I don’t know about you, but the word “scale” scares the crap out of me. I picture some white-wig-wearing little boy tinkling the same “do re mi” blah blah blah over and over on a piano as a stern-faced matron tells him to watch his posture.
Well, it’s not quite so bad as all that. Scales turn out to be enormously useful for coming up with melodies, soloing, and for practicing technique.
The simplest definition of a scale is just a bunch of notes played in a row. For our purposes, it’s a sequence of notes played in a row that span an octave. In other words, if a scale starts on C it ends on C an octave higher. We normally think about them being played in order, either ascending or descending, but it’s also fun to just noodle around with the notes in any order. In fact, that’s what’s called playing in a key.
Introducing the major scale
The most common type of scale in the type of music we care about is the major scale. It contains seven notes, can start on any note, and then follows a pattern of intervals. The major scale pattern is:
More succinctly, WWHWWWH, or 2,2,1,2,2,2,1.
You’ll notice the interval lengths add up to 12, which is an octave. The two half-steps there are pretty important. Some experiments have been done with made-up scales that used evenly spaced notes, and it was found that the melodies didn’t come out as nice. The unevenness of the scale helps us to know where we are in relation to the beginning and end. When playing in a key, a melody usually finishes on the starting note, called the root, or tonic.
We’re so used to hearing melodies built this way that if a song doesn’t end on the tonic, we’re left waiting, waiting, waiting for more notes to come. Then when the tonic finally comes there’s a great big sigh of relief, or resolution. This is a very powerful tool in the hands of a good songwriter or performer. You know when blues bands sometimes make the ending of a song last for minutes at a time? They’re just building up tension, making the audience anticipate what’s coming next? Well, that’s what they’re doing, is delaying resolution to the tonic. Our ears instinctively know on what note a song should end, so until it comes the song doesn’t seem “over.” But then when it comes, oh boy! The cymbals crash, the guitarists smashes his ax against the amplifiers, the bassist runs around like an animal. The groupies go crazy. In other words, everything returns to normal. Nice.
A scale is named after the tonic, so if we start with a C and make a major scale, it’s called a C major scale, logically enough. The notes in a C major scale happen to be all the notes that don’t have flat or sharp symbols:
This only works for C, unfortunately. The half-steps between E and F and between B and C just happen to be in the right places. If we start on any other note, we need to add some accidental symbols. So if we start with D, for example, we get two sharp symbols:
How to play it
The nice thing about playing guitar is we can learn a few simple patterns for a scale, then move them where ever we want on the fretboard to get a major scale in any key. Here’s the most commonly used scale shape for major scales. This is starting on the fifth fret, so it’s the A major scale, but if you start on the eighth fret, you’d have a C major. If you start on the 12th fret, it’s an E major, and so on.
This shape covers the whole height of the fretboard and two octaves. Playing this up and down is useful for practice and for learning, though it can get boring and it’s not exactly musical. I suggest practicing in front of the television. I know, a classical teacher would be shocked, but better to keep your interest. Once you learn it, it’s more interesting and fun to try jumping around, coming up with melodies. You’ll find most melodies we’re familiar with are based on the major scale. Happy Birthday, for example, or America the Beautiful.
- Find more ways to play an A major scale using the Scalerator.
- See how to play a C major scale using the Scalerator.
What is it used for?
Once we’ve chosen a major scale, we have a key as well. If we use a melody based on the notes in the C major scale, for example, we say that song is in the key of C major. The melody of a song written in the key of C major will use notes taken from the C major scale, and will resolve to the tonic note, C.
Chords from a scale
We can also come up with chords from the notes in the scale. If you start the note C and take every other note in the scale, you’ll get C, E, and G, which happens to be a C major chord. (See the lesson on chords for how that works.) Hmm… C major scale… C major chord… Coincidence? I think not!
Likewise, if we start on the second note of the scale, D, we get D, F, A, which is a D minor chord. We can start at any position on the scale and come up with a chord. We say these are the chords in the key of C:
The pattern of major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished holds for every major key. That’s why I’ve put those Roman numerals above the chord names, to help you remember. The second chord (written in lowercase as “ii”) in a major key is always a minor, the third, “iii”, is minor as well, the fourth and fifth are major, and so on.
Here’s the chart for the key of F:
See? Same pattern.
What these lists of chords mean is that a song that is written in the key of C major will most likely be harmonized using the chords that come from the C major scale, just as the melody will most likely come from the notes in the C major scale. (Notice I say most likely. As we know, there are no hard and fast rules in music, and some of the greatest fun comes from breaking what guidelines do exist.)
The knowledge of what chords and notes go with what key is invaluable for soloing and improvising. If you know a song is in the key of D major, for example, you know you can play notes from the D major scale over it, and it will sound good.
There are of course more ways to arrange an octave worth of notes than just the major scale. Tune in next week when I discuss minor scales and pentatonic scales.