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Understanding Theory: Scales
Pianist

Understanding Theory: Scales

Posted Friday, March 18, 2016   |   3634 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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