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Scale Lesson

Choose any two tones that are separated by the Octave interval. (<-Click to hear played.) In the musical system that determines the pitches of the instruments used in Western instrumental ensembles, you will always be able to find 11 different pitches that fit between the pitches of the octave. Hear the 11 pitches that fit. Starting with the low note in the octave pair you can arrange the 11 in-between pitches into a sequence that always climbs higher until the high note of the octave pair is reached. 12 tone ascending

You'll notice that each tone in this sequence is reached by singing a minor second melodic interval up from the previous tone in the sequence. m2 intervals ascending chromatically. You can say the distance from one note in the sequence to the next higher one is a minor second.

A Scale is an ascending or descending sequence of tones that begins with a specified root note that continues until a note that is an octave higher than the beginning note is reached. The ascending sequence of 12 notes that divide the octave that we've listened to is a kind of scale called an ascending chromatic scale.

If you wished you could play the ascending chromatic scale backwards so that instead of singing up a minor second interval to reach the next tone in the scale you sing down a minor second. This makes a descending chromatic scale. Play a descending chromatic scale.

Given the notes of the C chromatic scale which lead from a C note to the C note an octave higher , you can build a new scale for yourself by removing one or several of the notes from the chromatic scale and playing only the notes that are left behind. Here's a scale that removes C# and F#. Here's a scale that removes E, G, A# and B. You'll notice that each of these scales sounds and feels somewhat different than the chromatic scale.

Removing tones from the chromatic sequence causes larger skips to be made in the regions of the scale where chromatic scale notes were removed. This explains why the modified scales cause the listener to feel differently. In the first example, removing C# and F# causes major second intervals to be produced between C and D and F and G. In the second example, major second intervals are created between D# and F, between F# and G#, and a minor third is created between A and the high C in the scale.

In the music sung and played by a tremendous number of cultures around the world, the tones that are used are drawn from scales that remove seven of the twelve unique notes of the chromatic scale, leaving behind scales that have 5 unique scales. These 5 note scales are called pentatonic scales (pent means 5, so pentatonic scales are scales with 5 tones).

Here are two pentatonic scales commonly used in many different cultures:

The scales that Western composers and improvisors have found most useful include seven of the chromatic tones and exclude five. Here are different types of commonly used seven note scales.
How does a composer or improvisor use a scale? After a little experience listening to different kinds of scales, they discover that playing the tones in a particular scale produces a specific kind of feeling for them and for their listeners. Even if they don't proceed in a line up or down from note to note but jump around between tones that are in the list of tones for the scale they discover that they still perceive the characteristic feeling of that scale.

Composers and improvisors also discovered hundreds of years ago that if they subtract one or two tones from a scale and add one or two tones that were not in the original scale, they produce a scale that sounds related to the previous scale but that produces a different feeling in the listener. If they pick tones from the new scale they can change their music so their listeners feel a new thing as their performance continues.

Finally, a singer or instrumentalist playing a musical composition will find that it is more difficult to play a passage that frequently uses intervals wider (larger) than a major third. Passages that use fragments of ascending or descending scales or use entire scales are easier to play since most of the commonly used scales consist predominately of minor and major second intervals. Listeners also appreciate this because they are more easily able to track and anticipate melody fragments that don't change direction and which move by small intervals.

Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2000 at 6:45 PM.