4 Section 2.1: Scales


Most believe the melody to be the most important part of a composition. They argue it is the thing people walk away remembering or a song’s main identifying hallmark. Though this is true, it would not be so without the application of harmony and rhythm. To have a deep understanding of melodic passages and their content, it is important to begin with a study of scale construction then move on to rhythm and harmony.

The word SCALE in and of itself simply means a collection of tones in serial order. That order can depend on multiple factors, which we will discuss over the coming portions of this text. There are many types of scales that exist in music theory. Which is why it is dangerous to study alone or without understanding the application. Scales are arranged in a particular manner to suit a musical need. There are a number of methods for transforming a series of tones into a  beautifully crafted melody. The first scale we should study is the MAJOR scale. For now, we look at the MATH of the major scale. The formula for creating this scale is denoted in the following example of a G Major Scale. Notice the arrangement of Whole steps (W) and Half steps (H).

G Major Scale

A G Major Scale.

We can construct this and any other major scales using the formula with a starting note on the staff. Remember Music is Math and Math is patterns. We learned this in the musical Alphabet section: when we reach G we start back at A. If we discover a major scale at the keyboard or guitar, the same math holds true once we reach the end of the scale. We can start over and climb all the way up or down the keyboard/fretboard with the same intervallic composition.

The theory student should play this scale at the keyboard many times before attempting to find other major scales. However, once they have discovered another scale they should practice it until they cannot forget it. Writing scales on staff paper is also a great way to learn and memorize scales.

Scale Writing Rules:

  1. Find a starting pitch.
  2. Move from that pitch in ABC order.
  3. Do not repeat any letters.
  4. Do not use two different accidentals in a scale.
  5. Use a formula to determine when accidentals are needed.

One of the most elusive scales the young theory student will tackle is the Minor Scale. Three distinct versions of the minor scale exist, and they all serve various functions. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find all three in a composition fulfilling different roles within the harmonic structure.

First, we look at the NATURAL MINOR scale. This scale is referred to as NATURAL because it has the same Key Signature as its cousin or RELATIVE MAJOR. All Major and Minor scales have relative scales that correspond to their own KEY SIGNATURE and we refer to them as such, relative. For now: a KEY SIGNATURE is the number of accidentals required to keep the integrity of the pattern of whole-steps and half-steps required to build a specific scale. For this scale, we follow the formula shown below and create E Natural Minor. This minor scale shares the same KEY SIGNATURE as G Major. Therefore, we only need one sharp (#) to complete our formula – the same way we constructed G Major. (There is a relationship here worth exploring, and we shall, but for now focus on the actual construction of scales according to our formula.)

E Natural Minor Scale

An E Natural Minor Scale.

The natural minor scale is easy to find and use because it functions much the same way the major scales function. However, there are two variations on the minor scales that have their own rules and construction that can be confusing at first. But if we go slow and stay diligent we can find all three. One variation of the minor scale is called the HARMONIC MINOR and it has only one alteration – but a very important one – that distinguishes it from other minor scales. The 7th scale degree is raised one half-step creating a dissonance between certain tones within the scale. Composers do this by “borrowing” the 7th tone from the relative major. It is called the Harmonic Minor because changing the 7th scale degree also changes the chord built on the 5th note of the scale giving the composer two different harmonies to exploit, one major and one minor. The intervallic composure of the major chord provides new dissonance in the tonal area that will aurally push the listener to desire the return of the first chord of the piece. This aural yearning brings a sense of resolution when the listener is released by the composer to return to the HOME KEY. All music is designed to resolve itself at the end of its design by returning to the chord or chords with which it began. We refer to this as the HOME KEY or TONIC.

E Harmonic Minor Scale

An E Harmonic Minor Scale.

The MELODIC MINOR scale can be more frustrating than the harmonic minor at first, but with practice and study the theory student will achieve control over the scale. This scale has special conditions that require us to break one of our scale rules by using two different accidental types within the same scale. However, it is required to build the scale and therefore we allow it in certain musical instances. This minor scale has two exceptions on the way up for tones 6 and 7 that are borrowed from the PARALLEL MAJOR SCALE. Any scale started on the same note has multiple versions of itself which are called PARALLEL in this instance it is E Major which has four #’s in its KEY SIGNATURE. On the way down, we return the 6th and 7th scale degrees to their rightful natural minor positions. Thus, giving composers more MELODIC choices than any other scale. All other previous rules for scale construction still apply.

E Melodic Minor Scale

An E Melodic Minor Scale.

When a composer chooses to use a minor key they may use any form of it that fits their musical needs. So, it is up to the theory student to be able to recognize them when they encounter accidentals in music performance. At times accidentals seem to come out of nowhere in the middle of a song, or the whole sound of the piece changes. This is the composer using musical technique to tell a story.



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A Practical Approach To Understanding Music Theory Copyright © 2022 by Charles B. Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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