Mastering Scales In Music
What is a Scale in Music?
Scales are some of the most important things in music. In a certain sense, the entire harmonic and melodic structure of a piece of music can be described with respect to scales. They can be used to generate chords and chord progressions, and can define and produce melodic ideas to be used over those chords. They can be used to compose complicated works but also to improvise music, even advanced music, with little effort. Put as simply as possible, a scale is an abstract collection of notes and the relationships between those notes or pitches.
It is a collection and not a sequence because it doesn’t exist time — it doesn’t have an order, and it doesn’t imply any particular melodic arrangement. It is just a set of relationships between notes that defines a harmonic space.
It is abstract because it is not tied to any particular actual arrangement of notes — it doesn’t tell you to play the 6th note in a scale or the 3rd note in a scale, all it does is give you a set of tones that define a space in which you can play. It isn’t necessary to play all of the notes in whatever scale you’re using, and it isn’t necessary to play only those notes, just to use the scale as a sort of general category. Scales are loose characterizations of harmonic material, more like a tendency and less like a rule.
Because scales are abstract, they don’t depend on any particular expression. In other words, they are in the background, at a higher, more general, level than the actual notes of the music. You can play a Led Zeppelin solo or you can play a Stevie Ray Vaughan solo, and they will be completely different things, but they will both be using the minor pentatonic scale. Because of this, scales are useful tools for understanding what someone is doing musically and for knowing what you want to do musically, since they allow you to know, in general, what is going on in the music and what will happen if you, for instance, play a particular series of notes over a particular chord.
Scales come in many forms: some have 5 notes, some have 7, some have more, but all of them define a root, which is the center of harmony and melody, and aset of relationships between the rest of the notes in the scale and that root. Also, all scales have their own scale formula consisting of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half-steps). Simply by knowing the scale formula it is very easy to figure out the notes of any scale and play them on any instrument.
Scales are used to define chords, which form the harmonic structure of a song,and also to compose melodies, which consist of (usually) single-note lines played over top of that harmonic structure. They are also used to create harmonies, which occur when more than one single-note line is played together. The best way to start understanding scales is to start with the chromatic scale.
The Master Scale
The most fundamental scale in Western music is the Chromatic scale. It is the master scale. The chromatic scale contains all 12 tones in every octave, and so in a sense it is the set of all other scales. Every chord and every scale is contained in the chromatic scale. Because the chromatic scale is so large, it is a very useful way of thinking about the overall harmonic landscape.
Everything that you can play (as long as you are in tune) has some kind of relationship to everything else, and the chromatic scale is the set of all of those relationships. The chromatic scale does not have a key itself, it is the set of all keys (more on keys later). But because it is so democratic and decentralized, the chromatic scale isn’t always useful. It is very abstract and it’s not musical.
Sometimes — most of the time — you don’t want to play just any note, in any key, at any time. Sometimes — again, most of the time — you want to cut the chromatic scale up, define a slightly (or radically) more limited harmonic and melodic space. That’s when all of the other scales become useful. Consisting of 12 notes per octave, the chromatic scale is broken evenly into 12 half-steps (H) or 6 whole steps. The notes of the chromatic scale are simply all 12 notes from the note circle in the same order.
It is very easy to play a chromatic scale and it’s particularly good to use as a technical exercise (especially for beginners who are getting used to their instrument). To play it you can start on any note (it doesn’t have to be A), and just play all of the notes in order ascending or descending until you get to the octave.
Just as understanding intervals is a lifelong project, making sense out of the wide array of possible scales and their interactions is as well. It is useful, however, when undertaking that project, to remember the place of the chromatic scale. It contains all of them, it democratizes, it spreads the harmony and melody wide open, and it allows you to do virtually anything you want to. Learning to use that freedom responsibly is one of the things that sets great players apart from the mean.
Type Of Scales
There are basically only a few types of scales. One of them we have just covered — the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is the set of all other scales. It is the master scale. But it doesn’t define a distinct harmonic space beyond the division of harmony into 12 equal parts. For that, you need scales with fewer than 12 notes in them.
Commonly, there are 2 other scale types that make the foundation of harmony, and those 2 types break up into a few others.
1. First, there are 5-note scales. These are called “pentatonic” scales, meaning “5-peroctave.” The variations of those simple scales are enough to produce a rich landscape all by themselves. While there are a variety of different note patterns that can make up pentatonic scales, there is one in particular, which define the minor pentatonic scale as well as the major pentatonic scale, that is most often used.
These scales are found in blues and rock music, and variations of those simple scales are enough to produce a rich landscape all by themselves. There’s a reason why they’re called “minor” and “major” and it’s because they originate from the 7-note scales that bear the same name. There are also other pentatonic scales, especially in non-western music, which are rarer but still sometimes useful. For example, Chinese scale used to compose traditional Chinese folk music is a pentatonic (5-note) scale.
