In music, a scale is a set of notes in order of their pitch. If the pitch is ascending, the scale is ascending. If the pitch is descending, the scale is descending. Several scales are the same both ascending, and descending, but this need not be the case. Very often, a scale is defined over an interval (commonly the octave), after which it repeats. The most common scales use intervals of five, six or seven different tones.
Major and minor scales
On a piano, there are white keys and black keys. If we start on the note C and play each white key going up until we come to the next C, we have played the C Major scale. There were eight notes. For playing C major, only white keys were hit.
There are half steps between two keys next to each other on the piano. So between the third and the fourth, and the seventh and eight tone, there was only half a step. Starting the scale at the next white key (D), two black keys will need to be touched to get the same scale: The first one after three, the second after seven tones. The black key between F and G is called F# (F-sharp), the one between C and D is called C# (C-sharp).
Each black key has two names: It can either be reached by going up (G-G#-A, or by going down (A-Ab (A flat)-G). Major scales generally use the notation with sharps, minor scales, often use the one with flats.
There are also minor scales; they work the same as major scales, but use different intervals:
- natural minor uses half a step between the second and the third, and the fifth and the sixth tone. This is done by lowering the third and sixth tone. Starting at A, and using only white keys gives A minor (natural minor): A,H,C,D,E,F,G,A
- harmonic minor: same as natural minor, but there is again only half a step between the seventh and eight tone. Taking the example from before, hitting the black key between G and A; A,H,C,D,E,F,G# (or Ab),A
- melodic minor: The step from F to G# is three half steps and difficult to sing. For this reason, F# is used instead of F, but only going upwards. Except for some forms of Jazz music, the corresponding natural minor is used going downwards.
Sometimes the major scale is sung to the words "doh, reh, mih, fah, soh, lah, tih, doh". In the film The Sound of Music, Maria teaches the children to sing by teaching them a song called "Doe, a deer, a female deer". Each line starts on the next note of the scale.
Different periods use different scales
Traditional western music generally uses seven tones, and repeats at the octave.
During the Middle Ages, and the Renaisssance, the diatonic scale (the white keys of the piano) was used most often. Black keys (called accidentals) were rare. The classical period (1600 to 1900) generally used major/minor scales, as outlined above. Natural minor was used less. From about 1900, there are other scales, for example the chromatic scale (12 half tones)