Music Scales

Major and Minor Scales A scale is a series of notes in alphabetical order. Music Scales are divided into 2 kinds:

1. Diatonic Scales - consist of tones and semi-tones. It is a seven note 'octave-repeating' scale consisting of 5 whole-steps (tones) and 2 half-steps (semitones) e.g., The 'C Major' diatonic scale would read as follows:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C (octave above the first C)
C Diatoniic Scale - Ascending & Descending
C Diatonic Scale - Ascending & Descending

2. Chromatic Scales - consist of semi-tones only. It consists of 12 notes, each a semitone apart. For example, the C chromatic scale would read as follows:

C - C# - D - D# - E - F - F# - G - G# - A - A# - B - (C) ascending
C - B - Bb - A - Ab - G - Gb - F - E - Eb - D - Db - C descending
C Chromatic Scale - Ascending & Descending
C Chromatic Scale - Ascending & Descending

Diatonic Scales are divided into 2 kinds:

  • Major Scales
  • Minor Scales

Major Scales

A Major Scale is a series of 8 notes in alphabetical order, containing 5 tones and 2 semi-tones. The 8th note is the same as the first note, but is an octave higher.
  • The 5 tones occur between the 1st-2nd, 2nd-3rd, 4th-5th, 5th-6th, 6th-7th notes of the scale.
  • The 2 semi-tones occur between the 3rd-4th and 7th-8th notes of the scale
  • ie. 1 (tone) 2 (tone) 3 (semi-tone) 4 (tone) 5 (tone) 6 (tone) 7 (semi-tone) 8
C Major Scale

The Step Method can be used to determine all Major Scales... here's some examples using 3 variations.
Table 1:
Scale Notes 1st   2nd   3rd   4th   5th   6th   7th   8th
Whole / Half Steps   W   W   H   W   W   W   H  
Tones / Semitones   T   T   S   T   T   T   S  
Semitones   2   2   1   2   2   2   1  
C Major Scale C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
G Major Scale G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G
D Major Scale D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#   D
A Major Scale A   B   C#   D   E   F#   G#   A

Minor Scales

Minor Scales consist of 3 scale patterns:

  • Natural Minor Scale - also referred to as the Aeolian mode
  • Harmonic Minor Scale
  • Melodic Minor Scale

In each of the Minor Scale patterns, the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees form a minor triad, whereas in a major scale they form a major triad.

The first essential step is to learn the Natural Minor Scale. This will give you a solid foundation with a natural progression to understanding harmonic and melodic minor scales.

The Minor Scales page will give you a comprehensive look at each of these scales including different methods for calculating them along with examples. The following is simply an entree... the main-course and dessert are much more exciting!

The differences between the 3 minor scales:

  • 1. Natural Minor Scale - Formula: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 8 (ascending and descending)
Diagram 1:
D Natural Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending
D Natural Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending

Step Method for Natural Minor Scales:
       W -  H - W - W  -  H  -   W - W
    D -  E -  F -  G  -  A -  Bb - C -  D

  • 2. Harmonic Minor Scale - Formula: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 7 8 (ascending and descending)
Diagram 2:
G Harmonic Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending
G Harmonic Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending

Step Method for Harmonic Minor Scales: (WH = Whole + Half = 3 semitones)
       W -  H  -  W - W -  H   -  WH  -  H
    G -  A -  Bb - C  - D  -  Eb  -  F#  -  G

  • 3. Melodic Minor Scale - Formula: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 7 8 ascending, and 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 8 descending.
Diagram 3:
A Melodic Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending
A Melodic Minor Scale - Ascending & Descending

Because the Melodic Minor Scale has a different ascending/descending order we need 2 step-methods:

Step Method for Ascending:
      W  -  H  -  W  -  W - W  -  W  -  H
    A  - B  -  C  -  D  -  E - F# - G#

Step Method for Descending: same as Natural Minor Scale ascending and descending
     W - H - W  - W - H - W - W
   A - B - C -  D - E -  F -  G - A

Please Note: The easiest way to write the notes for ascending and descending scales:

  • Ascending: First Tonic to center Tonic (one octave higher)
  • Descending: Last Tonic to center
  • Low to high both ways is less confusing
  • Firstly - Write the scale notes ascending and descending then add the accidentals according to each step method - low to high... neat sweet and complete!

Rules for Music Scales

  • Sharps and Flats are used in the formation of scales to fix the correct position of the tones and semi-tones. This is how key signatures are formed.
  • Music Scales are related by their key signatures: Major to Minor and Minor to Major.
  • Every Major Scale has a relative Natural Minor Scale and every Minor Scale has a relative Major Scale
  • The Major scale and its relative Minor Scale share the same key signature. This means they share the same notes, but because they start at different places, they have a different step pattern and therefore a different sound.
  • To find a Relative Minor from a given Major, descend (count down) 3 semi-tones from the major, e.g., if you are in the key of A Major, count down 3 semitones from A - G# - G - F# ... you are in the key of F#minor.
  • To find a Relative Major from a given Minor, ascend (count up) 3 semi-tones from the minor, e.g., if you are in the key of Am, count up 3 semitones from A - A# - B - C ... you are in the key of C Major.

Technical Names of Scale Degrees

Each note in a given music scale is given a technical name: A scale degree is the name given to each note of the scale in relation to the tonic or root note which is the first degree of a diatonic scale. The illustration below shows the names of the scale degrees in C Major.

scale degrees

Each scale degree can be described in several ways:

  • First, second, major or minor third, fourth, fifth, major or minor sixth, major or minor seventh
  • Roman Numerals, i.e., I - II - III - IV - V - VI - VII - VIII
  • Arabic Numerals, i.e., 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
  • Names and their function, i.e., Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Subdominant, Dominant, Submediant, Leading Tone, Tonic (Octave / Upper Tonic).

Scale Degrees

Degree Name Meaning Notes in C
1st Tonic Tonal center / note of final resolution C
2nd Supertonic One whole step above the tonic D
3rd (Maj/Min) Mediant Half-way between the tonic and dominant E/E♭
4th Subdominant Lower dominant / same interval below tonic dominant is above tonic F
5th Dominant 2nd most important note to the tonic G
6th (Maj/Min) Submediant Lower mediant / mid-way between the tonic and subdominant A/A♭
7th (Maj/Min) Leading Tone / Subtonic Melodically strong affinity for the tonic / leads to the tonic / Subtonic-one whole step below the tonic B/B♭
8th Octave/Upper Tonic Octave above the tonic / tonal center / note of final resolution C

Subtonic is used when the interval between it and the tonic in the upper octave is a whole step, e.g., 7 or dom7 (B♭)
Leading Tone is used when the interval is a half step, e.g., maj7 (B)

In Summary:
  • Supertonic and Subtonic are one step above and one step below the tonic.
  • Mediant and Submediant are each a third above and below the tonic.
  • Dominant and Subdominant are a fifth above and below the tonic.
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