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What is a scale? 3 things every music beginner should know

The purpose of this blog post is to try and further define a scale and list some uses, but without going into too much detail.


One way you can think of a scale is like a musical alphabet. However, instead of letters you would have notes. Similar to how we would use a combination of letters to create words and sentences, we could use a scale to create chords and melodies. Another popular simile is that scales are like a ladder, where the rungs of the ladder are steps towards a specific point. You could even think of scales like building blocks that you can build things with. All of these ideas are one and the same, and perhaps we can improve your understanding a little as we progress through this blog. One small caveat here is that there are many different scales under the umbrella of music theory - we can learn about those another time!





What is a scale?


The Oxford Dictionary defines a scale as “- a series of musical notes moving upwards or downwards, with fixed intervals between each note - starting on a particular note” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, 2024). Before we go any further, we must first understand the word ‘interval’ - this is commonly understood as the distance between two notes within a particular scale.


In Western Music, there are 12 notes which are:


A - A# - B - C - C# - D - D# - E - F - F# - G - G#


Any scale will be a selection of, and starting from any of those 12 notes, with the first note often being referred to as the ‘root’ or ‘tonic’. Some scales have only five notes, these are called pentatonic scales, though typically scales will have seven notes with the eighth being an octave (the same as the first note, but at a higher pitch). Some scales have a major tonality, which is to say it sounds happy or positive, whereas others can have a minor sound, which is commonly described as sad or melancholic. 


To keep things simple, let’s look at the C Major scale. The notes of the C Major scale are below:


C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C


As we have already learned, this scale has a positive, upbeat sound and is usually where students and beginners start their journey into understanding music theory. Referring to the previous statement of scales being akin to an alphabet, let’s learn where we can go from here. 


If we take the letters C, A and T from the English alphabet, we would be left with the word ‘cat’, and we all know what that is! We have taken the letters, put them together and created a word. If we were to do the same thing with the notes C, E and G from the major scale above and played them simultaneously, we would have a C Major chord. Like the scale, which has a similar name, this chord has a happy sound - the key word here is ‘major’. Grouping any of those notes, with certain limitations that we will learn about another time, will result in a different chord that may, or may not, have a different tonality. 


There are the same number of basic chords in a scale as there are notes, in this case there are seven. They are as follows:


C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am - Bdim


We can cover the theory behind the construction of these chords, and extensions thereof, in a different blog post. However, you should make it a priority to learn basic versions of these chords if you haven’t already. You can play thousands of songs with just these alone, and even more so if you can use a capo! 


Looking at this from a melodic standpoint, it should be known that most popular melodies are simple and typically consist of notes only found in the parent scale. Using just the notes from a certain scale to create a melody over a chord progression from the same key is a sure fire way to ensure a melody is not only coherent, but easy to remember also! Think about some simple nursery rhymes or kids songs, the same holds true throughout the world. I’m sure you can remember the melodies even now.


For songwriting applications, understanding what chords work well together, and what notes sound good as a melody over the top of them, is extremely important. 


Are scales different between instruments?


Some instruments have a wider range; they have more notes at their disposal. However, the fundamental language is still the same. Playing a C Major scale on the guitar is going to be more or less the same on the piano or the violin - the application may be different, but the notes are still the same. 


Some instruments are constructed in such a way that playing scales comes more naturally. The harp, for example, is often tuned to C Major and the strings reflect that. The piano, the guitar and many wind instruments are laid out in a chromatic fashion, where the notes available are ordered according to the 12 notes of Western Music as discussed earlier. 




Why should I learn a scale?


Personally, I believe that possessing a working knowledge of music theory specific to your needs is important regardless of your skill level or discipline. However, music is meant to be an enjoyable experience, and struggling with music theory should not get in the way of that. I spent the first five years of my guitar playing career not understanding the relationship between chords, scales and everything in between. At least not beyond the basic level as we discussed earlier. That didn’t stop me learning my favorite riffs, or copying solos from some of the guitar players I idolized. 


Whilst scales are not mutually exclusive between instruments, the guitar specifically has some interesting applications for scales due to the way they have been designed and built. As we are most commonly operating with six strings, we can play scales vertically - moving across the fretboard. However, we can also learn scales horizontally which allows us to move further up, or down, the neck - this is something many intermediate players struggle to achieve. You could do this by ear or by identifying the notes on the fretboard, over one string, over multiple strings and anything in between. The possibilities are virtually endless! 


One thing many guitar players are taught is a basic warm-up exercise. Commonly referred to as the ‘spider exercise’, this is extremely useful for functional reasons, but it doesn’t really have any merit musically. When introducing scales to my own students, I often like to enrich the warm-up by providing some musical context. This would be giving the student a specific permutation to work on, but accompanied by some chords that encourage the student to develop their ear without necessarily being tied down with learning everything about the notes beforehand. 


When should I play, or even learn a scale?


Regardless of what you play on your guitar, there is always some way it relates to a scale, even if you don’t realize it. Any reference to harmony or melody, two of the three main building blocks of music, is automatically related to a scale. There should be no when, because there always is.


One of my favorite musicians once said, and I am paraphrasing here, that “you only need to be as good as to play the ideas that you have in your head”. If you find that you are running out of ideas, certain areas of your playing are becoming stale or you just can’t make something fit, usually a better understanding of scales can help get you unstuck. 


In summary, scales are everywhere. From the melodies you hear when you enter a convenience store, to the sounds you hear when you start up a games console or travel on the train. 


Should you learn them? At some point, probably. However, you don’t have to. Music is a wonderful world full of endless possibilities, and your success or enjoyment shouldn’t be defined by a group of notes in a set pattern. There is no reason why you shouldn't give it a go, it may be difficult at first. In fact, I don’t know of a single person who mastered the use of scales instantly. Even now I am still learning and that will go on forever, of that I am sure!


The main thing is that you can understand what a scale is and how you could use any of the many you will inevitably come across along your musical journey. 


Alex

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