You’ve definitely heard some iconic melodies that get stuck in your head and stay there for days. But you may not realize that many of these memorable tunes are built on musical scales.
Scales serve as the building blocks for melody, harmony, and even rhythm in music. Learning scales trains your ears, fingers, and musical intuition much like technique exercises for athletes. Out of the thousands of possibilities, which scales are considered essential knowledge for any aspiring musician?
This guide will cover the core scales you need to know with some historical context, usage tips, and examples from famous composers and musicians. Let’s first look at some key building blocks that form the foundation of scales.
What Are Scales?
Scales are sequences of musical notes arranged by ascending or descending pitch. They serve as the building blocks for melody and harmony in music across genres and cultures.
Scales provide the framework for musical composition and improvisation by defining the intervals between each note.
The pattern of whole steps and half steps gives a scale its distinct sound, such as the cheerful brightness of a major scale or somber moodiness of a minor scale. Practicing various scales thoroughly trains muscle memory and music theory understanding.
Intervals and Modes – The Building Blocks
Intervals: The Distance Between Notes
Before defining specific scales, let’s break things down to the atomic level: intervals.
An interval refers to the distance between two pitches. The smallest interval in Western music is a half step, or semitone. On a piano, a half step is the distance between two adjacent keys (no black keys in between). For example, C to C# or E to F.
Whole steps, or whole tones, span two half steps. The interval from C to D is a whole step. Intervals larger than a whole step are called augmented intervals while intervals smaller are called diminished.
Understanding intervals is key because most scales adhere to a specific sequence of whole and half steps. For example, the major scale follows the interval formula: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Referencing this interval pattern is an easy way to memorize any major scale.
Beyond half steps and whole steps, some exotic scales use microtones. Microtones are intervals smaller than a half step, aka playing notes between the cracks of a piano! While not as mainstream in Western music, composers are still finding new ways to integrate microtones to create unique effects.
And if you take ALL the cracks on a piano, that forms the chromatic scale. Made up entirely of half steps, the chromatic scale includes every possible note within an octave. It often appears in dramatic film scores!
Modes and Modal Scales
Before major and minor scales dominated classical music, ancient musicians used modes. Modes work similarly to scales but sound distinct depending on which note you emphasize as the tonic, or home base note.
If you take the white keys from C to C on a piano, you can form seven modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
The Ionian mode is equivalent to the major scale. Starting on D produces the Dorian mode used frequently in folk music. Jazz musicians love playing with the Mixolydian mode for its flat 7th which creates tension.
Modes still appear across genres from Renaissance choral music to hard rock. Guitarists often improvise using the parallel minor pentatonic scale over major key songs.
So while each mode stems from the same key signature, where you place the tonic note determines its unique sound. If you master practicing scales in different modes, you’ll gain agility and familiarity across the entire musical spectrum!
Types of Essential Scales
Now let’s dive deeper into the most ubiquitous scale types and their noteworthy characteristics!
1. Heptatonic Scales
Heptatonic scales contain seven notes spanning an octave. This category includes the prominent major and minor scales along with the blues scale ubiquitous in jazz and rock.
The Major Scale
Bright, triumphant, joyful. These descriptors sum up the quintessential major scale. As mentioned earlier, the major scale on any root note follows the whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step formula.
Composers have written countless major key anthems from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” that give you all the feels.
A related scale is the major pentatonic which omits the 4th and 7th degrees. Major pentatonic’s cheerful simplicity appears across genres from Celtic folk to arena rock anthems. Practice flexing between major and major pentatonic scales to unlock catchy melodic ideas.
Minor Scales: Natural, Harmonic, Melodic
In contrast to the happy major scale, minor scales evoke serious, somber moods. The most straightforward natural minor scale follows a whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step interval pattern.
Natural Minor has inspired countless brooding works from Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
But the natural minor’s melancholic effect comes from having an unstable diminished fifth between its 6th and 7th degrees. So classical composers derived two variants: harmonic minor and melodic minor.
Harmonic raises the 7th scale degree by a half step while melodic minor also raises the 6th degree when ascending. This history lesson illustrates why fluently playing ALL types of minor scales matters for stylistic expression.
Emerging from African spirituals and field hollers, the blues originated as a majestic, soulful art form. The signature blues scale adds emotional depth to the major pentatonic by including the diminished 5th “blue note.”
Let the raw passion of B.B. King’s Lucille guitar licks inspire you to practice those blues scales religiously! And blues scales work wonders for improvising over any chord progression.
