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Musical Scales and their Types

We call musical scale to any set of notes that we order by ascending or descending order of pitch and with respect to a main note, which we call tonic.

There are many types of scales (major, minor, relative, pentatonic, hextatonic, heptatonic…) but the key is not to know them all but to understand the ones you know, because that is how you will really progress with your musical instrument.

And this is exactly what I am going to explain in this article.

Are you interested?

What is a musical scales?

As we have already said, a scale is a set of notes organized around one, which is the center and called tonic. For example, in the C major scale C is the tonic.

In addition, we call these notes (or sounds) scale degrees and depending on the order in which they are arranged we will find 2 types of scales.

  • Ascending order: it is the one in which the degrees go from a lower sound to a higher one. We call it ascending because as we advance the frequency of the sound is higher.
  • Descending order: it is the one in which the degrees go from a higher pitched sound to a lower pitched sound. We call it descending because as we advance the frequency of the sound gets lower and lower.

Let’s see a little more in detail what these scale degrees are.

Scale degrees

Scale degrees are nothing more than the notes that form a scale.

For example, when you are asked about musical notes and you say:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

You are naming the degrees of a musical scale, more specifically the C major scale, as we will see later.

And the important thing about it is that each degree has a function within the scale. In other words, each scale degree will convey a feeling that no other degree does and depending on this they are given an specific name.

scale degrees chart

If you want to learn everything you need to know about the scale degrees, read the link I have given you and start to establish the basis of what we are going to see next.

Tones and Semitones

The key to understand any musical scale is to master two simple concepts: tones and semitones.

🎵 What are tones and semitones in music?
  • A semitone (or half tone or half step) is the minimum distance between 2 scale degrees.
  • A tone (or whole step) is the sum of 2 semitones.

For example, let’s take again the C major scale, which corresponds to the notes you see below in yellow plus the tonic in blue:

c major scale formule and semitones

W: Whole step or tone.

H: Half step, half tone or semitone.

Each of the numbers below, ranging from 1 to 7, are the scale degrees that form it.

And also, as we see in the upper part, each degree is separated from the tonic by a distance measured in semitones.

For example:

  • D is at a distance of 2 semitones (or one tone) with respect to C.
  • A is at a distance of 9 semitones from C (or 4 and a half tones).

If you have understood this point and the previous one, you are ready to start with the musical scales.

Major and Minor Musical Scales

First of all, let me tell you that musical scales can be classified in several ways. In fact, I have already told you one: ascending or descending.

But there is one classification that you should understand, and it is the one that divides between major and minor scales.

Why is that? Well, because music convey feelings and emotions, but this emotion can be totally different if we play a major or minor scale.

🎵 The difference between major and minor scales
  • 😄 Major scales convey joy. and happiness
  • 😔 Minor scales convey sadness and a melancholic feeling.

This statement may be very generic but it is perfectly valid to understand musical scales and their types.

And it comes in handy for you because if you are going to compose or write a song you already know what kind of musical scale you need.

Now, the question is, how do we know when a scale is major or minor?

I’ll tell you in the next point.

How to recognize a major and a minor scale?

At this point we already know that there are 2 main types of musical scales but how do we distinguish major from minor scales?

What is the difference between them?

Well pay attention, I’m going to tell you what the key is.

🎵 The difference between major and minor scales

To know if a scale is major or minor we only have to look at its third degree.

The interval of third is the one that will determine if a scale is major or minor.

  • If the interval of third is minor, the scale will be minor.
  • If the interval of third is major, the scale will be major.

Perfect, just one question: what on earth is a minor or major third?

Easy,

  • We will have a minor third if there is a distance of 3 semitones between the third and the tonic.
  • We will have a major third if there is a distance of 4 semitones between the third and the tonic.

To understand this concept, let’s go back to the C major scale (forgive me for insisting son much on it but it is very usefull):

c major scale formule and semitones

If we focus on the third, which is E (C – D – E), we will notice that it is at a distance of 4 semitones away from the tonic. And therefore, we confirm that the scale is major.

Let’s take another example to understand it better and confirm that it is always like this.

In the image below we have in yellow (and with the tonic in blue) the A major scale:

a major scale formule and semitones

And again, its third is at a distance of 4 semitones, which by the way is C#.

By the way, do no fear the sharps (#) and flats (♭), because they are notes like any other and they don’t bite.

