Scales and Key Signatures

Our Flash Keyboard can help your understanding of this area.

Here is a list of all the topic on this page:

Scales

A scale is a group of pitches (scale degrees) arranged in ascending order. These pitches span an octave. Diatonic scales are scales that include half and whole steps. The first and last note is the tonic. It is the most 'stable' note, or rather the easiest to find. Because of this, diatonic melodies often end on the diatonic note. The other notes in the scale also have names. The second note is the supertonic. The third is the mediant, halfway between the tonic and dominant. The fourth note is the subdominant. The fifth note is the dominant. The submediant is the sixth note. The subtonic is the seventh note in the natural minor scale. The seventh tone of the major, harmonic and melodic minor scales is called the leading tone if it is one half step lower than the tonic.

The Major Scale

The major scale consists of seven different pitches. There are half steps between the third and fourth and seventh and eighth scale degrees; whole steps exist between all other steps. Below is a the C major scale. The pattern of whole and half steps is the same for all major scales. By changing the first note, then using the pattern as a guide, you can construct any major scale. Likewise, if you know the pattern for any other scale, you can create them, too.

The Major Scale

The Natural Minor Scales

These scales have seven different scale degrees. There are half steps between the second and third and the fifth and sixth degrees; whole steps exist between all other steps. Shown below is the A minor scale.

A Natural Minor Scale

The Harmonic Minor Scale

This scale is the same as the natural minor scale, except the seventh step is raised a half step. There is now an interval of one half step between the seventh and eighth notes, and one and a half steps between the sixth and seventh notes. This is a harmonic A minor.

A Harmonic Minor Scale

The Melodic Minor Scale

This is another minor scale variation. In this scale, the sixth and seventh notes are each raised one half step. All the patterns to this point have been the same as one climbs and descends the scales. The melodic minor scale, however, ascends with the modifications noted above, but descends in the natural minor scale. This is a melodic A minor.

A Melodic Minor Scale

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales, as their name suggests, have only five notes. To get from one end of the scale to the other, they require gaps of more than a half step.

Scales that do not follow the interval patterns of the diatonic or pentatonic scales are called nondiatonic scales. Many nondiatonic scales have no identifiable tonic.

The chromatic scale is a nondiatonic scale that consists of half steps only. Because each pitch is equidistant, there is no tonic. A whole tone scale is comprised of whole steps. Like the chromatic scale, it too has no tonic. The blues scale is a chromatic variant of the major scale. This scale contains flat thirds and sevenths which , alternate with normal thirds and sevenths. This , alternating creates the blues inflection.

Transposition

Scale patterns can be duplicated at any pitch. Rewriting the same scale pattern at a different pitch is called transposition. Thus, if you used the major scale pattern, but started at G, you would just have to count up according to the major scale pattern to transpose it. All the notes of a piece can be modified in this way, by finding a note's counterpart in the modified scale.

Since some notes will always be sharp once transposed or in certain scales, it is sometimes helpful to place accidentals at the very beginning of a piece in order to modify all the notes of a certain pitch. Placing accidentals at the beginning of the music (as opposed to right beside a note) allows the accidentals to affect every note in the entire piece. So, placing a sharp on line F makes every F sharp. The arrangement of sharps and flats at the beginning of a piece of music is called a key signature.

Key Signatures

To help understand and remember key signatures, a chart called the circle of fifths can be used. On the outside are the major key names, separated by fifths. On the inside are the corresponding minor key names. In the middle is the number and position of the sharps or flats.

Circle of Fifths

There is a little trick to figuring out a key signature's name. When confronted with a key signature that consists of flats, look at the flat second from the far right. This flat is on the line or space the key signature is named after. One flat is F, since you can't go to the next -to-last flat. To find the name of a key signature with sharps, look at the sharp farthest to the right. The key signature is the note a half step above that last sharp.

Key signatures can specify major or minor keys. To determine the name of a minor key, find the name of the key in major and then count backwards three half steps. Remember that sharps and flats affect names.

Modes

In the middle ages, modes were used to organize the melodic and harmonic parts of music. From the 17th century until the 19th century, modes were not used as widely. Modes in this time were replaced by the major and minor scales. Modes, however, are still heard in contemporary music. Modes, created mainly by the churches, were the basis for most of western music. Curiously, in modes, the beginning tone is called the final, as opposed to the tonic as in other diatonic scales.

Table of Modes
Name Range Final Half Steps Are Between Similar Scale
Dorian D to D D 2-3, 6-7 Natural minor scale with raised sixth degree
Phrygian E to E E 1-2, 5-6 Natural minor scale with lowered second degree
Lydian F to F F 4-5, 7-8 Major scale with raised fourth degree
Mixolydian G to G G 3-4, 6-7 Major scale with lowered seventh degree
Aeolian A to A A 2-3, 5-6 Same as natural minor scale
Ionian C to C C 3-4, 7-8 Same as major scale
Locrian B to B B 1-2, 4-5 Natural minor with a lowered second and fifth degree.

Modes may begin on any tone as long as the arrangements of half and whole steps remain the same. The identity of a transposed mode can be quickly determined since the final of each mode lies in the same relationship to the tonic of the major with the same key signature.

  1. The final of the Dorian mode is always the second degree of the major scale.
  2. The final of the Phrygian mode is always the third degree of a major scale.
  3. The final of the Lydian mode is always the fourth degree of a major scale.
  4. The final of the Mixolydian mode is always the fifth degree of a major scale.
  5. The final of the Aeolian mode is always the sixth degree of a major scale.
  6. The final of the Ionian mode is always the first degree of a major scale.
  7. Locrian modes are rarely used.

Solfeggio

Often, solfeggio is used to help with practicing. The solfeggio syllables are associated with the notes in a given scale. The syllable Do (pronounced dough, or doe), corresponds to the tonic. The next syllable (in ascending order) is Re (say 'ray'). Re corresponds to the supertonic. Mi (say 'me') is the next syllable. Mi corresponds to the mediant. Fa (long a) comes next, corresponding to the subdominant. Sol (say 'so') is the syllable that corresponds to the dominant. La (long a) is the syllable that corresponds to the submediant. Ti (say 'tea') corresponds to the leading tone.

Solfeggio hand signs

This table shows the solfeggio syllables and corresponding hand signs in descending order.

Do - a fist that is held straight.
Ti is index finger pointing up and the thumb and middle ring finger and pinkie are all touching (the same as for sign language T).
La is all four fingers and thumb facing the ground and the wrist is bent down as well.
Sol is the thumb facing the ceiling the rest of the hand is out straight.
Fa is a thumbs down.
Mi is the hand held flat.
Re is a flat hand help up straight out and then raised to about a 30 degree angle. Both Mi and Re have palm side down.
Do is the fist sign again.

The table above shows the hand signs that correspond to the solfeggio syllables. The hand signs start with the lower tonic at about waist level. Each successive hand sign is a little higher than the last. The second tonic ends a little above eye level.

Solfeggio is a good practice tool. Since it is fairly generic, it can be used with a variety of scales. Pentatonic scales consists of five tones, and therefore Fa and Ti aren't used.

There are also solfeggio accidentals. These accidentals are shown and listed in the chart below.

Di

Di is the accidental above Do. To make Di, make the fist for Do and lift the wrist up.

Ri

Ri is the accidental between Re and Mi. Ri looks just like Re, but the pointer finger in Ri is lifted away from the other fingers.

Fi

Fi is between Fa and Sol. Fi is a thumbs up.

Si

Si is an open hand, palm towards the chest and the wrist tilted up. Si is between Sol and La

Ta

Ta is like Ti, but the finger is pointed down. Ta is between La and Ti.