2. Pentatonic Scales
As explored briefly, pentatonic scales contain five notes which creates an open, consonant sound. Beyond major pentatonic, the minor pentatonic may be the most cherished scale in modern music.
It builds off natural minor without the 2nd and 6th scale degrees. Minor pentatonic’s flexible simplicity unites genres from Delta blues to arena rock to modal jazz. Players like Santana, Clapton, and Slash testify to the scale’s immortal magic!
Similarly, traditional Eastern folk music embraced the anhemitonic (no semitones) Chinese pentatonic scale. Its haunting sonority colored early jazz and impressionist classical works by giants like Stravinsky and Debussy.
Heavenly shakuhachi flute music also makes extensive use of Chinese pentatonic. Make sure to try these transcendent scales in all 12 keys!
3. Hexatonic Scales
Instead of the typical seven notes, hexatonic scales contain six notes spanning an octave. Two fascination options are the seldom used whole tone and augmented scales.
The Whole Tone Scale
As you guessed, the whole tone scale comprises entirely whole steps without a single semitone. This symmetric, atonal construction intrigued forward-thinking composers starting in the Romantic period.
Listen to musical revolutionaries Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin to hear stunning whole-tone passages. More recent bands like Dream Theater also integrate its ambient, floaty effect for contrast.
The Augmented Scale
Also called the augmented-fifth scale, this symmetrical scale alternates minor thirds and augmented fifths. Jazz musicians adopted its signature tense, ethereal sound for improvising over altered dominant chords.
John Coltrane’s “Countdown” makes brilliant use of augmented scales worth checking out! Similar scales continue inspiring progressive fusion and rock groups today.
4. Octatonic Scales
Here we enter more esoteric territory with octatonic scales containing eight pitches across an octave. Two cool options here are the jazz dominant diminished and bebop major scales.
Only jazz musicians could dream up a dissonant scale constructed fully of minor thirds save one half step for its beguiling tension!
But far from just an academic exercise, descending diminished scales beautifully enhance the V7#9 “cline” dominant chord so ubiquitous in jazz standards. Infusing chromatic lines inspires passion!
In the 1940s, innovative bebop cats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie pioneered the Bebop scale by adding a single chromatic passing tone to the major scale.
This melodic approach better outlines harmonies when improvising over swift chord changes. Bebop language remains integral to modern jazz vocabulary along with its slick-sounding scales. Dig the virtuosity!
5. Global Scales
Beyond Western music theory, nearly every culture worldwide developed unique pitch collections for traditional instruments. Let’s sample two.
Built off ascending and descending interval patterns called thaats, Indian ragas provide the melodic basis for Hindustani classical music.
Performance practice prescribes singing or playing certain ragas during specific times of day or seasons based on their emotional shadings. While seemingly rigid, elite Indian musicians can transform ragas into blissful ecstasy through expert improvisation and microtones!
Middle Eastern Maqams
In Arabic classical and folk music, maqams similarly serve as unique modal scales and springboards for free improvisation like Indian ragas. But maqams rely heavily on quarter tones unfamiliar to Western ears.
Quarter tones subdivide the conventional semitone into – you guessed it – quarters for added nuance. The signature torching vocal timbres and virtuosic quarter-tone ornaments of this vibrant tradition will give your playing arresting new colors!
So if you crave fresh inspiration, never hesitate to look globally. Integrating influences from Carnatic ragas to Persian maqams to all types of cultural sounds stands to enrich your musical existence tremendously!
Alternate Tunings and Scale Variants
Most modern Western instruments like pianos and guitars use equal temperament – the technique of splitting the octave into 12 equal half step intervals. This standardized tuning allows playing scales in any key.
But before modern technology, instruments often used one of various unequal tunings. Let’s sample pre-ET options.
Composers originally derived scales using just intonation – pitches based on simple whole-number ratios. This pure tuning sounds absolutely in tune with triadic harmony.
However, the drawback becomes that intervals like thirds or fifths fluctuate in width each time you change keys. Only fretless string instruments can achieve just intonation.
On his monochord, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras devised the first tuning system using ratios. But his system, favoring the purity of fifths, ends up narrowing major thirds that should sound consonant.
Organs and carillons sometimes used variants of Pythagorean tuning. Mixing these intervals for an exotic effect could intrigue you!
Before equal temperament, musicians also used well temperaments that tweaked pitches allowing decent consonance in most common keys.
