A scale is a consecutive listing of the 7 pitches within a diatonic key. In our previous lesson on key signatures, we discussed that a diatonic key is a selection of 7 of the 21 possible pitches in music. The selection is limited to 7 because each letter in a diatonic key is limited to one type (either flat, natural or sharp). The listing of pitches within a scale always starts and ends with the tonic pitch. The purpose for practicing scales on our instrument is to familiarize ourselves with the 7 diatonic pitches of a given key.
Every diatonic key signature results in one major and one minor tonic. Major scales are the consecutive listing of the 7 pitches within a major key. These scales are classified as major because of the intervals formed between the tonic and each of the other pitches. Both major and minor scales contain a perfect 4th and 5th. However, all the other intervals (2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th) within a major scale contain major qualities.
This sequence of major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th and major 7th from the tonic can be used to determine the pitches of any major scale. Another way to determine the pitches of a major scale would be to use one’s knowledge of the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths lays out the keys signatures of every major tonic by either increasing sharps or flats. There are many diagrams of the sharp and flat key signatures available in literature and on the internet. A musician can determine the pitches of a major scale by starting on the tonic and applying the given key signature of that key while ascending or descending in stepwise motion until he/she reaches the repeat of the tonic in the next register.
A third way to determine the pitches of a major scale is to examine the whole and half step relations from pitch to pitch within the scale. Major scales are composed of two major tetrachords that are connected by a whole step. A major tetrachord is a group of four pitches in which the distance between pitches follows the sequence of whole step – whole step – half step. The entire sequence of a major scale is shown in this included figures. The first figure labels the tetrachords and the connecting whole step between them. The second figure displays the two tetrachords within a C major scale. The scale is displayed both in musical notation and across a piano keyboard.
Musicians can employ many methods when practicing scales. We should realize the specific focus we wish to instill in our playing and use a method that supports that skill. For example, practicing scales in order through the circle of fifths is an effective method for memorizing the key signatures. Since key signatures increase by one sharp or flat as we progress through the circle of fifths, we are provided with a helpful reminder of each tonic and its corresponding key signature. Practicing by ascending or descending chromatic tonics is an effective method for quizzing ourselves on rapid recall of the key signatures. Finally, practicing varied patterns can help to solidify the pitches of the key signature in our minds and fingers. Traveling up and down a scale the same way every time can become a repetitive and thoughtless activity. This can be avoided by varying the sequence in which the pitches of the scale are played. We can play extended "scale like" lines that change direction at destinations other than the tonic pitch. In addition, we can create various repeating diatonic patterns such as 123-234-345-456... or 13-24-35-46-57-68-79-8. These types of patterns help to test our ability to apply the key signature to musical content with varied melodic motion.
I recently had a discussion with someone about the use of the term “perfect” when labeling the intervals of a fourth and a fifth. As mentioned in my last post, these intervals are perfect consonances. However, unlike octaves and unisons, fourth and fifths can be altered. The label “perfect” is used to distinguish the consonant form of these intervals from the diminished or augmented forms.
Ray Melograne received his BA and ME in music education from Queens College. He is currently teaching music in the NY public schools. He also teaches privately on the Zoen.com network.