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Scales For Music: What Are Musical Scales? An Explanation And Benefits For Musicians And Beginners

Updated on November 22, 2014
Building Blocks of a House
Building Blocks of a House
Every house from the outside is unique. Just like every song is unique. But underneath the shell of the house are the building blocks that all houses have. Scales are the building blocks of music that all songs have but you can't hear them.
Every house from the outside is unique. Just like every song is unique. But underneath the shell of the house are the building blocks that all houses have. Scales are the building blocks of music that all songs have but you can't hear them.

The Building Blocks Of Music

Have you ever caught yourself humming the melody to a song that you really like? Your favorite songs probably have really catchy melodies that you love listening to over and over. Well, those melodies whether catchy or not come from scales.

A musical scale is an organized group of pitches that form a particular type of sound. For example, a Major Scale usually creates a happy sound and a Minor Scale creates a kind of sad sound.

Scales are like the building blocks of music. When you look at a house, you don't see the building blocks. That's because they are hidden behind the siding, or bricks, or stones that make up the esthetic qualities of the house. Every house looks different on the outside because of the different shapes, colors, sizes, and materials. But they all have building blocks made up of cement or concrete in the foundation and the frame of the house.

That's why scales just by themselves will not make you creative or unique just like if you took away the exterior siding of a house, there would be nothing that would differentiate one house from another in an artistic sense. You'd see just building blocks. This is how music would look like if it was physical. If you stripped away the sounds, and artistic qualities of your favorite musical artists, you'd find the scales.

Cartoon Family of 6 members
Cartoon Family of 6 members

The Family Analogy

I like to make an analogy between scales and families in order to understand how scales are constructed. There are different “families” of scales in music. Each family has a different sound quality to it. The names of the most common families of scales are called: Major Scale, Minor Scale, Harmonic Minor Scale, Melodic Minor Scale, Pentatonic Scale, and Blues Scale. And each scale family has 12 members!

The Major Scale Family, has 12 members and they each have their own name and spelling. In music, the members are what we call “keys.” Here is a list of all 12 keys (members of the Major Scale Family):

All 12 Major Keys (The 12 letters darkened in Bold)
All 12 Major Keys (The 12 letters darkened in Bold)

All 12 Major Scale Keys (Members of Major Scale Family)

  1. A Major

  2. Bb Major (or A# Major)

  3. B Major

  4. C Major

  5. Db Major (or C# Major)

  6. D major

  7. Eb Major (or D# Major)

  1. E Major

  2. 9. F Major

  1. Gb Major (or F# Major)

  2. G Major

  3. Ab Major (or G# Major)

And just like you are a member of a family, so are the 12 members part of a scale family as well. Let's go another step further. In general, each Major Scale basically creates a happy sound.

Let's continue with the family analogy. Let's say your family member name is John Smith. Well, there is a spelling for the member name John Smith. It's J-O-H-N-S-M-I-T-H. That's how you spell the name. The same is true when “spelling” each Major Scale. For example, here is how you would spell a C Major Scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. These are the letters for how you spell the C Major Scale. Instead of letters, we use the word “notes” in music. These letters (notes), relate to each pitch in the scale.

Every scale has it's own unique spelling, just like different names have their own unique spellings.

Family Name = Smith

Member of Family = Chris

Spelling = C-H-R-I-S-S-M-I-T-H

Family Name = Smith

Member of Family = Anne

Spelling = A-N-N-E-S-M-I-T-H

Family Name = Rogers

Member of Family = Chris

Spelling = C-H-R-I-S-R-O-G-E-R-S

Scale Family Chart

So let's recap the family analogy by showing a few comparisons.

Family Name = Major Scale

Member of Family = C Major Scale

Spelling: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

Here's another example:

Family Name= Major Scale

Member of Family = A Major Scale

Spelling = A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A

Another example:

Family Name = Minor Scale

Member of Family = C Minor Scale

Spelling = C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C

So continuing with this analogy, the family is called Smith. But there are many members of the Smith family. There is Chis Smith, Anne Smith, Tony Smith, etc. How do you spell the name Chris Smith? How do you spell the name Anne Smith? Their family name is the same, but their first names are different, and obviously there would be different spellings for each name.

