Scales are one of the most important building blocks of music.
But musical scales can be intimidating if you’re just getting started.
In this in-depth guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about scales—what they are, how to use them and which ones are the most important to make music.
- What are music scales?
- Why should you learn scales?
- Types of scales
- Major Scales
- Minor Scales
- Pentatonic scales
- Blues scales
- Modes of the major scale
- Other scales
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What are music scales?
Scales in music are a collection of notes played one after another following a set pattern of intervals. The pattern defines the quality of the scale and repeats with the same set of pitches at each octave.
Scales are most commonly used as the melodic form of the set of notes in a key, but many other collections of notes are possible outside the twelve keys.
Why should you learn scales?
A scale is like a framework you can use to generate ideas for melodies, hooks, basslines or leads.
And if you like to improvise, scales are the patterns you use to choose which notes to play.
Scales are essential to know for playing along with other musicians and keeping your instrument in key with the song.
With all those different applications, it’s no wonder scales are taught as a fundamental of music theory.
What types of scales are there?
A scale in music can be almost any collection of notes.
The most important scales for musicians are:
I’ll go through each one, explain how they work and provide resources to help you learn them.
Major scales come from major keys and contain the notes required for major chords. The sound of the major scale is typically associated with happy feelings and a bright consonant tone.
The sound comes from the characteristic major third interval that forms the third degree of the scale.
If you need a refresher on intervals, head over to our guide to brush up.
Here is the pattern of tones and semitones used to construct the major scale.
Minor scales are the next most important scale type in music.
These scales come from the minor keys and contain the minor third interval that we often associate with sad sounding music.
But unlike the major scale, minor scales can take a few different forms depending on how they’re used in a song.
The three different types of minor scales are:
- Natural minor (sometimes called Aeolian mode)
- Melodic minor
- Harmonic minor
The natural minor scale is the simplest and contains this pattern of tone and semitones:
If you look closely, you’ll notice that this minor scale contains the same scale formula as the major scale if it began on scale degree six!
This phenomenon is called the relative major and it can help you build minor scales and identify minor keys.
But the natural minor scale poses a problem in certain melodies and harmonic progressions.
Without a raised leading tone (scale degree seven), natural minor does not contain the notes needed to create a dominant seventh chord from its fifth degree.
Raising the seventh degree of the natural minor scale solves the problem and gives you the Harmonic Minor scale. Here’s the interval pattern:
But the harmonic minor scale has its own quirk to watch out for. The raised seventh degree creates an extra wide step between scale degrees six and seven.
The melodic minor scale was created to make stepwise melodies sound more fluid in minor.
In this scale the sixth degree and seventh degrees are raised up when played in ascending order and flattened down when played in descending order.
Here’s the pattern ascending:
Pentatonic scales are five note scales with a unique sound. You can think of them kind of like a condensed version of the major or minor scales.
Penatonics are divided into the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales
These are some of the earliest musical scales ever used and they still have a timeless quality.
Here is the tone-semitone pattern for the major pentatonic scale:
And the minor pentatonic scale:
Once you get these scales under your fingers you’ll start to see them everywhere in popular music—from gospel to heavy metal.
To take a closer look at pentatonics, head over to our full guide
The blues scale is a variation of the pentatonic scale, but it’s worth it’s own category since it’s so widely used in music.
There are actually two blues scales—one major and one minor. They’re related to the major and minor pentatonic scales.
The major blues scale is made up of this pattern of notes:
The major blues scale contains the minor third interval from the minor scale. In this context, it’s known as the blue note.
The major blues scale is sometimes called the gospel scale and its used slightly less often than its minor counterpart.
But the minor blues scale is extremely common in many genres.
Once you hear the minor blues scale you’ll recognize it right away. Here’s the pattern:
This scale comes up all over popular music, from early country and blues music to classic rock and modern R&B.
If you had to choose just one scale to learn for improvising it would probably be the blues scale.
It works over both major and minor progressions, especially the 12-bar blues.
The blues scale works especially well for memorable melodies, hooks and riffs. If you want see how it works in more detail, check out this article.
Modes of the major scale
The modes of the major scale are a set of scales with unique qualities you can build from the basic formula for major.
They each have a distinct pattern of tones and semitones.
You get the pattern for each mode by building a seven note scale starting on each degree of the major scale according to the major scale formula.
If that sounds complicated, head over to our detailed overview of music modes to get the full tutorial.
If you just need a refresher on how the modes differ from the major or minor scales they resemble, these handy charts can give you a quick reference.
Here are the modes that are closely related to the major scale:
And here are the modes that are simliar to the minor scale:
The trick to using modes well is to think of them as colors on a spectrum from light to dark.
The scales with the most raised notes like Lydian are the brightest and most stable sounding.
The modes with more lowered notes like Phrygian are the darkest.
Modes can help you achieve sounds that are even cheerier than major or even more brooding than minor.
Whole Tone and Chromatic Scales
Incorporating Whole Tone and Chromatic scales into your music can be a great way to break away from conventional-sounding melodies and harmonies.
But these scales demand careful handling because they lack of a tonal center and therefore do not fit into any specific key.
Try using these scales sparingly at first, as a way to create tension or drama that resolves back to more familiar scales.
Listen closely to jazz, blues and rock music—the use of chromaticism to create movement between “in key” notes is incredibly common.
Let’s take a closer look at the whole tone and chromatic scales.
Whole Tone Scales
Whole tone scales are unique, in that they consist entirely of whole steps, with no half steps involved. This type of scale consists of six notes, each a whole tone apart, which creates a symmetrical pattern. This results in a lack of tonal center, providing an ‘unresolved’ or ‘floating’ sensation in music.
The whole tone scale is predominantly used in genres like Jazz and Impressionist music. In the hands of composers like Claude Debussy, the whole tone scale has been used to create a dreamy, ambiguous sound palette that challenges traditional tonality.
If you’ve ever watched a classic cartoon and heard an ascending or descending line to represent a character falling asleep or waking up, you’ve likely heard a whole tone scale in action.
The chromatic scale is another interesting musical tool to add to your repertoire. It includes all twelve notes of the octave, without exclusion. In other words, it is a sequence of half-steps. It’s like walking up or down a staircase without skipping any steps.
In classical music, the chromatic scale has often been associated with tension or unease, due to its lack of a clear tonal center. However, it has found diverse applications across different genres, from complex Jazz harmonies to heavy metal solos.
Used judiciously, chromaticisms can add color and depth to your melodies and harmonies. In a composition, it can create tension, surprise, or even a sense of playfulness, depending on its usage.
You could use only the scales we’ve covered so far in this article and never run out of material to write great songs.
But if you’re feeling extra adventurous there’s a whole world of other scales out there to experiment with.
These are the weird and wonderful scales used in jazz, world music and beyond. They can add a unique sense of sophistication and take you in new musical directions.
There are too many other scales to list here so head on over to our walkthrough of some of the best sounding options.
Learning your scales is an important first step in your journey with music theory.
Once you get started you’ll find that building scales and playing them on your instrument unlocks creativity in your workflow.
If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great set of resources to master scales in music.
Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.
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