Composers like Bach wrote music exploiting key relationships in well temperament. You might experiment with blending ET and well temperaments together if possible!
And modern electronic instruments easily facilitate the creation of microtonal tunings. So don’t limit yourself to 12-tone equal temperament if other tunings capture your creative fancy!
Why Practice Scales?
If your reaction to the terms “scale practice” and “technique drills” falls closer to boredom than excitement, this section aims to motivate you on the infinite joys of daily scale work!
Sure, playing scales involves tedious metronome work, paying attention to precision, and slowly building speed. No glamorous fun. But even a short daily scale regimen pays prodigious dividends across musical dimensions.
First, conscientious scale practice cultivates technical mastery on your instrument impossible through pieces alone. Clean articulation, fluid positions, and effortless fingering can transform playing from a struggle to a joy. Amazing artists from Horowitz to Coltrane built legendary techniques through diligent fundamentals like scale work.
Second, exercising your scale muscles inevitably deepens music theory comprehension. Connecting scale degrees to chord symbols to harmonic analysis suddenly clicks practicing scales in every key. Mastery manifests mapping scales visually, theoretically, and kinesthetically across the whole instrument.
Theory grounding allows rapid transposition, greater harmonic options, and seamless navigation in any key signature or genre. Want to play jazz? Know your bebop scales.
How about improvising a guitar solo? Rattle off some blistering minor pentatonic licks. Conquering scales grants creative freedom!
Finally, deliberate scale practice refines your ears exponentially. Interval recognition, chord distinctions, and melodic continuity improve identically to wine tasting and perfumery.
Sing each scale ascending and descending to ingrain every pitch innately. When ears, theory, and technique fuse through scale work, beautiful music flows freely.
So although the path seems long, perseverance and patience culminate in artistic liberation. Let diligent scale work uplift your passion to profound heights! Are you ready to embrace the journey?
Modern Musical Innovators Expanding Scales
The allure of pioneering new sonic territory constantly pushes artists to expand conventions. Throughout history, bold musical thinkers ventured into uncharted waters evolving compositional practice and instrumental techniques. Let’s celebrate a few intrepid innovators who advanced cutting-edge scales!
Impressionist composers like Claude Debussy broke fresh ground incorporating exotic instruments and scales into orchestral works. His shimmering whole tone pieces like “Voiles” captured ephemeral atmospheres never before heard.
Fellow French visionary Olivier Messiaen drew inspiration from Indian ragas and birdsong transcending traditional harmony completely in pieces like “Quartet for the End of Time.”
Jazz giants similarly forged new frontiers expanding scales and improvisation. Sax icon John Coltrane endlessly sought the next level practicing marathon sessions documenting his spiritual journey through music. Coltrane realized incredible freedom in modal jazz masterpieces like “A Love Supreme” still studied today.
And contemporary trailblazers like Jacob Collier push sonic science even further with microtones and algorithmic music generation. Collier’s mindboggling YouTube videos effortlessly toggle between altered dominant scales to Turkish maqam experiments superior to any music theory curriculum. Sign us up!
The most profound works of art often expand accepted boundaries, so never settle for complacency. Like these courageous creators, confronting the unfamiliar promises joy. What ingenious scale might become your next transcendent composition?
Now It’s Your Turn!
This musical expedition surveyed the most vital scales for every serious musician along with innovative history.
From church modes to Eastern ragas, and microtones to well temperaments, we traversed intervallic foundations, types of essential scales, purposes for practice, and visionaries expanding conventions.
I hope this guide lit your creative fire to explore unfamiliar musical territory with beginner’s ears. What underappreciated scales might you introduce to the world? The future awaits your unique innovations!
For now, be sure to start exercising all major and minor scale variants. Jam through some scorching blues riffs. Doodle with Debussy-esque whole tones and Eastern folk melodies. Challenge yourself by improvising odd meters in diminished scales like your inner Trane. Little daily steps accumulate into giant leaps in expressivity.
Now enough reading about scales – go grab your instrument and start practicing! Journeys through sound contain no limits, so begin yours today as musical inspiration surrounds you in every direction. Listen raptly, practice diligently, and play freely.
Let the bliss of scales carry you to new artistic heights!
About the Author
Team Guitar Top Review Talk about Guitars! We are a group of friends that bonded over their shared love of playing guitar. We all have different backgrounds and experiences with music, but we share a passion for writing about the things that we love.