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Lesson #32: Scales

by Tyler de Witt posted on 1999-10-18
Topic: Theory Subtopic: General
Level: Beginner Number of Readers: 73522


The word scale comes from the Latin word 'scala' meaning ladder. A musical scale is a sequence of notes.


Scales are named according to the intervals between each consecutive note. The intervals between each note are not the same for every pair of notes in the scale. Most of the time, the interval between each is a tone or a semitone. We learned in the last lesson that these intervals are called a minor and major second respectively, but when discussing scales, the terms semitone and tone are more often used. If we analyze the scale presented above, we end up with this pattern:

 t t s t t t s

The 't's represent an interval of a tone between the two notes above it, and the 's's represent a semitone. For example, in-between the 1st and 2nd notes of the scale, there is a tone, and in-between the 3rd and 4th notes of the scale, there is a semitone. The pattern for this scale is:

t t s t t t s

This pattern is the pattern of the major scale. Do you want to know how I figured that out? It's just because I know it. You have to learn the interval structure of each scale, there's no mathematical way or anything like that of figuring it out. Don't worry, there's lots of places to find these interval structures, and I'll provide a chart of the interval structures of different types of scales.

The major scale is very important, as will be learned in further lessons. There are many elements of music theory that are based on the major scale. Also, if you played this scale, you'll probably recognize it as the classic 'do re mi fa so la ti do' scale. This is the most popular scale in western music, and is probably the basis of many simple tunes you know.

Now consider this major scale:

 t t s t t t s

Because the scale starts on C, and because the interval structure of the scale classifies it as a major scale, this scale is called the scale of C major. What if we wanted to play the scale of G major? It's pretty simple. First, we know that since the name of the scale is G major, it must start on G. And because we know that it is a major scale, we know what intervals there will be between every two consecutive notes. So:

G x x x x x x
 t t s t t t s

All we have to do is fill in the 'x' markings with notes that will satisfy the interval structure. A tone about G is A, a tone above A is B, a semitone above B is C, and so on. We end up with this:

G A B C D E F# G
 t t s t t t  s

Notice how the F must be made an F# to ensure that it is a tone above E, and a semitone below G.

In this way, we can build the major scale on any of the twelve notes, just by using the interval structure of the major scale, and our knowledge of intervals.

This is just an introduction to scales. Other interval structures of scales, and specific uses of scales will be discussed later. One final thing that I want to talk about is the chromatic scale. If you read the lesson on note names, you'll probably recognize this pattern:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
 s  s s  s s s  s s  s s  s s

This is called the chromatic scale. The interval structure is easy to remember, because all it is semitones. You'll notice that it contains every single one of the 12 notes. Every other scale, and all pieces of music written in western music are arrangements of just these twelve notes. Does it sound kind of limiting? Don't worry, it's not. There's a lot you can do with these twelve notes, you'll see :)

Things to remember from this lesson:

1. A scale is a succession of notes.
2. A scale's name is based on two things: the note is starts on, and it's interval structure.
3. An interval structure is the pattern of intervals between consecutive notes of a scale.
4. If you know the interval structure of a scale, you can build that type of scale on any of the twelve notes, using your knowledge of intervals.
5. The major scale is the most popular scale, and its interval structure is ttsttts.
6. The chromatic scale contains all twelve notes, and its interval structure is simply semitones.

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