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What is a Scale?

Shannon Levine, BSS Cello Instructor

What is a scale?

In the most general terms, a scale is any set of repeating pitches.

In the majority of Western music, there are two standard types of scales: major and minor. If your teacher asks you to practice scales, these are probably what you’re going to play (unless it’s a chromatic scale, which is more advanced exercise).

Both major and minor scales contain eight pitches, one for each letter of the music alphabet plus a repeat of the first. For example, the C scale is C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.

A scale can start on any note; the notes that follow are determined by a set pattern of half and whole steps. Every major scale has the pattern Whole Whole Half, Whole Whole Whole Half (this grouping of two and three whole steps separated by single half steps is the reason the piano black keys are in groups of two and three).

[What are half and whole steps? That’s a separate discussion, here]

Minor scales are a little more complicated. The basic pattern is Whole Half, Whole Whole Half, Whole Whole. [if you lay out the pattern, it’s the major scale starting at a different point!]. Because of the way composers write music in minor keys, there are three “flavors” of minor scales that have certain pitches adjusted higher.

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