Now, if we reduce a semitone the third of the musical scale above would have a distace of 3 semitones and the scale would be minor. That is, we go from C# to C.

a melodic minor scale formule and semitones

Notice that we have only changed the third and we have gone from a major scale to a minor scale.

Which by the way, this is the melodic minor scale, but if you don’t know it don’t worry, because right now we are only focusing on the difference between major scales and minor scales.

And if you have already understood it, the goal has been accomplished and we can move on to the next level.

The Pentatonic Scale

Now that we knowthe basics, it is time to start analyzing each of the musical scales.

The logical thing would be to star with the majos scale, due to its importance, but my heart tells me to start with the famous pentatonic scale.

Why? Well, for 3 simple reasons:

  • The pentatonic scale is easier than the major scale.
  • It is very useful (especially if you like blues and rock).
  • There are a lot of songs that you will find based on this musical scale.

Because of this, and much more, the pentatonic scale is the first musical scale to learn when people start playing guitar, piano or ukulele.

In fact, the pentatonic and the blues scale are my favorites.

🎵 What is a pentatonic scale in music?

The pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes.

But that’s not all becasue there are 2 types of pentatonic scales.

  • Minor pentatonic scale: with formula 1 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – ♭7.
  • Major pentatonic scale: with the formula 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6.

Let’s take a quick look at each one of them

Minor pentatonic scale

As we have seen, the minor pentatonic scale presents the following formula:

1 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – ♭7

Which, as a result, has the following pattern:

W+H – W – W – W+H – W

For example, the C minor pentatonic would be.

minor pentatonic scale degrees

And has the follwing shape on the gutiar:

minor pentatonic scale guitar

Mayor pentatonic scale

The major pentatonic scale presents the following formula:

1 – 2 – 4 – 5 – 6

Which, as a result, has the following pattern:

W+H – W – W – W+H – W

For example, the C minor pentatonic would be.

major pentatonic scale degrees

And has the follwing shape on the gutiar:

major pentatonic scale guitar

The Blues Scale

Once you master the pentatonic scale I would strongly recommend you to learn the blues scale.

You know why?

Because you only have to add one more note to the pentatonic scale: the famous blue note.

And, once again, there is more.

Since there are two pentatonic scales (major and minor), now there will be 2 blues scales (major and minor too).

Let see in more detail.

Minor blues scale

The minor blues scale is built by adding the ♭5 to the minor pentatonic scale. Therefore, we find the blue note between the 4th and 5th degrees.

1 – ♭3 – 4 – ♭5 – 5 – ♭7

Mayor blues scale

The major blues scale is built by adding the ♭3 to the major pentatonic scale. Therefore, we find the blue note between the 2th and 3th degrees.

1 – 2 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – 6

The Major Scale

Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and jump right into the major scale.

Are you ready?

🎵 What is a major scale in music?
The Major Scale is a musical scale that consists of 7 notes strongly used in musical culture.
major scale guitar

Note: Notice that we have started seeingn a 5 note scale, then a 6 note scale and now we are going to see a 7 note scale.

This is how you have to learn to play the guitar, little by little adding new concepts to what you already know.

By the way, what is the most famous major scale in the whole world?

The C scale, wight?

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

That’s right, this scale is so powerful that you already knew it before you knew what it was. But now you are going to understand it, which is what matters.

And to do that, let’s analyze the image below:

c major scale formule

At a glance, we know that the interval pattern of this scale is:

W W H W W W H

W: Whole step or tone.

H: Half step, half tone or semitone.

And also its scale degrees are:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

🎸 3 tips
  • It is better to understand it than to learn it.
  • It is better to learn how to deduce it than to memorize the 12 tonalities..
  • It is better to learn to connect the patterns than to run them up and down without making sense..

In other words, don’t just practice it on the guitar, but learn how to use it.

If you master the major scale on guitar I challenge you to move on and start looking at minor scales.

Are you ready?

The Minor Scales

Do you remember when I told you that the major scale was the mother of many others music scales.

Well, now you will understand it.

And for this let me tell you that the major scale can be played by focusing on the first degree, but also on the second, third, etc.

👉 And depending on the scale degree will be applying a different mode on this major scale.

