Music Theory Tutorial: Working with Scales

Multitalented musician Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO examines some of the benefits and pitfalls of using musical scales and offers some creative practices for using them.

Music Scales

Why Do We Use Scales?

Why do we use scales? Are they fundamental building blocks of music, or something you can just ignore? Are they a necessary evil, the root of all melody, or a detriment to creativity? An argument can be made for any of these descriptions, but the real answer will be one you find for yourself. In this article, I’ll examine some of the benefits and pitfalls of focusing on scales, and suggest some creative practices for using them.

First of all, what is a scale? In Western music, it’s a series of two or more notes (usually seven) which fit within one octave. The most common are the major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) and the minor harmonic scale (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B-C). In other cultures, the rules move around a bit. For example, in a North Indian Raga, the scale concept is more fluid; the scale may not end on the same note it started. It may also have a top or bottom note which is not in the octave, as well as scale notes that can change depending on the direction the melody is moving (much like the melodic minor scale). In Balinese music, a note may be skipped in one octave but not the next octave. In classical Arabic music, the relationship between the first two notes can change depending on the time of the day. However, even with all of these variations, in most cultures, the octave is used as the bookends of a scale.


The Octave

The octave is a mathematical relationship of vibrational frequency. If you play the bottom note on a piano (A0), the string will vibrate 27.5 times per second. Our eardrums then sympathetically vibrate 27.5 times per second, and our brain interprets the sound as a low A. If you play the A an octave up, it will vibrate twice as fast: 55 times per second (55 hertz). The next A is 110 hertz, then 220, then 440, and so on. This relationship of frequencies was not established by some ancient conspiracy – humans have always been able to feel and hear the natural relationship of the octave.

Read Music and Mathematics so that you can impress your friends at the next dinner party!

Ok, enough math for now. The real question is this: what tools from traditional western music theory are important for an electronic music producer to know? Some may say, “just learn your scales, they will help you out later,” or “I can make killer tracks without knowing any scales.” We need a better answer than this. Given that scales have developed over thousands of years throughout human culture, they must have some value. However, we still need to figure out how they are relevant to us and the music we make.

I feel the problem is in our preconceived notions of the purpose of scales and even more importantly how scales are traditionally taught. If you open any beginner piano/violin book, the first lesson is often about how to play scales (do-ri-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) starting at the bottom, going up one or two octaves and then going back down. The argument in favor of this approach is that playing scales teaches our fingers how to move, as well as builds a facility on the instrument – but to do what? Are there any songs that actually have do-ri-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do in the melody? Are we developing skills to play a melody that no one would ever write? Not exactly. When we learn scales, we’re learning the relationship of notes to one another as well as learning to navigate the space where melodies live and breathe. Exploring relationships further, we know that the distance between the first and third note in major and minor scales is always different. As a result, different moods are created by the different relationships between major and minor scales. For example, when you play a major triad on the piano (C-E-G), it sounds happy and uplifting. However, when you play a minor triad (C-Eb-G), it sounds sad and dramatic.

No, not those kind of scales

No, not those kind of scales

I remember reading “Friedman-Vibraphone Technique: Dampening and Pedaling” which the first exercise had you play the scales but not in sequence, or in any pattern at all. The lesson recommended that you play slow and listen to the relationships between the notes. At the time, I just found it annoying, as I had to jump all over the instrument, it was almost impossible to memorize, and it wasn’t helping me play faster. In retrospect, I think if everyone learned scales this way, they would be creating some wild melodies. Think how much more expressive we would all be if our ears were that much more in-tune with the leaps and bounds of scales instead of seeing them as a linear sequence. I am not saying that there is no validity in learning to play your scales up and down the keyboard, but if that is your primary relationship to your instrument, those repetitive motions will be imprinted in your brain and fingers which may make it much harder to consider other ways to move melodically around your instrument. Creativity rarely happens in a linear motion.

To follow up this thought, I have a couple of suggestions for all you budding musicians and composers who want to try a more creative approach to scales.

When working with any type of musical instrument try playing the notes of the scale randomly. First, choose a scale – here is a list of available scales. Note everywhere on the instrument you can play any note from the scale; you will notice that in almost all cases the lowest and highest notes are not the tonic (bottom note of the scale). Once you have identified all the notes, try playing them in a random order, then add a little rhythm while combining small jumps and big jumps. Take your time, and listen to what you are doing. If possible, play a drone with the tonic note of the scale (ex. in A minor, the tonic is “A”). Playing a drone in the background will help you to clearly hear the relationships between all the notes in the scale your working with. Once again…. Don’t rush! Listen to each note and how it flows to the next note. After you feel comfortable with the scale, change to a different scale with the same tonic. For example, switch from G major to G minor. Take note of how the mood changes, how the relationships feel different, and in which direction the notes want to move. Over time your ears will become freer, and you will start writing and playing in new ways.

Within your DAW try altering the scales used over a static bass line. For this example, I thought it would be more powerful for you to listen to examples instead of just describing it. I have made two tracks in Ableton Live, which consists of three elements: A bass line (which consists only of the notes A and E), a drum track, and a synth patch which is playing a melodic motif. The drums and bass will stay the same throughout, and then I will alter the scale/mode used in the synth track. The pattern will remain the same, but the relationships (distances) between the notes will change with each scale/mode. I have chosen to use the seven modes which were used in Ancient Greece as they are all quite similar, but will give you a sonic ideal of what the differences in mood each of these scales/modes have. I have included all seven notes in the arpeggiated pattern so you can hear all the possible permutations of the different scales/modes. What’s important is that while listening to these examples, try to get a feel for what the different modes bring to the music. Is the track happy, sad, melancholic, mysterious, uplifting, etc… The change from mode to mode may seem subtle, but over time you will begin to appreciate the nuances of each mode.

Example 1:

Example 2:

Final Thoughts

Well, I hope this was not all too geeky for you and as always, I am trying to present you different ways to consider how music can be made. The wider the pallet of information we can draw upon, the more expressive we can be when we work on our craft. Scales have been used for 1000′s of years, and I doubt they will stop being used anytime soon. In conclusion, I would have to say that scales are neither good nor bad, they can inspire or inhibit the creative process depending on how you use them.

Remember, music comes from your ears, not your eyes. If it sounds good, then it is good.


About Michael Emenau

Michael Emenau (McGill 1989, BAC Music, classical percussion, composition) has worked professionally as a vibraphonist/percussionist, composer, producer, remixer, and arranger for 25 years. He plays diverse genres such as Jazz, Rock, Drum & Bass, Salsa, Techno, Country, Hindustani, Gospel, Baroque, Jewish, Film, and Orchestral music. During this time he has recorded on over 180 CD’s, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. His newest project SUSSEX is a mélange of Roots, Ragtime, and American reaching #4 on the Euro-American charts as well as charting in the top 30’s on the US Roots Radio Report (tracking all independent albums).

Connect with MNO on Facebook | Twitter | SoundCloud | Website


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