There are a lot of scales!
There is the major scale- twelve of these, one for each of the notes, as well as minor scales, many "modes," pentatonic major and pentatonic minor scales, and blues scales. The minor scales can seem further confusing, as there are natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor scales. So it can seem that understanding and learning to play them all is an enormous task!
This is not true, thank goodness, and it is indeed easily possible for anyone to learn ALL of the scales, when the way they are built (or, spelled) is understood.
Start by learning to build Major Scales
All you really need to know to get started is how to spell a major scale. And that's easy! The major scale is the master scale because all of the scales (all of the modes and their variations, as well as both types of pentatonic) are built from this one; once you understand how to spell major scales, you can then learn to spell any other scale you want. So let's do it now:
The formula for building any major scale is two-two-one-two-two-two-one, or whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half- steps, that is. I have previously written about these intervals here.
From the first note of the scale (the key, or tonic center), you move a whole step to the next note in the scale, followed by another whole step, and then a half step, then three whole steps in a row ending with a half step interval. A half step is the distance between any two keys on the piano, or frets on a guitar, ukulele, or bass, for example. A whole step distance would be two piano keys of frets apart.
The C scale or key is the simplest to spell, as this is the only key which uses all natural notes- no sharps or flats- to spell the scale. It will be helpful to our further studies if we begin by numbering the notes in each scale.
So C scale=
Remember, there is only a half step between the notes B and C, and again between E and F.
There are 12 major scales, one for each note: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B.
But what about the flat notes and keys?C sharp is also D flat; D sharp is E flat; F sharp is G flat; G sharp is A flat; A sharp is B flat. The sharps and flats are called enharmonic notes, meaning these are different names for the same note: A note is sharp when it is one half step higher in pitch than the note preceeding it, and flat when it is a half step (semitone) lower than the preceeding note.
The G major scale uses just one sharp; it is the seventh note of the scale, which falls on F#. So the G scale is spelled G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. You will see songs that are played in the key of G notated using this key signature, one sharp, denoted on the F line, just before the time signature at the beginning of a piece of music in the key of G.
G scale (and key)
But music written in the key of G could also include scales from any modes of G: G major, or Ionian, scales, or those of A Dorian, B Phrygian, C Lydian, D Mixolydian, E Aeolian, or F# Locrian.
What are these modes?
The major and minor scales and the others are each individual modes. Any major scale in modal speak is that note's Ionian scale. Here's the list of modes:
Ionian is the major mode. Each successive mode of a key begins and ends on the next note of the major scale, rather than the key note.
If we started with C major, or Ionian, then D Dorian would follow. This scale is the exact same scale as the major scale before it, except it starts and ends on the next note, D. Then you would have E Phrygian, the C major scale beginning and ending on E notes, rather than C. Beginning this scale on F gives you the Lydian mode; on G is Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and beginning and ending on B would be the B Locrian.
For any other key, Dorian mode will begin and end on the ii note of the key scale, Phrygian on iii, Lydian on iv, Mixolydian on v, Aeolian on vi, and Locrian on vii. If you started with a B major scale, the next mode of B would be C Dorian, using the same B scale but starting and ending on C notes, then D Phrygian. And on and on through the modes, each one in the key of B using the B major scale but beginning and ending on subsequent notes.
What about Minor Scales?
The Aeolian mode of any key is the relative natural minor for the parent scale in the series. That is, the vi note in any major scale is that major key's relative minor.
The melodic and harmonic minor scales are additional options outside of the modes, as these scales have been built more recently than the ancient modes.
All minor scales have a minor (flattened) third, rather than a major third.
Natural minor scales are built from scratch using this formula: two-one-two-two-one-two-two. Or, whole- half--whole-whole-half-whole-whole, counting by steps. Remember, we can also find this scale as the Aeolian mode, by starting and ending the scale on note six of the relative major key.
The harmonic minor scale differs by having the seventh note raised by a half tone. So the interval pattern of harmonic minor scales is: two-one-two-two-one-three-one. The seventh tone of any scale is known as the leading note, as it strongly pulls to the next note, which is the tonic or key note. Having the major (sharpened) seventh leading note heightens the harmonic pull between these notes.
That wide step and a half interval in the harmonic minor scale is awkwardly wide, however- scales generally don't leap that wide an interval.
So to solve this, the melodic minor scale was invented. This scale also raises the sixth note. So the interval pattern for the melodic minor scale is two-one-two-two-two-two-one.
Often, but by no means always, the melodic and natural minor scales are paired, with the melodic minor (raised sixth and seventh notes) played while ascending, and the natural minor scale for the descending notes.
Additionally, within any key, there are both major pentatonic and the relative minor pentatonic scales. Pentatonic scales are simply scales abbreviated to a particular five, rather than seven, notes.
These scales are used widely in a vast variety of musical styles. They are particularly handy for composing leads for guitar (or ukulele), because the omission of any half steps in the pattern makes this scale sound harmonically pleasing over every chord in a progression; it's a safe and easy choice because you won't play any alien or outside notes no matter what chord the progression uses in any key.
For the pentatonic major scales, you play only notes one, two, three, five, and six, omitting the fourth and the seventh notes of the regular Major scales. So for the C scale, you would play C-D-E-G-A.
To play pentatonic minor scales, choose only notes one, three, four, five, and seven from the natural minor scales. So A minor pentatonic uses the notes A-C-D-E-G.
The Blues Scale
The blues scale adds a sixth note to the pentatonic minor scale, the flattened fifth. Using the example of A minor, the Blues scale would use A-C-D-E flat-E-G. This extra, flatted note, is known as a blue note. There is another possible blue note, the flatted seventh; so you could also play an A Blues scale using notes A-C-D-Eb-E-Gb-G.
Which Scales are Most Commonly Used?
You will find that most songs will use either full (seven note) or pentatonic versions of the Major or minor scales. In popular music, outside of the major or minor scales, Mixolydian mode seems to be the most frequently used of the modes, and its characteristic flattened seventh note gives rock and pop music much flavor. You will find examples of each mode being used in various styles of music, and some modes appear more frequently than others.
You can write songs in any mode, or using any scale that you like.
There are indeed quite a lot of scales, but you don't have to learn them all individually as you see they are not so separate from each other.
It is easy to learn to spell (and to play) them all. And your options for solos are endless!
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