What is a Scale?
To put it as simply as I can: A musical scale is a series of notes used to create a piece of music. The most basic scale is the major scale. If you understand the major scale then you can understand other scales in relation to it.
Key of C
In the key of C a major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B (and C again, an octave up.) On a piano keyboard this is all of the white notes and none of the black ones. Pretty simple right?
But things aren’t quite as simple in other keys. For example: what’s a major scale in the key of D? It’s D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C#.
The important thing to learn with a scale is not so much the specific notes in that scale for a particular key but the series of intervals that gives that scale its sound.
In a major scale the intervals are like this: whole step (C to D), whole step (D to E), half step (E to F), whole step (F to G), whole step (G to A), whole step (A to B), and half step (B to C).
That’s: W W H W W W H. This way of thinking about it may seem a bit confusing at first but as you get used to it, it will allow you to find the right notes for the major scale regardless of what key you are in.
Another way to think about it is like this:
C to C is “Unison”
C to D is a “Major 2nd”
C to E is a “Major 3rd”
C to F is a “Perfect 4th”
C to G is a “Perfect 5th”
C to A is a “Major 6th”
C to B is a “Major 7th”
C to C is an “Octave.”
It’s very important to get the sound of these different intervals memorized in your mind. I recommend going over them every day (even if just for a few minutes.) There are a lot of different ways to go about this but I think it’s very helpful to sing your intervals.
Another way to think about the major scale is as the famous solfege scale, ie: “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do.” In C this is:
C: Do (Unison)
D: Re (Major 2nd)
E: Mi (Major 3rd)
F: Fa (Perfect 4th)
G: So (Perfect 5th)
A: La (Major 6th)
B: Ti (Major 7th)
C: Do (Octave)
Major Scale vs. Minor Scale
I like to think of the minor scale in relation to the major scale and I think this is a good way to learn it. This is why I think it’s a good idea to get a good handle on how a major scale is constructed and what it sounds like before learning the minor scale.
A minor scale shares some of the same intervals as a major scale:
All scales have unison (that’s just the first note itself) and an octave (that’s when you reach the first note again so that the scale starts over.)
The minor scale also has a major second, a perfect fourth, and a perfect fifth.
For example the C minor scale has a D, an F, and a G in it just like the major scale does.
The difference is that the minor scale has a minor 3rd (Eb in C), a minor 6th (Ab), and a minor 7th (Bb.)
On a piano keyboard this means you are playing the black note to the left of the E, A, and B instead of playing the white notes. It’s a good idea to play the major version of the C scale (all of the white notes, C to C) and then the minor version (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C) to hear the differences.
The sequence of whole steps and half steps for the minor scale is like this: whole step (C to D), half step (D to Eb), whole step (Eb to F), whole step (F to G), half step (G to Ab), whole step (Ab to Bb), and whole step (Bb to C.)
That’s W H W W H W W.
The key of C minor is considered to be the “parallel minor” of the key of C major (because it has the same home note or “tonic.”) But there’s also a “relative minor” which in the case of C major is A minor.
The interesting thing about A minor is that it actually uses all of the white notes too. The difference is that it starts (and ends) on the note A rather than on the note C.
This can be very confusing to people at first. They don’t understand how the same collection of notes can be both C major and A minor.
The important thing to realize is that everything is in relation to the tonic note and it’s the intervals from the tonic that give a scale it’s sound. When you play the white notes C through C (do this up and down a few times) and compare it to the sound of the white notes A through A then you should notice that even though you are using the same notes, it sounds much different.
Notice that when you play the white notes A to A you get this same series of whole steps and half steps (W H W W H W W) that I just showed you for C minor. It’s this series of steps that gives the scale its sound.
The word scale comes from the Latin word for ladder and that’s exactly how you should think about them. The series of whole steps and half steps represent the distances between each rung on the ladder. This is why going up the A minor scale feels so much different than going up the C major scale even though they use the same notes.