What are Musical Scales

Musical Scales

This article tackles an introduction to musical scales, it does not tell you how to play scales.

The 12 Step Musical Ladder

A scale is just a series of steps like a ladder. You climb up and down the scale and produce different notes in the process. In western music (the 12 tone system) there are 12 notes that can be used to make a scales from. Scales generally include seven notes that repeat them self but that does not mean that scales of five or six notes do not exist.

Probably the simplest way to think about scales is to take all the notes 1-12 and divide them up into steps (see 12 scale musical ladder image at end). Every note is connected to a number from 1 – 12. Notice when taking the next step to number 13 you get to the first step again in the sense that the note names start to repeat but the actual notes are octave higher than the notes in the last 12 note ladder.

To make a scale you have to divide the 12 notes in a ordered fashion. The simplest kind of scale that can be made from the 12 notes is a 12 tone scale or chromatic scale. With the chromatic scale every note is a candidate note. Another form is to to play every other note, that would produce a whole tone scale.  

chromatic scale

The Major Scale

To make a C major scale (the white notes on the piano) you need the following notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B or 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12 steps (see C major scale musical ladder image at end). To repeat the scale up the fingerboard the next note would be number 13 or 1 and that is a C.

Now it is reviled that the scale consist of 5 double steps and 2 single steps. A double step is called a whole step and single step is called a half step. With that knowledge the scale could just as well be written in the following format (w=whole step, h=half step): w, w, h, w, w, w, h = major scale.

It can sometimes be useful to write scales in abstract form without resorting to individual notes of the scale. That way the scale can be mapped to start with any note, hence for the major scale there are 12 differently named scales.

Major Scale

Now that we have derived at a 7 note scale scale from the 12 notes, we mark it again with numbers but without a reference to the 12 numbers. Instead we count the scale from 1 to 8, with 8 being the octave or the starting of next repetition. (See C major scale numbered image) The numbers we give the scale do hold a firm meaning both in relation to intervals and chords voicing.

The Major Scale Pattern – The Most Important Scale Pattern you Will Ever Learn

The major scale pattern is the most useful scale pattern you can learn. With it under your belt you can play 84 different scales including all the modes.

Learn them well and make sure you know where the root notes are i.e. the black dots. You will have to use these patterns when you start studying the modes.

Scales Formation and the Major Scale

In this electric guitar lesson we will be looking at scales and how they are formed. Scales are formed by taking precise steps over a given number of notes, mostly spanning a octave.

Scales are often described as a number of whole steps (W) and half steps (H) but the scale is determined by it’s intervals. By this method a general scale formation can be accomplished.

To build a major scale the template is W, W, H, W, W, W, H.Transforming this into a scale is quite easy, let’s build a scale starting with the note of C, the scale looks like this: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

You can see the half steps of the scale are correct compared to the template i.e. they are between E and F (3rd step) and B and C (7th step). With this template you can make major scale in all keys by just starting at different notes.


In order to make a scale you have to split up the 12 notes available to you into repeatable sections. The intervals within the scale determine what type of scale it is i.e. major, minor, chromatic, whole tone, etc.

Each scale note has it’s own number that is used to measure intervals between notes and name chords sequences. The major scale can be written in the following form w, w, h, w, w, w, h to denote it’s intervals, this form can then be mapped to physical notes.

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