Which are:

  • Ionian: W – W – H – W – W – W – W – H. Example: C – D – E – F – G – A – B.
  • Dorian: W – H – W – W – W – W – W – H – W. Example: D – E – F – G – A – B – C.
  • Frígio: H – W – W – W – W – W – H – W – W. Example: E – F – G – A – B- C – D.
  • Lydian: W – W – W – W – H – W – W – W – H. Example: F – G – A – B – B – C – D – D – E.
  • Mixolydian: W – W – W – H – W – W – W – H – W. Example: G – A – B – C – D – E – F.
  • Aeolian: W – H – W – W – W – H – W – W. Example: A – B – C – D – D – E – F – F – G.
  • Locrio: H – W – W – W – H – W – W – W – W. Example: B – C – D – E – F – G – A.

If we apply the aeolian mode we will get the natural minor scale, more popularly called the Minor Scale.

But let’s not get nervous, just think that what you are doing is focusing on the sixth degree of the major scale.

Period.

Now, this small change has a big impact. Remember that while major scales are happy, minor scales are sad.

What are the 3 types of minor scales?

There are 3 minor scales that you should know:

  • The natural minor.
  • The harmonic minor.
  • The melodic minor.

And you must learn them in this order. The reason why is because each one is born out of the previous one as you can see in the image below.

But that is not all.

Because more important than their creation is the reason why they exist because each minor scale is built to solve a problem on the previous one.

The Diatonic Scale

At this point, if you have understood the concepts that we have been seeing, ¡Congratulations!

You have a great knowledge of musical scales.

However we can still go a little further and take a look at the diatonic scale.

First point you should know:

❌ The Diatonic Scale is not a scale.

✅ The Diatonic Scale is a type of scale.

Therefore for a scale to be a diatonic scale 3 conditions must be met:

  • It must be heptatonic (7 notes ir degrees within an octave).
  • It must include 2 semitones (half steps) and 5 tones (whole steps).
  • The two semitones must be separated by 2 or 3 tones.

For example, the major or minor scale is diatonic because it fulfills the 3 points perfectly.

However there are other música scale that are not diatónica like the pentatonic or the blues scale because they are not heptatonic.

The melodic and harmonic minor natural scale are not diatonic neither because they do nos include the intervals os 2 semitones and 5 whole tones.

Harmonizing Musical Scales

When learning to play an instrument (again, ir dos not Matter if it is the electric guitar, the piano or the ukulele) the initial question is always:

🤷 Where do I start?

And the answer is clear: scales.

Although, even knowing this, we chose not to learn them and we go like crazy to play songs 🤣.

But the line is clear:

First one must learn the musical scales.

And then we must learn to harmonize them to get their chords.

👉 Chords are formed by harmonizing musical scales.

And I think that this is where people fails.

Which I don’t understand because it’s quite simple. Well, in part I do understand it because in most cases when I have studied it they have explained it to me in a very confusing way.

That’s why I designed a 3-step rule to be able to harmonize any scale.

In fact this procedure is very simple. And best of all, it allows you to obtain the chords of any scale.

Do you want to learn how to harmonize musical scales? Then take a look at these 3 steps:

  1. We chose the note that we will use as a key.
  2. We draw the musical scale.
  3. We obtain the chords from the notes of the scale.

My advice: if this is the first time you learn music scale harmonizations, learn first how to harmonize the major scale first and then the rest to consolidate your knowledge.

All the Musical Scales you should know

I am no position to tell you which scales you should learn and which you should not.

But if you are reading this article it is because you are learning to play an instrument and I do feel the obligation to give you a guide so that you know which ones you should know first.

There are many more musical scales (like the musical chromatic scale). Too many at first, and if you start looking at them you will suffer analysis paralysis.

That’s why here is a table of musical scales summarized so that at a glance you can see everything you need to know about them:

Music ScaleFomuleIntervalsExample
Major1 2 3 4 5 6 7W H W W W H WC – D – E – F – G – A – B
Natural Minor1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7W H W W H W WA – B – C – D – E – F – G
Harmonic Minor1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 7W H W W H 3H HA – B – C – D – E – F – G#
Melodic Minor1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 7W H W W W W HA – B – C – D – E – F# – G#
Pentatonic Minor1 ♭3 4 5 ♭73H W W 3H WA – C – D – E – G
Pentatonic Major1 2 3 5 6W W 3H W 3HC – D – E – G – A
Blues Minor1 ♭3 4 ♭5 5 ♭73H W H H 3H WA – C♭ – C – D – E – G
Blues Major1 2 ♭3 3 5 6W H H 3H W 3HC – D – E♭ – E – G – A

If you have been able to read this entire article, congratulate yourself because you really deserve it.

Thank you for your patience and I hope it has been of great use to you.

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