Music Scales: A Beginner’s Guide

A huge and very important part of learning about music theory is musical scales. In this post, we’re going to cover all the different types of musical scales.

What is a scale in music?

scale is a group of notes that are arranged by ascending or descending order of pitch. 

In an ascending scale, each note is higher in pitch than the last one and in a descending scale, each note is lower in pitch than the last one.

The degrees of a scale

The word scale comes from the Latin word meaning ladder.

So you can think of a scale climbing the rungs of the ladder which is represented by the stave.

The degrees of a scale

You have to have a note on every single line or space.

The scale degree names

Each degree of the scale has a special name:

  • 1st degree: 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 note (or leading tone)

The 8th degree of the scale is actually the tonic but an octave higher.

For that reason when naming the degrees of the scale you should always call it the 1st degree.

In fact, you can keep going up (or down) and the numbers start again and carry on going.

Degrees of the scale

Major Scales

One of the more common types of scale is the major scale.

Major scales are defined by their combination of semitones and tones (whole steps and half steps):

ToneToneSemitoneToneToneToneSemitone

Or in whole steps and half steps it would be:

WholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWholeHalf

G major scale
G major scale

You can use this formula of whole steps and half steps to form a major scale starting on any note.

For a more in-depth looking at forming major scales check out this post where we go through all 12 major scales.

Minor Scales

The second type of scale that we’re going to look at is the minor scale.

A minor scale also has seven notes like the major scale but it’s defined by having a flattened third.

This means that the third note of the scale is three semitones above the first note, unlike major scales where the third note of the scale is four semitones above.

A melodic minor scale ascending

There are three different types of minor scale:

  • the natural minor
  • the harmonic minor
  • the melodic minor

Each type of minor scale uses a slightly different formula of semitones and tones but they all have that minor third.

Major keys are quite often associated with the music feeling happy or joyful whereas minor keys are known for music that sounds sad or melancholy.

Here’s a video of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor to demonstrate.

Chopin’s Prelude in E minor

Chromatic Scales

The two scales we’ve looked at so far are what we call diatonic scales.

This means that they are in ‘a key’ and the first note of the scale is the tonic. They also have seven notes and two intervals of a semitone.

A chromatic scale is very different from diatonic scales as it is made up of all 12 notes in western music.

Side note: The word ‘chromatic’ comes from the Greek word ‘chroma’ which means colour.

Each note in a chromatic scale is an interval of a semitone (half step) apart from the others.

In other words, to play a chromatic scale you choose a note and then play the note a semitone above and keep going until you reach the note you started on.

For example here is an ascending chromatic scale starting on C:

Ascending chromatic scale starting on C
Chromatic scale starting on C

And here is a descending chromatic scale starting on Gb:

Descending G flat chromatic scale

Because chromatic scales use every single note we don’t say that a chromatic scale is in a certain key. We just use the note that the scale starts on.

My Music Theory has a great article on the different ways to write chromatic scales over here.

Whole Tone Scales

A whole tone scale is a type of scale where each note is an interval of a whole tone apart.

It’s the complete opposite of the chromatic scale where every note is a semitone tone apart.

Because there aren’t any semitones in a whole tone scale it only has six notes.

Whole tone scale starting on C
Whole tone scale starting on B

Whole tone scales have a very distinctive sound.

Here is a piece of music by Thelonious Monk that uses whole tones scales so you can hear what they sound like:

Thelonious Monk – Four in One

For an overview of whole tone scales check out this post from Piano Scales.

The Pentatonic Scale

The next type of scale that we’re going to look at is the pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic scales are one of the simplest and have been around for a very long time.

It’s thought that they could even be as old as 50,000 years old!

The word pentatonic comes from the Greek word ‘pente’ meaning five.

It’s the same greek word that we get ‘pentagon’ from.

The five notes in a major pentatonic scale are:

  • The first degree – tonic
  • The second degree – supertonic
  • The third degree – mediant
  • The fifth degree – dominant
  • The sixth degree – submediant

Here is a c major pentatonic scale so you can see:

C major pentatonic scale

The pentatonic scale is very common in lots of music that you’ll be familiar with, everything from blues and jazz to folk and rock music the simplicity of the pentatonic scale makes it very versatile.

Here’s one of my favourite videos of Bobby McFerrin using the pentatonic scale to make some music with an audience.

Bobby McFerrin and the power of the pentatonic scale

If you want to learn more about the pentatonic scale, I’d recommend reading this comprehensive guide to the pentatonic scale from Musical U.

The Modes

Every major scale has seven modes. They’re sometimes called the church modes or the greek modes.

The names of them are:

  • Ionian (i)
  • Dorian (ii)
  • Phrygian (iii)
  • Lydian (iv)
  • Mixolydian (v)
  • Aeolian (vi)
  • Locrian (vii)

These seven different scales are just one scale but starting on a different note.

For example, the Ionian mode is just another name for the major scale.

And the Aeolian mode is just another name for the natural minor scale which starts on the 6th degree of the major scale.

To read more about the different modes in music check out this guide from Piano Grooves.

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