In this part of the course we will discuss musical scales such as major or minor scales. You will learn how to build them and how to use them.

4. Musical Scales

We compose music using musical scales. A scale is a set of notes, placed apart of each other by specific intervals for this given scale. There are many different scales and they may have different intervals, different number of scales and so on, but most of the scales we use in Western music is made of seven notes.

In most cases, the notes of the scale are a semitone or two semitones apart from the previous note or next note. Some oriental scales use quartertones, too. If you press any key on a piano keyboard, and then you press the key right next to it (either white or black, whichever is closer), you have played a semitone. By now you already know what semitones are, because you’ve learned how to count the intervals.

Again – scales are sets of specific notes.

For example, figure 4.1 shows you a C Major scale.

Figure 4.1

This scale contains notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B. It’s a major scale (compared to, for example, minor scale, which you will learn soon), and we recognize this scale is major because of the intervals pattern throughout the scale. If we take this scale and move it up, for example to note D, while keeping the intervals pattern unchanged, we get a scale D Major, like on figure 4.2.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.3, on the other hand, shows us an A Minor scale.

Figure 4.3

A Minor contains sounds A, B, C, D, E, F, G. If we move these notes up, for example to note C, while keeping the intervals pattern unchanged, we get a C Minor scale, like on figure 4.4

Figure 4.4

Try to count the semitones and intervals yourself, between the notes shown on the figures. Just as a form of exercise.

OK, now you know two basic types of scales – major scales and minor scales – and you know that the type of the scale is defined by the intervals pattern. Soon you will learn these patterns for many different scales.

Let’s discuss one other thing that you may have noticed. Scales C Major and A Minor contain the same notes, but they start with a different first note (called a key). C Major starts with C and goes up, while scale A Minor starts with A and goes up. When we have this kind of situation we say that these scales are relative to each other. A relative scale can be quickly identified using a so called circle of fifths.

Relative Scales

A circle of fifths is a musical tool that helps us see relations between the notes and keys. A typical wheel of fifths show all possible key notes and their flats and sharps symbols. Take a look at figure 4.5, where the outer letters are major keys (major scales, for example), and the inner letters are their relative minor keys.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 does not show any flats or sharps, because computer musicians rarely need these since they do not work on a staff.

Useful Tip

A key is also known as the tonic – the very first note of a given scale.

How to use the wheel of fifths? For example, first locate the major scale key (the outer letters), and then you look at the related key in the minor, inner ring of letters. It works the other way around, too. For example, relative scale for C Major is the A Minor scale, while relative scale for F# Minor is A Major scale.

Relative scales have the same notes, but a different tonic – a different key, or in other words, the very first note that starts the scale. This fact also changes the purpose of each note and the chords built with these notes – but more on that later.

It is possible to figure out relative scales without the wheel of fifths. If you want to find a relative minor scale, its tonic will be the sixth note of the base major scale. If you want to find a major scale, its tonic will be the third note of the base minor scale. In even simpler words, to identify the relative minor scale, count three semitones down from the base tonic – for example, from C down to A. To find a relative major scale, count three semitones up from the tonic, like from A up to C.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Figure 4.6

The first scale on figure 4.6, the one on the left, is a C Major scale. Based on what I told you, you can find its relative minor scale by starting with the sixth note of the base major scale. Let’s see.

The sixth note of the C Major scale is A – and there we have an A Minor scale. We can count this the other way around – three semitones down, using the second method. Again, we get A – A Minor.

Here’s a second example, where, on figure 4.7, we have a minor scale. To find its relative major, we take a look at the third note of the minor scale – for A Minor it’s a note C, so it tells us the relative major for A Minor is C Major.

Figure 4.7

With this technique, we have to count three semitones up. Let’s do this now. Again, we end up on note C.

In case of relative minor scales, we may encounter enharmonics once again. For example, a relative minor for E Major, after counting three semitones down, should be Db Minor. But we can’t do this, because when when finding relative scales, we always have to skip a single letter – in this case, letter D, which is right next to E. Thus, we have to skip it – just the letter. But since Db is the same note as C#, we simply call this relative minor scale: C# Minor.

Figure 4.8

We encounter enharmonics again if normally in a single scale we would have two exactly the same letters – like A and A# in the same scale – we can’t do this. So we change one of the letters, depending on the situation, for example from A# to Bb – it’s the same note, but called differently.

How to tell minor scale from major scale, if we have relative scales with all the same notes? It’s possible and I will explain this in just a moment. For now know this: you’ve just learned two basics scales: minor and major. These are the types of scales that can be built upon any of the 12 chromatic notes.

