Music Theory Crash Course: Scales

You can admit it: You have often thought about the many traits that reptiles and musicians share, haven't you? So then you know that, besides exceptional dexterity and slightly odd-looking faces, reptiles and musicians both need scales.

For reptiles, scales provide protection from the elements. For musicians, scales provide protection from the wrath of music directors, as knowing about and practicing scales can help you to sing pitches more accurately and to give you a better understanding of the piece you are singing.

A scale is a series of ascending and descending notes (or, a plate-like membrane if you are a reptile). The way a scale sounds depends on the interval relationship between the pitches. 

Scales Are Patterns of Intervals

Many musicians know of two types of scales: major and minor. In general, you can identify a major scale because it sounds "happy." Minor scales, on the other hand, sound "sad." (That said, we put forth the disclaimer that the feelings experienced when listening to music are subjective and unique to each individual.) 

An easy thing to forget, or perhaps never to learn, is that there are three types of minor scales: harmonic, melodic, and natural minor. There are also "special" types of scales like blues, for example, but for the purposes of our Crash Course we are only going to discuss two: chromatic scales and whole tone scales.

Major Scales 

The interval relationship between the pitches in any scale is represented by a specific sequence of whole-steps (W) and half-steps (H). The sequence to construct a major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H. You will always create a major scale using this sequence, no matter which note you begin on. If you start on C, for example, the notes in the scale will be C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. If you start on Ab, the notes will be Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab. If you're counting, be sure to count the actual intervals, not the notes in the scale—that's an easy way to confuse yourself. Listen to a major scale:

C major scale

Minor Scales 

Minor scales come in three flavors and are more complex than major scales.

Natural minor scale: To create a natural minor scale, take a major scale and lower the third, sixth, and seventh pitches by a half-step. The sequence of half-steps and whole-steps is: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. So, a C natural minor scale, for example, is C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C. Listen to a natural minor scale:

C minor scale

Harmonic minor scale: This scale is almost the same as a natural minor scale, except that the seventh pitch is raised a half-step. The sequence of half-steps and whole-steps is W-H-W-W-H-[W+H]-H. For example, a C harmonic minor scale is C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B-C. Listen to a harmonic minor scale: 

C harmonic minor scale

Melodic minor scale: This scale has separate ascending and descending forms. To create a melodic minor scale, take a natural minor scale and raise the sixth and seventh notes by a half-step when ascending and lower the sixth and seventh notes by a half-step when descending (the descending form of a melodic minor scale is the same as a natural minor scale). The sequence of half-steps and whole-steps is (when ascending) W-H-W-W-W-W-H and (when descending) W-W-H-W-W-H-W. For example, the notes in a C melodic minor scale are (ascending) C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B-C and (descending) C-Bb-Ab-G-F-Eb-D-C. Listen to a melodic minor scale: 

C melodic minor scale ascending

C melodic minor scale descending

"Special" Scales

The two special scales we will discuss, the chromatic scale and the whole tone scale, are often used by choir directors in their warm-ups, usually as a precursor to the rehearsal of a piece that contains these scales or elements of them. The chromatic scale is useful for pitch accuracy, while the whole tone scale enables the singer to step outside normal tonal boundaries. 

A chromatic scale is a series of half-steps and contains all twelve chromatic pitches within an octave (learn more about octaves in "Intervals"). The sequence of steps is: H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H. For example, a G chromatic scale is G-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G. Because there are only half-steps in this type of scale, this means that there is, in essence, only one chromatic scale spanning the keyboard. Being able to sing a chromatic scale both up and down is a good exercise, particularly if you are trying to blend with a group, because it will help you to listen to other singers around you. Listen to a chromatic scale:

Chromatic scale

Likewise, practicing a whole tone scale will also help you to hone your listening skills. A whole tone scale a series of whole-steps within an octave. (A whole tone scale, then, is basically the opposite of a chromatic scale.) The sequence of steps is: W-W-W-W-W-W. Example: a G whole tone scale is G-A-B-C#-D#-F-G. Listen to a whole tone scale: 

Whole tone scale

*Disclaimer: No reptiles were harmed in the making of this article.

More Music Theory Crash Courses

1) Introduction

Why should we learn about music theory?

2) The Very Basics

A snapshot look at the staff and note placements.

3) Intervals

All you need to know is various combinations of half-steps and whole-steps.

4) Chords

Chords are made up of linked intervals.

5) Key Signatures

A key signature is a bank of either sharps (#) or flats (b) found at the beginning of each staff to the right of the clef symbol.