MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

FTR: Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:10-5:25 in Room 6-170
UR: Thursdays 6:05 - 9:00 in Room 6-170

Intro to Scales

The World of Tonality Part I: Scales

Now that we are getting into the Baroque period it is time to learn a lot more about how music works. In class we recently learned about scales.

The Piano Keyboard, Sharps and Flats

The piano keyboard is the most useful tool available for understanding the details of musical structure. This is because you can see every note, and they are all arranged into a distinctive pattern of white and black keys. The white-and-black pattern actually tells you a lot of information about how the musical universe works.

So, right off the bat we have to handle a little background information about how we name these notes.

If we just walk up and down the white keys on the piano, we hit all of the "plain" notes in the musical alphabet, which (in English) we call A, B, C and so forth. (If you studied music in another country you might be used to calling these notes do, re, mi etc.) This is also the result if we move a note up and down the lines and spaces of the musical staff.

If we want to refer to one of the black keys on the piano, we'll have to use a sharp or a flat. This modifies the basic note-names in a pretty simple way:

sharps_vs_flats (1K)

So we can name the notes around D like so:

dflat_d_dsharp (2K)

Note that these black notes (and all notes, really) have more than one possible name. D-sharp can also be called E-flat, D-flat could also be C-sharp, and so on.

How do you know which notes are which

When we work with our scales, some students get a little anxious about knowing what all the keys are called. You don't really have to know this! But, nevertheless, here is a little guide you could use.

When you are getting started at the piano, really the most important note is C. You can kind of work everything out from there. Thus, you could get in the habit of looking for the group of two black keys - C is right next to that.

But, like I said, you don't really have to worry about what the keys are called.


Next, I usually do a little "stunt." In order to show how you can play almost any familiar tune on the white notes of the piano, I mime and sing a familiar melody as though I am playing the keys. The point is supposed to be that you should imagine (almost) all of the tunes in the world being played on the white keys.

If we take those notes from all of those tunes, sort them out, and put them in order, we get a scale. To start out we'll arrange them starting on C.

So this is our official definition of a scale: An ordered collection of notes that provides the basis for a piece of music.

The octave

The scale starts on C, then proceeds through D, E, F, and so on, until it loops around and arrives at the next C. This upper C is an octave higher than the first one. (This is the measure of distance between the two notes - it's called an octave because there are 8 white keys from C to C.) This is a somewhat magical property in music by which a higher note can sound somehow "the same" as a lower one.


In order to better understand what makes a scale a scale, we need to know about steps. A step is the distance from one note in the scale to the next. They come in two sizes - the "half step" is the smallest possible size, and a "whole step" is twice as big.

On the piano, a half step is the distance from one key to the immediate next one that touches it. This usually involves moving between the white and black keys, though there are two "cracks" in the pattern where a white key touches another white key - those are also a half step apart.

You can hear that a bunch of half steps sound "sneaky" or "slippery." It is somewhat unusual to hear so many half steps in a row.

A whole step is equal to two half steps. So when you make a whole step, you skip over a key on the way to the next one. For instance, if we go from the white key C to white key D, we'll "skip over" one black key in the middle. The majority of steps in music are actually whole steps, like this:

These sound a little more bold and substantial.

So, these are measures of musical distance. You could think of them like "inches" and "half-inches." Most of your notes are going to be an "inch" (= whole step) apart, but some of them are only a "half inch" (half step) apart.

Scales as a pattern of steps

The way to understand your major and minor scales is to think of them as a fixed pattern of whole steps and half steps. Major scales make one particular pattern, and minor scales make a different pattern.

By looking at the white keys on the piano, we can see the step pattern for our C major scale. White keys with an intervening black key make a whole step, and the "cracks" in the keyboard where there is no black key make a half step. The overall pattern could be memorized as "whole whole half, whole whole whole half."

If we want to make a different major scale, we just start on a different key and build the same WWHWWWH pattern. Here we'll go down to G and build a G major scale. We'll have to use one new black key (an F-sharp) in order to complete it.

And that's basically all you would need to know to figure out how to play your major scales! Different scales use different combinations of white and black keys, but they all make the same pattern of whole and half steps.

Minor Scale

So far we've only made major scales. The other main flavor of scale is the minor scale. We can build a minor scale by going A to A on the white keys. It has a different pattern of steps (WHWWHWW) and a different sound.

We are not going to practice making minor scales in our class - we'll stick to the major.

Scales vs. Keys

For the sake of simplicity lets say that scales and keys are basically the same thing. If we say that a piece in "in the key of A major" that means it is based on the A major scale.

The Tonic

The most important property of a key is the home note, or tonic. This is also the note that our scales are based on, the C in C major. The tonic tends to sound "most important" and "most stable." (It is also, somewhat paradoxically, the least interesting-sounding tone - it is relatively colorless and "vanilla.") Any simple melody (like, say, a childrens' folk song) is probably going to end on the tonic note. (We usually test this in class - in each session I ask people to name simple songs, and then I show how you would play them in C major. Each one usually returns to C at the end.)

OK, that's it for now.

We will return to the world of music theory soon, to talk about chords.

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