Scales

MAJOR SCALES

The major scale pattern is

Root W W H W W W H


To use proper scale fingering on the piano, try to follow the pattern 1-2-3 (thumb under) 1-2-3-4, just inserting black keys where appropriate. This pattern will work with C, G, D, A, E majors. The pattern for B and F majors is 1-2-3-4 (thumb under) 1-2-3-4. For all scales beginning on a black note, try to start with finger 3 (your middle finer), and then use 2-3 on groups of 2 black keys and 2-3-4 on groups of 3 black keys. The thumb is your pivot.


As you change tonics, notice that notes are sometimes written with flats and sometimes with sharps. There are a few simple rules that explain the right spelling for every note in a major scale:

  • The pattern of half and whole steps is always Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Whole - Half
  • In order to maintain this half/whole pattern, some notes will need ♭s or ♯s in every major scale (except C major).
  • Each letter name is used only once. For example, a major scale will never contain both A♭ and A.
  • The letter names always occur in alphabetical order, and restart after G.

Here is an animated view of building the scale and writing it on staff lines (Click on each line to see it illustrated): https://www.musictheory.net/lessons/21

MINOR SCALES

The natural minor scale pattern is

Root W H W W H W W

To use proper scale fingering on the piano, try to follow the pattern 1-2-3 (thumb under) 1-2-3-4, just inserting black keys where appropriate. This pattern will work with A, D, G, C, E, B minors. The pattern for F minor is 1-2-3-4 (thumb under) 1-2-3-4. For all scales beginning on a black note, try to start with finger 3 (your middle finer), and then use 2-3 on groups of 2 black keys and 2-3-4 on groups of 3 black keys. The thumb is your pivot, but you may also use your 2nd finger if there are 2 white notes in a row.


How to Build a Harmonic Minor Scale

Like the natural (pure) minor scale, the harmonic minor scale starts on the sixth degree of its relative major scale. It ascends or descends for one octave using the major scale’s key signature, except for the 7th tone which is raised 1/2 a step. For instance, in an A harmonic minor scale, instead of playing G, G sharp is played.

The formula for forming a harmonic minor scale is whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step and a 1/2 step – half step. W-H-W-W-H-W 1/2-H (W 1/2 = whole-step and a half). The half steps occur between 2-3, 5-6 and 7-8, while there’s a distance of a step and a half between 6-7.

Example: In an A harmonic minor scale the notes are A B C D E F G# A.

Notes of the A minor harmonic scale:

How to Build a Melodic Minor Scale

Next in our lesson on piano scales we take a look at the melodic minor scale. This minor scale also begins on the 6th degree of the relative major scale. It ascends or descends for one octave using the major scale’s key signature. However when ascending the 6th and 7th tones are raised half a step. When descending, you simply use the tones of the natural or pure minor scale.

The formula for a melodic minor scale is whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step. W-H-W-W-W-W-H The descending formula is the natural minor scale formula backwards. In the melodic minor scale ascending, the half steps occur between 2-3 and 7-8.

Example: In an A melodic minor scale the notes are A B C D E F# G# A (ascending), and A G F E D C B A (descending).

Notes of the A minor melodic scale:


Here is an animated view of building the scale and writing it on staff lines (Click on each line to see it illustrated): https://www.musictheory.net/lessons/22

You can hear minor scales played here.

TEST YOURSELF HERE!

Check Major, Natural Minor, Melodic Minor, and Harmonic Minor under "Scales," Yes under "Play Sounds," ABCDEFG under "Note Names," and then "Start Quiz." (You can also quiz yourself in Bass or Alto clef for an extra challenge!

https://tonesavvy.com/music-practice-exercise/12/scale-mode-building-treble-staff-game/

Here is another interactive scale-building exercise:

You can also practice identifying major and minor scales by their SOUND here:

MODES

Musical modes are a type of scale with distinct melodic characteristics. The 7 modes, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian, come from the earliest forms of western music.

Before we figured out the math for dividing the octave into 12 equal tones, we had to make do with an imperfect system. Modes were the solution.

Instead of one all-purpose scale that could be transposed into different keys, there were 7 modes that each had their own structure.

In early music, the modes were used similar to how we use keys now.

To remember the particular half- and whole-step pattern of each mode, it may be helpful to refer to the keyboard: each mode's distinctive pattern correlates directly to a scale played on certain white keys. For example:

Dorian mode is formed with the half- and whole-steps that result from playing the 8 white keys on the piano beginning and ending on D.


Phrygian mode is formed with the half- and whole-steps that result from playing the 8 white keys on the piano beginning and ending on E.


Lydian mode is formed with the half- and whole-steps that result from playing the 8 white keys on the piano beginning and ending on F.


Mixolydian mode is formed with the half- and whole-steps that result from playing the 8 white keys on the piano beginning and ending on G.


Locrian mode is formed with the half- and whole-steps that result from playing the 8 white keys on the piano beginning and ending on B.


WHERE ARE THE MODES THAT BEGIN ON C AND A?

You already know them: the 8-note pattern beginning on C makes a Major scale (although it is also called the Ionian mode), and the 8-note pattern beginning on A makes a Natural Minor scale (which is also called the Aeolian mode.)

Here are the exact formulas for the church modes.

  • Ionian – Major (no altered notes)
  • Dorian – minor +raised 6th, lowered 7th
  • Phrygian – minor + lowered 2nd, lowered 6th, lowered 7th
  • Lydian – Major + raised 4th
  • Mixolydian – Major +lowered 7th
  • Aeolian – minor + lowered 6th, lowered 7th

For example, say we want to play A Lydian. We remember that Lydian is a “major” mode so we start with the scale formula for A Major: F#, C#, G#.

We know that Lydian contains the raised 4th scale degree, so we can simply add D# to our “key signature” to create the mode.

You can practice building modal scales here. (Make sure you check Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Locrian. You can also include Major and Natural Minor if you wish.)