What is a Scale?

Written by: Larry Coffey
Piano Keys

Most people have heard the Do-Re-Mi song from the musical, Sound of Music. You know - the one that goes: Do, a deer, a female deer? That song is about a scale. A major scale, to be precise.

Scales are a sequence of notes, usually in ascending pitch order, and typically ending (or repeating) at the octave of the root note. The most common scales are named for their root notes, for example a C-major scale is a major scale (explained below) that starts on a "C".

If you need a refresher on what constitutes a musical note, or if you're just curious as to what comprises this most fundamental element of music, please visit What is a Musical Note?

There are many types of scales, called by many different names. However, here I'll only cover the ones most commonly used as the basis of modern Western popular music. I'll leave things like the medieval church modes and prehistoric tritonic scales for the truly adventurous to discover on their own. Hopefully this article will whet your appetite to maybe go and investigate the strange, yet wonderful, history of scales and modern music.

So, let us explore some of the more prevalent scales now...

Table of Contents

Scale Formulae

Piano Overview (Labeled)

All the scales discussed here are based on intervals, also called steps. A step is the distance from one note to the next. Think of a piano keyboard. The next key up in pitch is called a half-step, and two keys up is called a whole-step. (If there are no black keys between the white keys, then the interval between the two white keys is only a half-step.)

For example, the interval from a C to a C# is a half-step, while the interval from a C to a D is a whole-step. In another example, the interval from an E to an F is a half-step, while the interval from the E to an F# is considered a whole-step.

When I discuss scales, I'll give a formula like: whole whole half etc... That means when you start from a note, any note, and apply that given stepping formula, you get a scale in that musical key (named for the first note, also called the root).

Musical Key

Destiny Sheet Music

Sometimes it's a little puzzling to call two very different things by the same name. Note the distinction between a piano key and a musical key. A piano key is the physical entity that you press to make a sound from the piano. A musical key refers to the number of sharps or flats in a particular section of music, and in written music, is notated in something called a key signature.

A musical key is related to the major scale (described below), in that the number of incidentals (i.e. "black keys") you strike while playing the scale determines the key. For example, a C-major scale uses only the white piano keys and therefore the Key of C has no sharps or flats in it. On the other hand, a D-major scale has an F# and a C# in the scale, and therefore the Key of D is said to have two sharps in it.

Confused yet? It's really quite simple once you see it in action. Let's start with the easiest of scales first, the Chromatic Scale.

The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is the most basic of all scales: it's every note of the octave. It is twelve notes, each a half step apart. Given that this scale is so fundamental, many consider this to be the basis for all other Western music scales.

Even though a chromatic scale isn't very melodic, it has been used quite effectively in popular music, most noteably in one of the first post-Beatles hit by Paul McCartney, Maybe I'm Amazed.

half half half half half half half half half half half half

The C chromatic scale is as follows:
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

In musical notation:

Chromatic Scale

The Major Scale

Also called the Ionian scale, this is easily the most recognizable of all the scales. It's the one that was so popularized in the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music. Many people know the notes of the scale as "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do". (For more on this type of naming, see Solfege.)

A skilled composer has many tools at his disposal that can evoke an emotional response from a listener: tempo, lyrics, volume, tonal center, instrument choice, and key. Of these, key is the backbone for setting the emotional disposition of a song. Songs written in a major key typically reflect happy, pleasant moods. Much of what has been referred to as "three-chord rock and roll" are in major keys.

whole whole half whole whole whole half

The C major scale is as follows:

In musical notation:

Major Scale

The Minor Scale

Also called the Aeolian mode of the major scale, the natural minor scale may be the second most recognizable scale, if only for the preponderance of minor chords in popular music. A composition written in a minor key can set a mood that is more solemn, melancholy, or even somewhat mysterious than those written in a major key. Many rock ballads make use of minor keys.

whole half whole whole half whole whole

The C minor scale is as follows:
C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

In musical notation:

Minor Scale

The Major Pentatonic Scale

A pentatonic scale is one that only contains five notes before repeating at the next octave, unlike the major and minor scales which contain seven notes each. There are many variations of the pentatonic scale, used in many forms of music from Celtic folk music, to many traditional Asian forms, to West African music, to American blues and rock. A song, or guitar riff, built on a pentatonic scale can be haunting, strangely soothing, or sometimes even aggressive.

whole whole whole-and-half whole whole-and-half

The C major pentatonic scale is as follows:

In musical notation:

Major Pentatonic Scale

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

Like its cousin the major pentatonic scale, the relative minor pentatonic only has five notes in its scale. The simplicity of a five note scale makes it a somewhat popular avenue of introducing young children to music. Several children's songs and lullabyes are nearly pentatonic in nature.

whole-and-half whole whole whole-and-half whole

The C minor pentatonic scale is as follows:
C Eb F G Bb C

In musical notation:

Minor Pentatonic Scale

Other Scales

Some less common scale formulae:

Scale Name Formula
Dorian Mode whole half whole whole whole half whole
Phrygian Mode half whole whole whole half whole whole
Lydian Mode whole whole whole half whole whole half
Mixolydian Mode whole whole half whole whole half whole
Locrian Mode half whole whole half whole whole whole
Blues whole half half whole-and-half whole whole-and-half


Congratulations! Practice the scales and you'll start to hear the color of the various forms. With this knowledge you are ready to taken on chords. Feel free to visit What is a Chord? when you get a chance!

Have fun!

Photo Credits:
Piano Keys by Nina Matthews Photography
Piano Overview by Parée Erica
Destiny Sheet Music by Karen The Photog
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