Music scales are a foundational part of music. Without scales, it would be impossible to write music, or improvise during jam sessions!
Why? Because a music scale tells you which notes sound good together. And if you’re a beginner, they can become your most powerful tool 💪
In this guide, we are going to cover what a music scale actually is, 5 music scales you need to know, and tips to easily remember them. Ready? Let’s dive in 👇
Do You Need to Know Music Scales to Write Music?
Let’s get one thing out of the way. You don’t need to know music scales to be able to write music.
Plenty of accomplished musicians have written great songs without knowing music theory. Paul McCartney even confessed that the Beatles couldn’t even write or read music!
So it’s perfectly possible to write music without knowing music scales. But it will make your job much harder.
There are 3 big advantages to knowing a few common music scales:
- It will speed up your writing process.
- It allows you to collaborate easier with other musician (“That song is in F minor? No problem!”)
- It can allow you to unlock melodies that you would have never written otherwise!
Maybe you’ve already released a track?
Send it to playlists, radio stations and music pros👇
What is a Music Scale?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that music scales can be a powerful weapon.
So before diving into the most popular music scales, let’s clarify what a music scale is.
A music scale is defined as a set of notes ordered by pitch.
Each scale has its own specific rules that identify which notes belong to the scale. These rules are based on the concept of half-steps and whole-steps:
- A half-step is an interval that spans 1 semitone (from F to F# for example)
- A whole-step is an interval that spans 2 semitones (from C to D for example)
On a keyboard, simply move sideways (either up or down) 1 note to get a half-step interval:
If you want a whole-step interval, you move 2 notes (up or down). It’s as simple as that! A music scale then combines a series of half-steps and whole-steps to create a set of notes that “belong together”.
Feeling a bit confused? Let’s look at a first example: the Minor scale 👇
1. The Minor Scale
The Natural Minor scale (often just called the minor scale) is built using the following rule:
“Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole”
If we start on the note A, this gives us the following notes:
“A – B – C – D – E – F – G”
Because we started on the note A, this is called our root note. The scale is therefore called the A Minor scale.
Let’s try another example, starting on the note E:
“E – F# – G – A – B – C – D”
This is the E Minor scale. Easy! The Minor scale is often described as sad or even nostalgic. It is one of the most commonly used scales in popular music today.
2. The Harmonic Minor Scale
Music is full of surprises, so you’ll be happy to learn that there isn’t just one Minor scale!
Actually, there are 3 different Minor scales:
- The Natural Minor scale (usually just called Minor scale, which we just covered)
- The Harmonic Minor scale
- The Melodic Minor scale
The Melodic Minor scale isn’t that common, so let’s cover the Harmonic Minor scale.
To build a Harmonic Minor scale, start with the Natural Minor scale. Then, raise the 7th note by a half-step:
The rule to build a Harmonic Minor scale is therefore:
“Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole + Half”
Try playing this scale on your piano or MIDI keyboard. By raising the 7th note, you get a very spooky and ominous feeling. Great if you want to introduce some tension in your song!
3. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
If you have taken guitar lessons, the Pentatonic scale is probably the first scale you learned.
While most scales have 7 notes, the Pentatonic scale only has 5 notes. This makes it much easier to learn and remember.
To build a Pentatonic scale, use the following sequence:
“Whole + Half – Whole – Whole – Whole + Half – Whole”
Alternatively, you can also start from the Natural Minor Scale, and remove the 2nd an 6th note:
Fun fact, a guitar is actually tuned according to the Minor Pentatonic scale (E – A – D – G – B – E)! This has contributed to the popularity of this scale in modern music.
Want some extra-flavour? Try the Pentatonic Blues Scale! All you have to do is add a note between the 4th and 5th notes.
This will instantly give your track a bluesy feel.
4. The Major Scale
The Major scale is another one of the most common music scales. To construct it, use the following pattern:
“Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half”
If you look at a piano keyboard, this scale is easy to remember. When starting on a C, just pick all the white notes: that’s a C Major scale!
The Major scale has an upbeat, joyous energy. Along with the Natural Minor scale, it is one of the most commonly used scales in pop music.
5. The Phrygian Dominant Scale
Finally, the Phrygian Dominant scale is another very popular music scale. You’ll hear it in a lot of Phonk tracks, as well as popular songs such as Naughty Girl by Beyonce.
To build a Phrygian Dominant scale, start with the Natural Minor scale. Then, simply lower the second note by a half-step:
The Phrygian Dominant scale yields a very exotic, Middle-Eastern or Arabic atmosphere.
That’s It for This Guide on Music Scales!
This wraps up our guide on the most important music scales! As a last tip, most DAWs have a built-in functionality to seamlessly play notes in each scale. Check out these guides for FL Studio, Ableton Live or Logic Pro to learn how to use them!