• Learn How to Play Traditional Scales

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

    Today, we’ll be doing a study on traditional scales.

    Traditional scales are fundamental in playing music, the same way alphabets are important in written or spoken language.

    Let’s get into this study by reviewing scales.

    Review On Scales

    Playing notes in a regular succession can form a scale. According to Jermaine Griggs (2016) “A scale is a succession of notes [played or heard] in ascending or descending order [that are related by a fixed intervallic formula.]”

    If we play all the white notes on the keyboard in alphabetical sequence from C to C…


    …to D:

    …to E:

    …to F:

    …to G:

    …to A:

    …to B:

    …and back to C:

    …this would produce the natural major scale.

    Here’s a simpler definition of scales that you can easily memorize:

    A scale is a ladder of notes in ascending or descending direction.

    The above definition is influenced by scala (the root word for scale in Latin), which means ladder or staircase. Therefore, consider scales the same way you’ll consider a ladder or staircase, that helps you ascend or descend, step-wise or skip-wise.

    Attention: Not everyone climbs the staircase step by step, all the time right? There are situations when you’re in a hurry and you just have to skip a step or two. The same thing is obtainable in the musical scale. There are scales that involve step-wise ascents and descents, and there are also scales that involve skip-wise ascents and descents.

    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

    The natural minor scale

    The harmonic minor scale

    The melodic minor scale

    Most of the melodies and melodic patterns heard in European and American music are from these traditional scales [most of the time.] What about chords and harmonic structures? Yeah! These scales are also the backbone of melodic and harmonic materials that are commonly used in classical music, jazz, gospel, etc.

    In the 19th century, when African-Americans were emancipated, their music featured West-African rhythms [predominantly], however, the melodic and harmonic elements were derived from these long-established scales. Jazz music is a typical example, which is a product of irregular accents in rhythm (aka -“syncopation”) featuring melodies and chords that are improvised. The tonal basis for the improvisation are derived from traditional scales [and modes.]

    Here are a few things you need to note about traditional scales.

    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 major scale is the source of chords and harmonies. The following chords can be derived from the natural major scale as scale degree chords…

    If you add eleventh and thirteenth chords, you’ll have more than the chords listed above. In other posts subsequently, we’ll be looking at the major scale in terms of scale degree chords.

    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.

    Benefits Of Traditional Scales

    The knowledge of traditional scales is of the greatest possible importance. Like I said earlier, most of the melodies and harmonies we play most of the time are derived from these traditional scales.

    Before we end today’s post, let’s consider some of the benefits of traditional scales.

    In Technique

    For so many centuries, traditional scales have served as technique builders. Even in today’s modern era, musicians still rely on traditional scales as a source of technical exercise or daily warm-up.

    Considering that most melodies, tunes, licks, runs, etc., are scale-based, every serious musician should warm-up daily using traditional scales on one or both hands and in all twelve keys. This has been an integral part of my routine daily for several years now and it’s paid off over the years.

    In Ear-Training

    Scales when played over time can help in ear-training. These traditional scales are basically the sources of most of the chords and melodies [whether composed or improvised] that you hear all the time.

    Playing these traditional scales everyday exposes you to them in such a way that you can easily hear them when they are used. Therefore, if you’re still having challenges with note recognition, I recommend you play traditional scales daily.

    In Composition / Improvisation

    As a musician, if you decide to venture into composition, which is one of the careers in music, your knowledge of traditional scales can help you write either on the major or minor key.

    Alternatively, if you decide to venture into improvisation, traditional scales and their modes are reliable sources for melodic patterns, licks, sequences, etc.

    Final Words

    With all that’s been said, who wouldn’t want to learn traditional scales?

    In subsequent posts, we’ll be exploring these traditional scales, from the natural major, to the natural minor, to the harmonic and melodic variants of the natural minor scale.

    All the best!



    We’re introducing a workbook on scales. It will cover everything from its definition, to its formation, classification, application etc. If you opt into our mailing list, you’ll be the first to be notified!Yes! Add me to the early bird notification list.

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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