An Introduction To Scales

Scales are a fundamental part of music theory that every musician and producer should know. Master the major, minor, and chromatic scales and take your music education to the next level!

close up of a man in a black jacket playing acoustic guitar

A scale is a sequence of notes that are ordered by pitch, spanning a single octave before repeating. They have a huge impact on how a song sounds which is why they’re so important to know.

In this article we’ll introduce you to the most common scales in music:

  • the happy major scales
  • the dreary minor scales (including harmonic minor, melodic minor, and natural minor scales)
  • and finally chromatic scales, which are most commonly used as a technical exercise

Let’s take a look at each of these different types.

The Happy Ones: Major Scales

A song that is happy and joyful will typically be written using a major scale. Before we dive into the music theory let’s listen to a quick example, the American anthem:

Can you hear how joyful the song sounds? That’s what a major scale will do to a song.

Now let’s look at some theory. Major scales are made up of seven notes, with a repeating eighth note placed one octave up to finish it.

All major scales follow the same pattern of whole tones and semitones (semitones are also known as half tones). That order is: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. You can pick any note and play the above sequence of whole tones and semitones to create a major scale.

Major scales are named via the first note played in this sequence. Here’s the C major scale, which is the only major scale that does not have any sharps or flats.

It is played with the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

c major scale with quarter notes on the treble clef starting at middle C

There are many other major scales that start on literally every other note. Each of these gives a slightly different sound – it’s up to the composer’s judgement which one they will use when writing a song.

The Sad Ones: Minor Scales

Minor scales sound dramatically unhappy.

Here’s the American anthem sang in a minor scale. Can you notice how different it sounds from before?

Gone is the happiness – in a minor scale even a song as jubilant as The Star-Spangled Banner sounds dreary. Having heard both versions, you can see why the original songwriters chose to write this song using a major scale!

What’s surprising is that to make this unhappy effect we only have to change at most one or two notes from a major scale to make it minor. To understand how this is possible, let’s take a look at the connection between major and minor scales

Going from Major to Minor
Every major scale has an associated minor scale that can be reached by simply descending three semitones from the first note. This connection is important to understand because the associated minor scale has the same key signature as the major scale it’s linked to.

In the key of C major, three semitones below take us to A minor. To play the A minor scale we play A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. This unadjusted minor scale is called a natural minor scale.

Here is the A natural minor scale on the treble clef:

a natural minor scale on the treble clef with quarter notes

If we were to raise the seventh note by a semitone we would create a harmonic minor scale. Here is the A harmonic minor scale:

a harmonic minor scale on the treble clef with quarter notes

There is a third type of minor scale, the melodic minor scale. To play a melodic minor scale you will raise the sixth and seventh notes in the scale by a semitone while ascending, and while descending play the natural versions of those two notes. To illustrate, here is the A melodic minor scale:

a melodic minor scale on the treble clef with quarter notes

The Progressive One: The Chromatic Scale

The final scale we’ll cover in this article is the chromatic scale, which is brilliantly simple to remember: Play every single semitone in order while ascending and descending.

If we were to start on C, the scale would be played C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B C and then back down in reverse. Shown on the treble clef it looks like:

chromatic scale on the treble clef with quarter notes starting at middle c

Voila! Now you’re a master of the most common scales used in music. These are a great place to start…and when you’re ready there are many more complex ones you can learn. For now though, you’ve got the basics.