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Understanding Theory: Scales

Understanding Theory: Scales

Posted Friday, March 18, 2016   |   3406 views   |   Music   |   Comments (0) ABRSM’s Syllabus Director Nigel Scaife kick-starts a new series on theory with a look at the most commonly used major and minor scales – and considers how they relate to each other

Scales are one of the basic building blocks of music. Knowing your scales as a musician is a bit like knowing your times tables as a mathematician – they are an essential tool without which fluency is impossible. For pianists, this ‘knowing’ of scales is usually both a technical consideration in practising the shapes and finger patterns in order to develop technique – evenness, rapidity, and so on – and a more cerebral one in terms of knowing how scales are constructed and how they relate to each other within the tonal system. There are many different scales to consider – not just major and minor, but pentatonic, whole tone and octatonic – and we’ll be taking a look at modes as well!

Unlike players of woodwind, brass or stringed instruments, we pianists are fortunate in having the keyboard as a visual guide to help us understand how scales work. We can see at a glance that the octave divides into 12 pitches, each of which is equidistant from the next by a semitone. Playing each note ascending to make a chromatic scale using all 12 pitches is a bit like going up and down a series of steps and it is this feature that gives us the word ‘scale’ – from the Latin scala, meaning a ladder or staircase. 

Back in Medieval and Renaissance times musicians used a set of scales called ‘modes’ – something I’ll touch on in the next issue. But since the Baroque period, classical music has largely been written in one of two basic modes: major and minor. Both of these types of scale use a mixture of tones and semitones, and it is this combination of intervals that gives each type of scale its distinctive character.

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Pianist is the magazine for people who love to play the piano. You don’t just read it – you play it too, with 40 pages of specially selected sheet music for players of all levels and all tastes. Listen to the pieces by clicking on a sound icon and turn the Scores pages with a light swipe of your hand. As well as our many articles, you can watch some 60 video lessons by our team of experts. There's so much you can do to make Pianist your interactive piano teacher!

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