• A Lesson On The Classification Of Scales

    in Beginners,Experienced players,General Music,Piano,Scales,Theory

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    Our focus in today’s lesson is on the classification of scales.

    There are various classes of scales and most times, the classification of scales looks confusing to a vast majority of musicians, and that’s why we’re dedicating this lesson to the study of the classification of scales.

    In the next 12 minutes or so, we’ll be looking at how scales are classified according to:

    Culture Area

    Usage

    Note Aggregate

    Tonality

    Preliminaries: The Definition Of A Scale

    But before we proceed, let’s do a review on the concept of the musical scale.

    A scale is a regular succession of notes in ascending or descending order [based on a fixed intervallic formula].

    The systematic arrangement of notes in a systematic way produces scales. For example, playing all the white notes on the piano from C to C:
    …produces a scale.
    Now that we’ve defined a scale, let’s go ahead and explore the classification of scales.

    The Musical Scale – Classified

    Although there are many ways to classify scales, we’ll be focusing on four ways that musical scales can be classified.

    A scale is a regular succession of notes in ascending or descending order [based on a fixed intervallic formula].

    The systematic arrangement of notes in a systematic way produces scales and that’s the second level of organization.

    Classification #1 – According To Culture Area

    Musical scales can be classified accord to culture area.

    The term culture area here refers to a particular region or geographical location in relationship with their unique approach, belief system, and way of life.

    Music is an integral part of humanity, and it can be seen in virtually all culture areas in the western and eastern world alike. Even in Africa, music is an integral part of her culture.

    In the music of every culture area are elements of harmony, melody, rhythm, form, and most importantly, a unique scale system.

    The European/American music style that is played and heard in so many parts of the world evolved from the western world. Consequently, the scales commonly used are called western scales.

    Scales from other parts of the world – Chinese scales, African scales, etc., – are generally classified as non-western scales.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    When it comes to the classification of scales according to culture area, there are two broad categories:

    • Western scales
    • Non-western scales

    Long established scales of the European music art form are considered as western scales while scales from other culture areas in the world are considered as non-western scales.

    Given the scales below:

    C Mela Divyamani:

    C Harmonic Minor:

    …can you classify them according to culture area?

    The C harmonic minor scale is a western scale while the C mela divyamani scale is a non-western scale.

    Classification #2 – According To Usage

    Musical scales can also be classified according to usage.

    Although there are so many scales from different parts of the world, only a few scales are commonly used in the formation of chords or in the composition of a melody.

    The scales that are regularly used by the people who live in the Jewish and Arabic culture area sound exotic to the people who live in the European/American culture area. The reverse can also be the case.

    So, in the classification of scales according to usage, there are two scale classes:

    Regular scales

    Exotic scales

    Attention: Always remember that a musical scale can be regular in one culture area and exotic in another culture area.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    In our everyday music, musical scales from the European/American culture area are commonly used.

    Consequently, European/American scales are considered to be regular scale while musical scales from other culture areas are considered as exotic scales.

    Given the scales below:

    C Six-tone Symmetrical:

    C Natural Major:

    …can you classify them according to usage?

    The C natural major scale is a western scale while the C six-tone symmetrical scale is a non-western scale.

    Classification #3 – According To Note Aggregate

    A musical scale can be classified according to the number of notes it consists of.

    “Check Out These Scales…”

    Scale #1:

    Scale #2:

    One of the remarkable differences between the scales above is in the number of notes in each scale. For example, scale #1 consists of five notes, while scale #2 consists of seven notes.

    The difference in the number of notes that each scale is made up of (aka – “note aggregate”) is an important criteria in the classification of scales.

    “Here Are The Classes Of Scales According To Note Aggregate…”

    One-note scales are monotonic.

    Two-note scales are ditonic.

    Three-note scales are tritonic.

    Four-note scales are tetratonic.

    Five-note scales are pentatonic.

    Six-note scales are hexatonic.

    Seven-note scales are heptatonic.

    Eight-note scales are octatonic.

    Given the scales we came across earlier:

    Scale #1:

    Scale #2:

    …can you classify them according to note aggregate?

    Scale #1:

    …is a five-note scale, consequently, it is a pentatonic scale.

    Scale #2:

    …is a seven-note scale, consequently, it is a heptatonic scale.

    Classification #4 – According To Tonality

    A musical scale can be classified according to tonality. There are two common tonality types:

    The major key

    The minor key

    …and musical scales can be classified under either of them. Consequently, a musical scale can either be classified as a major or a minor scale and here’s the criteria for this classification:

    The interval between the first and third tone of a scale determines whether it’s a major or a minor scale.

    When the interval between the first and third tone of a given scale is a major third interval, such a scale is classified as a major scale, conversely, when the interval between the first and third tone of a given scale is a minor third interval, such a scale is classified as a minor scale.

    Given these heptatonic scales:

    Scale #1:

    Scale #2:

    …can you classify them according to tonality?

    “Here’s The Answer…”

    In scale #1:

    …the interval between the first and third tones (which are C and Eb):

    …is a minor third interval:

    In scale #2:

    …the interval between the first and third tones (which are C and E):

    …is a major third interval:

    Consequently, scale #1:

    …is a minor scale, while scale #2:

    …is a major scale.

    Final Words

    Congratulations! I’m doubly sure that in ways more than one, you can be able to classify any given scale.

    We’ll take our discussion to another level in a subsequent post where we’ll be exploring other classification criteria like symmetry etc.

    Thank you for your time and see you then!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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