How Scales Work

In general, music is written with pretty standard scales that have been used for many years because they sound the most pleasing to Western ears. There are some variations out there, but it’s good to start with the standards so that you can define how variations are built.

On a keyboard the scales are pretty obvious – starting at middle C, all the white keys up to, or down to, the next C are in the scale of C Major. No black keys when playing in C Major. There is a pattern to the scale – which is made of up Whole tones and Half tones (which below in the patterns I’ll refer to as W and H.) Whole tones are two keys up or down and Half tones are 1 key up or down.

Major Scale

If you look at a keyboard, you’ll notice there are black keys between some of the white keys and not others. In C Major – there are no extra steps between E and F, or between B and C.

The Major Scale pattern is W, W, H, W, W, W, H

The notes can be referred to by position – In the C Major scale:
C is the Root,
D is the 2nd,
E isthe Major 3rd,
F is the 4th
G is the 5th
A is the 6th
B is the Major 7th
and back to C

If you start from the E and use the same pattern which makes the scale E Major – the notes will be:
E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D# and back to E

The notes are designated as Sharp or Flat depending on the note next to them in the scale, you can’t have G and G# in the same scale, you’d have G and Ab instead.

So we notice the Major Scale – also called the Ionian Mode (more about modes on the Modes page) – is made up of the pattern:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H

On the guitar, going up one string, the pattern for C Major starting on the 5th string, 3rd fret (lowest C on standard tuned guitar) would be:

2 frets, 2 frets, 1 fret, 2 frets, 2 frets, 2 frets, 1 fret.

You can see there are two whole tones (or 4 half tones) from the root to the 3rd – which is what makes it a “Major” scale.

As long you follow that pattern, starting anywhere on the guitar will give you a scale based on that root note.

So if you dropped all those notes down three frets and followed the same pattern you’d have A Major

A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A

Minor Scale

If we start the same scale at C but pretend the scale starts on Bb the pattern is:

W, H, W, W, W, H, W

(This is called the “Dorian Mode” – more on that on the modes page.)

Note that the distance between the Root and 3rd is now only three half tones, which makes the 3rd into a Minor. Minor scales sound sadder than Major scales because of the difference in the 3rd when flattened. Also note that the 7th is also a half step lower, being a b7.

Dominant Major

One other variation which you should be aware of is the Dominant Major – which has a Major 3rd but a flat 7

There are more variations which we’ll get into in the Modes page – but the above are the most common ones used on the guitar.

Playing Scales On Guitar

Typically we don’t play scales up one string, we go across the strings. This form of C is the first scale we usually learn on guitar.

Make note of that fingering for the C scale – you’ll come across this again in the CAGED system where you move the fingering up the fretboard to play a different scale, but using the same fingering pattern.

You can also play C major on other parts of the fretboard using other fingerings – for example, using this fingering but placing the lowest Root note on the 8th fret of the low E (biggest string) – you’ll get the same notes as the above C but at a higher point on the fretboard. This fingering is modelled on the chord E.

 

–> A quick discussion of how numbers are applied to playing music

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