2. Then there are 7-note scales. 7-note scales have many forms, the most basic of which are called “diatonic scales” (more on this later). The most common Major scale (do-re-me…) and Natural minor scale are both 7-note diatonic scales. The words “minor” and “major” refer to something like the mood of the scale, with minor scales in general sounding sad, dark and thoughtful and major scales in general sounding happy, bright, and lively (like minor and major chords). Most blues, for instance, is played in a minor key, which means that it makes use of a minor scale quite often, whereas most pop is played in a major key, which means it makes use of a major scale.
There are two other varieties of 7-note scales that are used in classical music, neo-classical, advanced rock, and jazz, and they are the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale (and their variations). Beyond 5-note and 7-note scales, there are a few specialized 8-note jazz scales (called bebop scales). Otherwise, it is always possible to produce new scales by adding notes from the chromatic scale to an existing scale, resulting in scales with as many as 11 notes (this is most often done in jazz).
It is also possible to create new scales by altering an existing scale chromatically. In general, creating new scales by this chromatic alteration and/or addition results in what we call “synthetic” scales or modes. Keep in mind that there are 12 notes in music, so there are 12 harmonic centers (or root notes) that a scale can start on. This goes for any kind of scale no matter the number of notes it contains.
Minor Pentonic Scale
While there are many different kinds of pentatonic scales that can be assembled, there is really only one pentatonic structure that is used commonly in western music. This structure has 2 variations in particular that are ubiquitous in blues, rock, pop, country, jazz and bluegrass. Those two scales are the minor pentatonic (which is the most familiar) and the major pentatonic.
The minor pentatonic scale is the foundation of most of the blues and rock that most of us have heard. It is a simple, easy to remember scale with a very distinct sound. It indicate a soulful, deep affect and can be made to sound quite sad. This scale consists of notes that are all found in the natural minor scale, and so it is of use any time the minor scale is called for. It is possible to make an entire career out of this one harmonic collection, as many blues, folk, bluegrass, funk and rock musicians have. Outside of the Western world, this and similar scales are common in traditional Asian and African music (the latter being the historical source of the minor pentatonic scale in the American Folk tradition).
Minor Pentonic Structure
Remember when I said that we use intervals to define chords and scales? Here’s how we do that. We say that the minor pentatonic scale consists of 5 notes:
A Root, a minor 3rd, a Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, and a minor 7th or (when abbreviated) R, m3, P4, P5, m7
These numbers refer to the notes’ relative position within a diatonic scale (in this case, the natural minor scale), but the intervals themselves exist in many scales, including the minor pentatonic scale.
If the scale is played in order, there is:
1. A Root, abbreviated to ‘R’.
2. A root is followed by a note a step and a half (3 half steps) above the root — this is the minor 3rd, or simply ‘m3’.
3. Then a note a full (whole) step above that — this is the Perfect 4th, or ‘P4’.
4. A note a full step above that — this is the Perfect 5th, or ‘P5’.
5. And a note a step and a half above that — this is the minor 7th, or m7.
NOTE: These are the 5 notes of the minor pentatonic scales. The distance between the last note (the minor 7th) and the first note in the next octave is one full step.
Now check what is underlined above. These distances (intervals) can be used to describe the scale in another, simpler, way:
WH W W WH W
or (same thing)
TS T T TS T
This is called a scale formula. In this case it’s the minor pentatonic scale formula. A scale formula simply represents a unique set of intervals found within each scale. It is written by using tones and semitones (and a combination of the two — TS). Just by knowing a scale formula you can start on any of the 12 notes on any instrument, apply the formula, and easily figure out how to play any scale. When put in context:
R — TS — minor 3rd — T — Perfect 4th — T — Perfect 5th — TS — minor 7th — T — R
For example, if we start from an A note we can then apply the formula: TS — T — T — TS — T, and easily figure out the rest of the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale. The notes would be:
A — TS — C — T — D — T — E — TS — G — T — A
1. A is the Root
2. C is the minor 3rd (above A)
3. D is the Perfect 4th (above A)
4. E is the Perfect 5th (above A)
5. G is the minor 7th (above A)
6. and lastly A is the Perfect 8th — Octave (O)
When applying a scale formula you can follow the note circle to find out the notes easier.
This can be done on any note/key. This is one of the first, if not the first, scale that many people (particularly guitarists) learn, and once learned it can be used very quickly. If you place the root of this scale on the root of virtually any chord (especially minor and dominant chords) then the other notes in the scale will almost always sound good. If you’re playing the blues, then all you need to do is make sure the root of this scale is the same note as the key that the song is in.
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