• A Lesson On The Importance Of Traditional Scales

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    You arrived at this page because you’re interested in learning about the musical importance of traditional scales.

    One of the first things a beginner on the piano is exposed to is a musical scale – which is commonly the major scale. Most of us actually got started by learning the C natural major scale:

    …which is sometimes accompanied with the following syllables:

    do re mi fa sol la ti do

    Scales are very important to music and the musician as well for a variety of reasons, however, we’re exploring the musical importance of traditional scales in this lesson. But before we do so, let’s have a brief discussion on traditional scales.

    A Quick Study On Traditional Scales

    Prior to the use of scales, there were modes – an ancient scale system that was replaced by major and minor scales. The major and minor scales are structured to be the underlying scales of the two tonalities – the major key and the minor key.

    These scales having been in existence for a long time, gained general acceptance and become traditional in music. Traditional scales are scales that have been associated with the process of learning and making music for several centuries.

    Here are the traditional scales…

    The natural major scale

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    The natural minor scale

    The harmonic minor scale

    The melodic minor scale

    Here are a few things you need to note about them.

    They are western

    They are heptatonic

    They are diatonic

    Let’s quickly highlight these traditional scales.

    The Natural Major Scale

    This is the traditional scale of the major key. If a piece of music is played in the key of C major, it means that the melodic and harmonic source of that piece of music is from the C natural major scale.

    The natural major scale that is usually considered the easiest to play on the piano, is the C natural major scale:

    …which is simply called the C major scale (the natural is often omitted) because its basically a collection of all white notes on the piano:

    …from C to C:

    The Natural Minor Scale

    The natural minor scale is the traditional scale of the minor key. If a piece of music played in the key of A minor, it means that the melodic and harmonic source of that piece of music is from the A natural minor scale.

    The natural minor scale that is usually considered the easiest to play on the piano, is the A natural minor scale which is simply called the A minor scale (the natural is often omitted) due the collection of all white notes on the piano:

    …from A to A:

    The natural minor scale has its shortcomings in what music scholars call the leading note feel. Click here to find out how the shortcomings of the natural minor scale led to the introduction of its chromatic variant called the harmonic minor scale.

    The Harmonic Minor Scale

    The harmonic minor scale is a variant of the natural minor scale, formed by raising the seventh tone of the natural minor scale by a half step. Raising the seventh tone of the A natural minor scale (G):

    …by a half step, produces the A harmonic minor scale:

    The harmonic minor scale has the leading note feel that the natural minor scale doesn’t and because of that, it is often used in most harmonic situations.

    The Melodic Minor Scale

    Raising the seventh tone of the harmonic minor scale by a half step creates a gapped scale.

    In the A harmonic minor scale:

    …between the sixth and seventh tone of the scale (F and G#):

    …is a distance of three half-steps (aka – “sesquitone”.) Traditional scales are basically known to have the whole step and half step as the distance between adjacent scale tones.

    In between the sixth and seventh tones of the harmonic minor scale is a gap that was melodically challenging for music composers several centuries ago. There was only one way to get rid of that gap, and that’s by raising the sixth degree of the harmonic minor scale by a half step.

    Raising the sixth tone of the A harmonic minor scale:

    …which is F:

    …to F#:

    …produces a new variant of the natural minor scale that is known to music scholars as the melodic minor scale:

    Ultimately, you can form the melodic minor scale by raising the sixth and seventh tones of the natural minor scale by a half step.

    “…On The Importance Of Traditional Scales”

    There are so many reasons why the musical scale is considered important, however, we’ll focus on three top reasons in this lesson.

    Traditional Scales Are An Outline Of The Components Of The Key

    Every key (whether major or minor) has its traditional scale. The traditional scale of the major key is the natural major scale, while the traditional scales of the minor key are the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale.

    The traditional scale of the key of C major is the C natural major scale:

    …and it is basically an outline of all the notes in the key of C major.

    This is one of the reasons why traditional scales are important. If you’re interested in knowing the components of any key – be it a major or minor key – it is advisable that you learn the traditional scale of that key.

    Traditional Scales Are The Source Of Melodies

    Whether you’re a composer or an improviser, scales are the source of melodies. In classical music and other popular music styles (like gospel, jazz, and others), traditional scales like the natural major scale (and its modes) are the source of most melodies.

    Great improvisers like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, etc., who are known to play flashy runs, quick licks, and creative melodies, derive them from traditional scales most of the time.

    Traditional Scales Are The Source Of Harmonies

    Chords are a product of the relationship between three or more scale notes (agreeable or not) that are played or heard together. Before a collection of notes can be considered as a chord, there must be a scale relationship between them.

    Most of the chords that are commonly played in gospel and jazz styles are derived from traditional scale.

    From the C natural major scale:

    …the following chords can be derived:

    Major triad

    Minor triad

    Diminished triad

    Major seventh chord

    Minor seventh chord

    Dominant seventh chord

    Half-diminished seventh chord

    Major ninth chord

    Minor ninth chord

    Dominant ninth chord

    …and so on.

    Therefore, learning traditional scales would prove helpful in the understanding of melody and harmony, and in the understanding of the concept of key.

    Final Words

    Now that you’ve understood the importance of traditional scales, it is important for you to learn how to master at least 50% of all of them.

    All the best, and I’ll see you in the next lesson.

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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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