In order to play or write a melody in a given key (e.g. D-major) we need to know which notes belong to that particular key.
Those are the notes that form the scale of that key.
There are many different sorts of scales and they distinguish from each other based on their whole step – half step order, but we’ll get to that in this post about how to build scales.
Let’s first establish, what scales there are in music before we dive into how they are built!
In the order of the most used ones in western music, all the way down to the least popular ones:
As always, we only need to look at the notes within one octave as every scale repeats itself in all the other octaves.
Since there are 12 notes in one octave (this is valid for western music).
There are regions in the world like in Asia, that have so-called microtonalities in their music where the step from one note to the next one is shorter than in western music, which results in more than 12 notes in an octave.
But those scales are beyond the scope of this article that focuses on western, traditional music), a scale will only contain a maximum of those 12.
In reality it’s often only about 7.
So, there are 12 possible notes in the octave and we call it a half-step when we go from one note to the next one which is a ‘semi tone’ higher.
When we skip one ‘semi tone’ it means we made a whole step (half step + half step).
For reading purposes let’s abbreviate whole step with a W, and half step with an H.
Let’s start with the first one on our list, the major scale.
The whole step – half step order in a major scale is always:
Let’s have a look what exactly that means.
We start our example with C-major and try to explain it as simple and detailed as possible so even absolute beginners can understand it easily: C is the root of the scale.
This note is at the bottom and our first note.
Now we do a whole step: After C comes C♯, which is a half step, and from C♯ it is another half step to D.
Now comes another whole step: From D to D♯ is a half step, from D♯ to E is another half step.
We are at the note E now.
Having reached E, we do our first half step: The note right next to E is F, which is only a semi tone higher, so one half step gets us to the note F.
Let’s speed it up a bit: As you can see in our formula WWHWWWH, after the first half step there are three whole steps in a row.
A whole step after F is G, after G is A and after A is B.
After the last one, B, it is another half step to get to the root note again, which is an octave higher now.
So a half step from B leads us to C again.
The notes in the right order are: C D E F G A B C
This was the example for C-major.
The formula WWHWWWH can be applied to absolutely any key and you’ll get its major scale.
So when it comes to how to build scales, you will encounter this formula a lot!
Let’s see how it would look like on A-major.
We start at A.
A whole step up is B.
Another whole step up brings us where? To C♯!
On the piano this is a black key.
Now comes a half step which brings us to D.
We follow with three whole steps in a row.
From D to E, from E to F♯, from F♯ to G♯.
And finally we come back to the root note A, which is a half step from G♯.
Take a look at the following illustration of the A-major scale, which will make it more clear for you:
The next scale that is used a lot in western music is the natural minor one.
Now that we learned what half steps and whole steps are, we can easily build a scale for minor by adapting the natural minor formula, which is:
Let’s see how this looks like in C-minor.
C-minor starts with C, then comes a whole step to D, followed by a half step to E♭ (pronounced “E-flat”).
Then we have an F, G, followed by another half step to A♭, a whole step to B♭ and finally back to the root with another whole step, C.
Next up, the harmonic minor scale!
We just saw how to build scales in the natural minor.
The harmonic minor scale is very similar.
There is actually only one small difference to the natural one.
It is the very last note, the seventh note of the scale.
In the natural minor scale we learned that the last step is a whole step (the one that leads to the root note an octave higher).
In the harmonic minor, however, the 7th note is a semi tone higher than in natural minor.
This causes the last step to be only a half step.
For C-minor we have the notes C D E♭ F G A♭ B in the harmonic minor scale.
Note how the last note is different from the natural minor.
The last note there is a B♭.
Having a B as the last note, we only need a half step now to get back to the root C (an octave higher).
The melodic minor scale is the least used minor scale.
This scale is special as you play different notes downwards than you play upwards.
Let’s look into this:
The melodic minor scale is actually a lot like the major scale, but has one key difference (pun intended).
The third note of the scale, in C-major it would be the E, is a semi-tone lower in the melodic minor one.
Everything else is the same! So for C melodic minor it is: C D E♭ F G A B
Now all you have to remember when building a melodic minor scale is the major scale of the note and then just change the third note.
The formula is WHWWWWH.
MELODIC MINOR DOWNWARDS
But now comes the interesting part that is unique with this scale: When you play the scale downwards, it needs to sound like a regular, natural minor!
So in C melodic minor you play: C-D-E♭-F-G-A-B-C and downwards it would be C-B♭-A♭-G-F-E♭-D-C
This is a unique “law” in music theory that only applies to the melodic minor scale.
Above said pretty much covers the topic of how to build scales in western (classical/pop) music.
Now let’s look at some different ones.
A pentatonic scale works with less than 7 notes!
The difference between the major pentatonic scale and the regular major scale is in the 4th and 7th note.
The pentatonic one comes without them!
So a C pentatonic major scale would be C-D-E-G-A.
As always, this works on every key, every root note!
For the minor pentatonic scale, we look at the natural minor scale and take out some notes from here as well.
In the previous example we took out the 4th and 7th note of the major scale.
For minor pentatonic, we leave out the 2nd and 6th note: So a natural minor with C-D-E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭ turns into C-E♭-F-G-B♭ in its pentatonic version.
If you play it on the keyboard it will probably remind you of Jazz as pentatonic scales are used a lot in jazz music!
The modes discussed in this article are scales that have elements of minor and major scales in it.
Let’s see how to build scales in the world of modes!
Building a dorian scale on C is similar to a C-minor scale, with the exception that there won’t be an A♭ but instead an A.
So to base this on any root note, we can state the following: The dorian scale has half tone steps between the second and third note and then between the sixth and seventh note.
If you try this scale out on the piano or any other instrument, it might sound familiar to you as it is a very commonly used one in jazz!
This one is again very similar to a minor scale, except that the second note is only a half step away from the root.
So instead of a D in a C-minor scale, it would be a D♭.
The other notes remain unchanged.
This scale is often used in Spanish and Arabian music.
At the beginning we learned how to build scales for major keys.
This one is actually similar to a major scale pattern but will have the 4th step raised by a half step.
So an F in a C-major scale would turn into an F♯.
A scale that has been often used in film music.
One famous example would be the movie ET.
Again a major scale soundalike, but this time the seventh step is taken down by a half step.
In a scale on C, the B would become a B♭.
Let’s have a look at all these modes in the following illustration:
Above described ways on how to build scales should give you an idea of the theory and simplicity that is behind each scale.
Scales can be used for a lot of different things.
Starting from dry finger exercises on your instrument to composing music where scales have always been an important part of and improvisations, especially in jazz and its subgenres.
IMPORTANCE OF SCALES
Scales are also of importance when performing classical music as composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, etc. all knew pretty well how to build scales of all kind.
They have used (parts) of scales extensively in their compositions.
Sometimes only parts of it, sometimes spanning multiple octaves.
Recognizing a scale in music will significantly simplify the process of memorizing that part of the music.
You won’t have to memorize the notes one by one but instead will be able to see the scale part as a whole, that can be remembered as if it was just one note.
It also helps to grasp the concept of chords and when you want to know how to learn piano chords fast.