What is a scale in music?
A 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.
You have to have a note on every single line or space.
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.
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):
Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
Or in whole steps and half steps it would be:
Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half
The second type of scale that we’re going to look at is the minor scale. Minor scales also have seven notes like the major scale but they’re 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.
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.
For more info about the types of minor scales check out my post here.
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
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.
Diatonic scales are also heptonic (which means they have seven notes) with two intervals of a semitone (half step) and five intervals that are tones (whole steps).
A chromatic scale is very different from a diatonic scale as it is made up of all 12 notes in western music.
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.
Whole tone scales
A whole tone scale is a type of scale where each note is an interval of a tone (whole step) apart. It’s the complete opposite of the chromatic scale where every note is a semitone tone apart.
The whole tone is a type of hexatonic scale which means it only has six notes. This is because there aren’t any semitones (half steps) in a whole tone scale.
Whole tone scales have a very distinctive sound and can be fun to play around with. To learn more about them I’ve written a more in depth post on whole tone scales here.
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’ meaning five sided shape 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:
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
The music 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)