What is a musical scale? – Musical readings

Scales are the building blocks of most music. That’s why I – and maybe you – had to spend endless hours practicing them, over and over again. They are the fundamental building block of how you write and perform melodic music.

A scale is a series of notes that have a relationship to each other, in the way their acoustic frequencies interact.

The scale you use in a composition can create a sense of harmony or tension. And the notes in these scales often have important functions that give the music strength, energy, and forward movement.

Basics

The two most common scales in Western classical music are the major and minor scales.

Major scales can be in any key, but a simple major scale is what you get if you start C on a piano and move up, playing only white notes (listen to the audio above to hear some examples of all the ranges discussed here). A piece of music written in a major key will generally have an upbeat and cheerful feel.

The other common scale is the minor scale. It’s a little darker in mood. In fact, if a piece of music has a minor scale as its base, it will usually end up sounding sad or dramatic (or both). Start at A on a piano and play, again staying on the white notes, and you have a basic melodic minor scale. A harmonic minor scale modifies some of the higher notes.

So it’s the major and minor scale, and most pieces of western classical music written in the past 400 years are based on one or the other.

Another way of writing the melody

But there are many more types of scales than these two, and they give music kind of different colors. And if you assume that major scales are happy and minor scales are sad or dramatic, these other scales often occupy the murky, indeterminate space in between.

These scales are often called modes and actually predate the modern notion of scale. In fact, modes have been used since ancient times and therefore usually have Greek names. Adopting them in Western classical music is a favorite way for composers to sound rustic, “folksy” or exotic.

Here are a few. Listen again to the audio linked above to hear how they sound:

Dorian

This is what you get if you start in D on the piano and only play the white notes. So it has a flattened 3rd and 7th, to use music geek terminology. This is the mode used for ‘Greensleeves’.

Lydian

Still on the piano, if you play a scale starting with F but staying on white notes, that’s what you get. So you accent the 4th note. Here’s Ed Ayres talking about the Lydian mode used by Beethoven.

Mixolydian

Start on G on a piano and play a scale – so a flattened 7th is the change – and (congratulations!) you’ve played a Mixolydian scale. It’s also the scale known as the Blues scale, so you hear it used a lot in rock and pop music, from Chuck Berry to the Beatles and even your favorite top 40 modern bangers. It is also used in classical music. Grieg’s Piano Concerto uses it extensively in the last movement.

A whole world of ladders

I’m only scratching the surface. There are many other modes, each of which is the fundamental and delectable ingredient of a piece of music. There are also many other scales used in traditions outside of Western classical music – just listen to classical music from Japan, China, Indonesia and India to hear what I mean.

What if you invent your own scale?

This is exactly what happened in a lot of music, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. Many composers got tired of “traditional” scales and chords and started writing music based on new scales, called “tone lines”. What notes were on these rows of tones? Well, as you wish. Note pitches can be determined by mathematical formulas and algorithms, a series of notes borrowed from other music, or simply by pure chance.

The result? Music that ranges from the sublime and ethereal world of Berg’s Violin Concerto to the bizarre and surprising sounds of Pierre Boulez’s Structures.

Russell Torrance presents Classic Breakfast on ABC Classic (Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.).