Did you notice the 3rd example? The family name was different. It was Rogers. If you notice the corresponding musical family name, it says Minor Scale. This is a totally different family of scale with it's own sound qualities.

This is the basic concept of scales. Now learning exactly how to spell all the scales is a topic for another discussion.

The Benefits Of Learning Scales

Scales help you become a better musician because:

  1. You'll be able to learn new songs faster

  2. You'll be able to “hear” the music better with a newfound depth

  3. You'll understand how music “works”

  4. You'll increase your technical ability on your instrument and play with more fluency

  5. You'll no longer be overwhelmed by the complexity of your instrument


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    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 

      6 years ago from Rochester, New York

      I wrote HALL. hahaha. Thank you for your encouragement (and the spell correction). I just wrote an article hub on music and am working on part 2 of it now. It has been one of the biggest disappointments of my life, not pursuing music, not for fame or fortune but just to give life to emotion, to create or recreate, a thing of beauty. Now that I am a Christian, to sing to God. The desire to create that beauty has been there all these years. I know they are just patterns but when you are saying "Key of D starts on D. With sharps on F and C," suddenly there are a lot of things to remember. I have this running joke with my wife. "My rule is: If there are more than 3 things on a list I will have to read them off that list." Oops, there are more than three things- I'm sorry Ms. Mickji, I need to read them off my list! Well, back to the practice. Sooner (haha) or later, I will get this.

    • TheMusiconomy profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City

      That's great No Body. One of my music professor's once told me that, "you can always go back to music." It doesn't matter the age. I imagine you'll find peach and joy through playing music. That's the ultimate goal. It's not about being difficult or easy.

      Scales are really just patterns. They repeat over and over. Once you begin to see how the patterns are formed, you'll just be regurgitating them. Once you reach this point you'll see how plain it really is.

      You've got the right mind set. The long haul. Music is a journey. It doesn't matter when you get there.

    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 

      6 years ago from Rochester, New York

      I am a music student that only has been self-taught. I have only rudimentary skills to read and play the melody line and play my ocarina. Music is dreadfully hard for the beginning adult. I regret not starting immediately after leaving my parent's home. I should have but by then I was convinced that it was too late to "really learn it." I knew I could learn fingerings and which notes that meant on a single melody line but to learn music was costly, expensive, and just too hard for an adult to do. I recently met a music teacher and we became fast friends. She is attempting to teach "the old man" (that's me- I'm almost 60). I actually had my first class this morning. I found that in the course of learning that one melody line to play my ocarina, I accidentally learned more than I thought and it just so happens that scales is my homework for this week from my teacher "Miss Mickji." Coincidence? I think not! I am following you because I need to soak up as much as I need (to impress the teacher, hahaha).

      Seriously, all the above is true. Amazing that scales are perhaps the thing that looked way too complicated, that was the first thing that the teacher knew I needed, and that I must practice. I liked the article and it seemed very plain but I will not have an easy time learning this. But I am in it "for the long hall."

    • TheMusiconomy profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Yes indeed! There are thousands of scales. But once you learn your major and minor scales, everything else can be derived from them depending on your point of view. Once you know how to play major scales and minor scales all over your instrument, you'll always have them as a point of reference when you're learning knew scales and modes. By associating new scales with the ones you already know, you'll learn them faster and remember them.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I am sure there are hundreds of them! And I must say, congrats on your masters! Jazz is, in my books, one of the most tedious degrees to get and definitely worth it.

    • TheMusiconomy profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Thanks KDuBarry! Musical scales are important for all musicians at all levels. I was always attracted to minor scales as well. I'm happy that you like Jazzology. I actually have a Master's Degree in Jazz so I know more scales than I care to remember!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Ah, a great source of information for all musicians! I normally work with minor scales since I like dark music in my compositions. If you want to know more about skales, Musiconomy, you should definitely read "Jazzology" by Robert Rawlins and Nor Eddine Bahha. On page 34 of the text, it gives a well-informed list of different scales other than The Major, Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor.


    • TheMusiconomy profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Thanks Shea! It's definitely not an easy subject to explain but hopefully it creates a basic concept of what scales are for those interested. I had fun writing it!

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 

      8 years ago from new jersey

      Very well written. A lot of info but put together in an interesting and concise way.


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