattened third.

How Do They Sound?

It is sometimes easy to pick up the difference between a major and a minor scale. The major scales are usually quite happy-sounding, but the minor scales tend to be dark and rather melancholy.

Chromatic Scales

What we have considered thus far are what are known as Diatonic scales. They are also known as Heptatonic as they have seven notes. Diatonic or Heptatonic scales are also in a specific key. 

The first note of the scale is the tonic or first note. As we have seen, these constitute a pattern that includes five tones and two semitone intervals. But this is only part of our Music Scales: A Beginner’s Guide.

All Twelve Notes

A Chromatic Scale is very different from the Diatonic Scale. It includes all the Diatonic notes but also includes the other five notes. It is thus made up of all twelve notes that make up western music.

All of the notes in the chromatic scale are a semitone above the last. So to play a chromatic scale, you pick a note, play the next note, a semitone up until you get to the octave up of where you started. 

So, for example, you would start on C and play every semitone going up until you reach the next C. Because of this format, it is not possible to assign a chromatic scale to a key. It is just the scale of where you start.

A Whole Tone Scale

Another scale variation is the whole tone scale. As the name implies, it is a scale where the interval between notes is always a tone. There are no semitones at all. In many ways, it could be considered the opposite of the chromatic scale. 

Where the chromatic has every note separated by a semitone, the Whole Step Scale is separated by that whole tone. It’s sometimes referred to as the Hexatonic scale as it only has six notes.

The Pentatonic Scale

It’s now time to revisit the Pentatonic scale I mentioned earlier. This is a scale that only has five notes. Pentatonic coming from the Greek word “pente,” which means five, as in Pentagon, Pentathlon, etc. These scales have been around for a very long time and are commonly used in a variety of modern genres, including Jazz, Folk, Blues, and Rock music.

That range of genres includes songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. Also, “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones and other more traditional songs such as “Amazing Grace.”

The Five Notes

The degrees that make up the Pentatonic scale are:

  • The Tonic or first degree.
  • The Supertonic or second degree.
  • The Mediant or third degree.
  • The Dominant or fifth degree.
  • The Submediant or sixth degree.

As it is so easy to use, it has become a firm favorite with many musicians.

Major Scale Modes

Major Scale Modes

Every major scale has what we know as seven separate modes. These are called the “Greek” modes as they originated in Greece and have been given the names of regions around Athens.

These are known as:

  • Ionian.
  • Dorian.
  • Phrygian.
  • Lydian.
  • Mixolydian.
  • Aeolian.
  • Locrian.

The Ionian mode is another name for a major scale it applies to. The C Ionian is, therefore, just C major, as I have previously explained. The Aeolian is the natural minor, which I’ve also already explained. So, that’s two scales already covered. 

The others are variations, and they create an atmosphere in the music. Some are major, and some are minor. Each has a very different sound because of the way the scale is constructed. And each has its own formula for constructing them.

The formulas are as follows, where T = Tone and S= Semitone.

  • Ionian = T-T-S-T-T-T and S.
  • Dorian = T-S-T-T-T-S, and T.
  • Phrygian = S-T-T-T-S-T, and T.
  • Lydian = T-T-T-S-T-, and S.
  • Mixolydian = T-T-S-T-T-S, and T.
  • Aeolian = T-S-T-T-S-T, and T.
  • Locrian = S-T-T-S-T-T, and T.

When constructing them, you choose the first note of any key and then apply the first step. So in C, you will go up either one tone or half a tone as the formula dictates.

They are an interesting set of notes to experiment with. And when you do, you can hear a variety of music options and the atmosphere they create.

Part of The Learning Curve

Becoming familiar with and how musical scales work is an important part of your development as a musician. They can have a great effect on what you play and how you play. And, of course, open up so many different options for songwriters and composers.

These references might come in useful for the beginner, The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences, and The Complete Thesaurus of Musical Scales. And if you are interested in music from other parts of the world, check out Scales & Modes of World Music.

Interested n Learning More Music Theory?

Then take a look at our handy guides on The Treble ClefThe Tenor ClefDiatonic ScalesA Guide To The Chromatic ScaleA Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint, and the Best Music Theory Apps for more useful information.

Also, an instrument upgrade could help. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Digital Grand Piano, and the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500 you can buy in 2023.

Music Scales: A Beginner’s Guide – Final Thought

At first, it can all seem a little confusing. But as you practice and familiarize yourself with the scales and the modes, it will begin to make sense. As with everything, practice makes perfect, so take your time and enjoy the ride to musical mastery!

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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