For example, C Major is a major scale build upon note C, and this note is called a key (the first note of a scale is always called either a key or a tonic). A Minor is a minor scale build upon note A. Because we have 12 different notes (seven basic notes, and five chromatic notes with sharps or flats), we may have 12 different keys. There are other types of scales, as well, like pentatonic scales. When you know what a scale is (a set of notes build with specific pattern of intervals), it is easy to read and learn new scales. Right now, let’s learn how to actually build minor and major scales.

We use intervals and semitones to build our scales. Because of the pattern of these semitones, every major scale sounds the same, despite the fact that it is build using a different key.

Major Scale

For major scales, the pattern looks like this: WWHWWWH, and W is a whole tone, H is a half tone. Whole tone is also known as whole step. Half tone is also known as half step or semitone. Usually, a whole tone equals two keys on a piano keyboard, either black or white, and half tone equals only a single key. We may also use digits: 2212221 – these are the “steps” measured in semitones. Let’s take a look at a major scale and count the semitones.

Figure 4.9 – File 4-1.mid

With this simple pattern, you can build a major scale in any given key, any of the 12 chromatic notes. Try it yourself, and build an A Major scale.

Right now is a good time to mention that every single one of these seven notes of either minor or major scale has its name, the degree of the scale.

  1. First note/degree – tonic (the first degree of the scale that defines the name of the scale, like C in C Major). It’s often called a key.
  2. Second note/degree – supertonic.
  3. Third note/degree – mediant.
  4. Fourth note/degree – subdominant.
  5. Fifth note/degree – dominant.
  6. Sixth note/degree – submediant.
  7. Seventh note/degree – leading tone (or subtonic in minor scales)\

Later on, this knowledge of tonics, dominants or mediants will become quite useful to work with chords and to create chord progression. Know that no matter if we work with major, minor or modal scale with seven notes, these seven notes always have the same names and thus, functions.

The only exception is the seventh note – in major scales it is a leading tone, it has a strong need to lead to tonic note (this means it produces tension in music that wants to be resolved by a tonic note) – in major scales, there is no other note between a leading tone and tonic – no white key, no black key. But in minor scales, between the leading tone and the tonic, there’s a single chromatic note. Thus, in minor scales, the seventh note is no longer a leading tone, and has no need to be resolved to a tonic. Instead, it is called a subtonic and has a slightly different function.

This small difference affects how we create harmonies and build chords in minor scales, but this is a bit more advanced topic, so we won’t discuss it now.

When you hit the eight note, you notice it’s the very same note as the tonic, just an octave higher.

Now you know how to build a major scale – you got the pattern of semitones. Emotionally, major scales are very bright, happy, positive. They are often used to create more positive music.

Minor Scale

Now, let’s talk about a minor scale – or minor scales, because we have three of them.

Natural Minor Scale

The basic minor scale is called a natural minor scale. We build a natural minor scale with the following pattern: WHWWHWW, or 2122122.

But why “natural” minor scale? Actually, we have three minor scales, and the natural minor scale is the first of the three. You’ve already learned about one of such natural scales, when you learned A Minor.

Here’s the A Minor scale, as show on figure 4.10.

Figure 4.10 – File 4-3.mid

By using this pattern of semitones, you can build a natural minor scale in any key you want, out of 12 chromatic notes in total. For example, try to build a C Minor scale yourself using the pattern of minor scales.

Now that you know how to build a minor scale, know that emotionally this scale is a bit sad, and it can be used to compose less positive music.

There are two other minor scales: a harmonic minor scale and melodic minor scale.

Harmonic Minor Scale

A harmonic minor scale is a direct result of natural minor. The only difference is the seventh note, that in harmonic minor is a semitone higher. This is the pattern for harmonic minor scale: 2122131. The 3 in this pattern is our seventh note.

Figure 4.11

Harmonic minor scale, thanks to this higher seventh note, sounds a bit orient, exotic.

This scale is often used for the purpose of chords – the seventh note allows us to create a major dominant chord in a minor scale (something not possible in a natural minor scale), and this allows us to create a traditional chord progression, in which a dominant is resolved to a tonic. It’s a bit more complex piece of knowledge reserved for a book about harmony, so don’t worry about it now. Just know that you may encounter a risen seventh degree in minor scales and in this case you know you’re looking at a harmonic minor scale.

Melodic Minor Scale

The final minor scale explained in this book is the melodic minor scale. In this scale, both sixth and seventh note are a bit higher than in natural minor. But beware! We make these two notes higher only when the scale goes up. When it goes down, we go back to natural minor scale. Figure 4.12 illustrates this.

This is the pattern for melodic minor scale: 2122221.

Figure 4.12

When the melodic minor goes up, we rise the sixth and seventh note of this scale, but when the scales go down, we cancel these two notes, and we use the good old natural minor scale.

Now you know three basic minor scales and you know the patterns of semitones to build them.

Musical Scales in Practice

Now that you know how to build the basic musical scales, you need to learn how to use them in practice.

