So you’ve spent some money and bought the best digital grand piano on the market…or at least the best cheap digital piano that fits your budget. You’re getting advice from everyone about what you should do to learn to play the piano, right? One says, “Hire a piano teacher.” Another person says, “Go online to learn to play.” And yet another says, “Learn to play scales before you hire anybody.”
Scales? What the heck are those?!
There are dozens of ways that you could learn to play piano. But in today’s article, I’m going to talk to you about musical scales and types with examples so you can better understand how to properly play the piano.
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Music Scales: What Are They?
Scales are the basis of (almost) all musical pieces. From Bach to Billy Joel, EVERYBODY uses scales! So what are these mysterious scales that every composer uses? Let’s break it down.
A scale is a pattern of notes that follow certain rules. If you lived in India, you’d study 150 scale patterns, called ragas. However, in the United States and Western Europe, we study diatonic scales. Put in the simplest of terms, a diatonic scale is what you sing when you sing along with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. But there are ways to define the scales that we use in so-called Western music, and I’m going to discuss these with you. Here are the things you need to know about diatonic scales:
- Tetrachord—how to build them
- Major Scale
- Natural Minor Scale
- Harmonic Minor Scale
- Melodic Minor Scale
Before I begin, here’s a handy dandy keyboard with all the keys notated for your use:
You’re going to need this to visualize on your piano the information I’m about to give you.
To build a major scale, it’s very helpful to understand tetrachords. Every major scale is built on tetrachords. A tetrachord consists of four notes with the following pattern: first note/key, whole step, whole step, half step.
A whole step is the distance from one key to another with only one key between. For example, on the above keyboard, if your first note is ‘G,’ a whole step above that (to the right) is ‘A.’ Notice there is a black key between the ‘G’ and the ‘A.’
A half step is from one key to the next key with no key in between. Using the same example, a half step up from ‘G’ (going to the right still) is G# or Ab. Which name the key uses matters a great deal in your scale building. I’ll talk more about that later.
So a tetrachord based upon ‘G’ would have the notes: G, A, B, C. The first note is ‘G,’ up a whole step is ‘A,’ up a whole step is ‘B,’ and up a half step from ‘B’ is ‘C.’ These four notes are the first four notes of a G Major scale.
To find the last four notes of a major scale, go up a whole step (to ‘D’) and start the tetrachord pattern all over again. ‘D’ is the first note. Up a whole step takes you to ‘E.’ Up a whole step takes you to ‘F#.’ (That’s F sharp, NOT F hashtag. Why F# instead of Gb? I’ll explain that in a second.) The last note in the tetrachord is up a half step from F# to ‘G.’
If you follow this pattern, you can build every major scale used in Western music. But there are three rules you MUST follow to make your scale correct:
- All notes must be in alphabetical order. No exceptions.
- You cannot repeat any letter except the first and last. You can’t have, for example, two ‘D’ notes in a G Major scale.
- You cannot skip any letters; you must have 7 different letter names with the 1st and last letters the same.
I’ve just explained to you how to build a major scale using the pattern: first note, up a whole step, whole step, half step, whole step to the first note of the second half of the scale, then whole step, whole step, half step.
When I taught choir in junior high school (for which I received a Hazardous Duty medal!), I used a chart similar to this to help my choir students understand how to build major scales:
Don’t worry about the Roman numerals at the top of the chart; we won’t discuss them here except to draw your attention to the heavier line between IV and V. This is where the second tetrachord begins, and you move one whole step between the note under IV and the note under V.
Here’s how to fill in this chart.
You’re in the key of A Major. So write the musical alphabet from A to A: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. There are only seven letters in the musical alphabet so once you get to G, you start all over again with A. Notice that the letters are in alphabetical order. There are no repeated notes except the Key name, and there are no skipped letters.
Here’s the fun part. Using the keyboard above, you’ll start writing in sharp signs (#) or flat signs (b), whichever applies. The first note is A, which doesn’t change. Go up a whole step and you’ll find B. Go up a whole step and you’ll see a black key with C#, so you’ll write C#. Why not Db? Because you can’t skip a letter, remember? Up a half step from C# you find D. There you have the first 4 notes of an A Major scale.
Go up a whole step and you’ll find E. ‘E’ becomes the first note of the second half of your scale. Go up a whole step from E and you’ll find a black key. Since F follows E, you’ll use F# for the 6th tone of the scale. Up a whole step from F# is another black key. Since G follows F, you’ll use G# for the 7th tone of your scale. Go up a half step and this takes you to the last note of your A Major scale, which is A.
Your A Major scale chart should look like this when you finish:
Using this chart will help you understand Major Scales, and the chart will also help you understand how the Major Scales are connected to their relative minor scales. Remember: the heavier black line between IV and V will show you where the new tetrachord begins.
Natural Minor scale
Major and minor scales are related to one another. Every Major scale has a related minor; i.e., every Major scale has a minor scale that uses the same tones or some variation of the same tones as the Major scale.
Here’s an example:
In the key of C Major, the sixth tone is A. All related minor scales begin on the sixth tone of the Major scales, thus the related minor of C Major is A minor.
The key name of a minor key is still capitalized, but the letter is followed by a lower-case ‘m’ that represents the word ‘minor.’ There are three types of minor scales: natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor.
In the natural minor scale, you use the exact same tones of the related Major scale. In the key of Am (or A minor), the relative Major is C Major, so you use the exact same tones as the C Major scale, beginning with A, whether you ASCEND with the scale (towards the right of the piano keyboard) or whether you DESCEND with the scale (towards the left of the piano keyboard).
The completed Am chart is below:
Harmonic Minor scale
The harmonic minor scale is built on the same tones as the natural minor EXCEPT the seventh tone of the scale is raised a half step, ascending and descending. In the natural A minor scale above, the ‘G’ would be raised to ‘G#.’ You can’t call the key ‘Ab,’ because you can’t have repeated letter names in a scale except for the scale name. So the notes of the harmonic A minor scale would be A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A, ascending or descending.
The scale is name Harmonic Minor because it has a more pleasing sound to the ear than the Natural Minor. The Natural Minor is easier to remember, but the Harmonic Minor sounds better.
I haven’t built a chart for minor scales because my junior high classes never got this far during a school year! I suppose 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade students were doing pretty well to learn all the note names, intervals and major scales in a school year, especially since most of them had never studied music before.
But you can build a chart if you use the Major Scale chart and substitute the relative minor key names on the far-most left hand column. Just write in the sixth tone of the Major scale, and this note will be your beginning minor scale note (or key name).
Melodic Minor scale
Melodic minor scales are the most pleasant sounding scales, in my opinion. They’re also the most interesting because the ascending melodic minor scale is very different from the descending melodic minor scale. (Does your head hurt yet?)
Let’s begin with the ascending melodic minor scale. It uses the same notes as the natural minor EXCEPT you raise the 6th and 7th tones a half step each. So in A minor, your melodic minor scale would use the notes A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A as you ascend.
The descending A minor scale, however, reverts back to the natural A minor scale. The descending notes would then be A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A.
Sounds weird, doesn’t it? The ascending melodic minor scale sounds eerily beautiful to the ear. The ascending melodic minor scale—not so much. This scale encompasses so much color and so many moods to the listener. The ascending part almost sounds cheerful because of the raised sixth and seventh tones. As you descend and revert back to the natural minor, however, the scale becomes much darker in tone and characteristic.
Isn’t it interesting how such tiny changes in the minor scales can evoke such strong moods and emotions? That’s the beauty of music.
Hopefully this article about music scales with types and examples will help you better understand how you can successfully go about playing the piano.
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