This is rather simple – at least the basics are simple. The entire music piece is made only with the notes that belong to a given scale. For example, if you compose a piece in A Minor, you will use only notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. You will note use any chromatic notes, not for melody, nor for chords.

When music is made only of the notes of a given scale, we say that this music is diatonic.

When you learn more about music, you may want to start using notes outside the scale (so called non-diatonic notes), but this is a bit more advanced topic and we won’t discuss it right now. Anyway, know two things: first, a lot of music is diatonic, and that’s perfectly fine. Second, when studying music you may notice that some composers use non-diatonic notes, too – and that’s fine, too.

Same Notes, Which Scale?

Let’s go back to the question: how to tell apart C Major from A Minor if these two relative scales have the same notes?

The answer is: context, chords and accents. We will talk about chords soon, so let’s focus on the context here.

Everything goes down to what the melody sounds like, what kind of emotions does it invoke. If our melody sounds sad and you can feel it, it’s probably a minor scale. But if it sounds positive, happy, it’s possibly a major scale.

Of course, something must be creating these emotions – this role is taken by an accented note, or the key of the scale. You know by now that the key is the first note of the scale. In case of C Major, the note C is the key, and in case of A Minor, the note A is the key. Let’s listen to two melodies now, the first one is in C Major.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 shows the main melody. Let’s place the accent on the C Major’s key, note C, as shown on figure 4.14. Remember that you can find MIDI files for these figures in the package for this book.

Figure 4.14

On figure 4.14, we place the accent on note C – that is, we place this additional C note in few more places to accompany the main melody.

Figure 4.15 shows the same melody, but with an accent on note A, so we can get A Minor scale.

Figure 4.15

Now we place the accent on note A – we use this note more often. And this is the basic way to relative scales apart.

Another way to place an accent on the key is to make sure that the key is the lowest note in our entire composition, creating a sort of a base, or foundation.

Later on in this book you will learn about the chords and this knowledge, too, will help you define the scale and general mood of your music.


Major scale and three minor scales are not the only scales in the world. Actually, there are many more scales, often quite unique to various world cultures, but in our “Western” music we usually use just major scales, minor scales and so called modes. Let’s talk about this last group now.

Modes, or modal scales, also contain seven notes, but they differ from each other with the interval patterns. Small differences in the intervals change the “emotional content” of each modal scale. There are seven modes – all of them can be build just by playing white keys on the piano, but starting with a different note as a key. By this I mean the following: when you consider the notes noted below as the keys for each scale, you can build all seven modes. Once you learn the patterns for each mode, you can build this mode regardless of the note you chose as the key.

  • Ionian mode – C
  • Dorian mode – D
  • Phrygian mode – E
  • Lydian mode – F
  • Mixolydian mode – G
  • Aeolian mode – A
  • Locrian mode – B

Soon you will notice that the aeolian mode is simply a natural minor scale, and the ionian mode is a normal major scale. Now you know that these two types of scales are just “modes”.

Of course, modal scales can be build upon any other key, out of 12 chromatic notes, just remember to use a specific pattern for each mode (you will learn these patterns soon). Let’s listen to these modes and let’s learn how to build them.


Tonic/key + 2212221

Figure 4.16


Tonic/key + 2122212

Figure 4.17


Tonic/key + 1222122

Figure 4.18


Tonic/key + 2221221

Figure 4.19


Tonic/key + 2212212

Figure 4.20


Tonic/key + 2122122

Figure 4.21


Tonic/key + 1221222

Figure 4.22

Now you know how to build seven modal scales.

Modes and Emotions

Scales have their own “feel to them” and thus they can shape specific emotions. Here are some keywords for each of the modes:

  • Ionian – bright, positive, stable, uplifting.
  • Dorian – sad.
  • Phrygian – mystical, darker.
  • Lydian – exotic, etheric, comfortable.
  • Mixolydian – happy.
  • Aeolian – melancholic.
  • Locrian – unstable, different, uncomfortable.

Like in case of the intervals, in case of modes emotions can be quite subjective as well, but some of these emotions will be common among various people. If you want to convey specific emotions with your music, you may want to pick up a specific mode.

Pentatonic Minor Scale

One more scale is worth to mention – it’s quite popular and it is often used in pop music – we’re talking about the minor pentatonic scale, made of five notes. This scale is quite popular in various parts of the world, where it was born independently from other cultures. It’s quite common in ethnic music, too, from China to Native America, and it sounds really nice, thus it has found its way to popular music.

Figure 4.23

Figure 4.23 shows a minor pentatonic scale in the key of F#. The pattern for this scale is this: tonic/key + 32232.

Minor pentatonic scale is simply a natural minor that skips the second and fifth note.


Now that you know musical scale and you know how to build them, it’s time to learn about harmony and chords.

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