Musical Scales

A scale is an orderly sequence of musical notes, usually arranged in ascending or descending order. In this article, we look at how scales are created, described, written down, and used in learning and singing plain chant.

The major scale

In our discussion of musical intervals, we talked about the following major and perfect intervals:

major second - major third - perfect fourth - perfect fifth - major sixth - major seventh - octave

If we start with a fixed pitch (the tonic) and sort these intervals by increasing size, we get a sequence of eight notes (listen), where the last note is the same as the first but an octave higher. This is called the major scale.

listen to a major scale

This is the most common scale used in Western music.

Naming the steps of the major scale

This scale is based on a particular note - the tonic - and each of the notes in the scale is called a "degree" of the scale. By tradition, the following names are assigned to the degrees of the major scale:

Tonic: Major 2nd
above tonic
Major 3rd
above tonic
Perfect 4th
above tonic
Perfect 5th
above tonic
Perfect 6th
above tonic
Perfect 7th
above tonic
Octave
above tonic
do
re
mi
fa
sol
la
ti
do

The pitch names repeat from the new “do”.   Practice this a few times.

Once a starting pitch is chosen, any melody made up of degrees of the scale can be sung using just the names for the scale degrees. This process of singing is called solfeggio or solfege ("sole-fedge"), from the names sol and fa. (In English, we sometimes use "so" instead of "sol.")

Exercise: Use the Theta Music Trainer games Paddle Pitch and Tone Drops to learn to recognize the solfege names of the major scale degrees, and use Vocal Degrees (Major) to practice singing them.

Letter names for scale degrees

Other musicians during the Middle Ages assigned the letters A through G to the seven pitches – but for various reasons, they started with C:

Tonic: Major 2nd
above tonic
Major 3rd
above tonic
Perfect 4th
above tonic
Perfect 5th
above tonic
Perfect 6th
above tonic
Perfect 7th
above tonic
Octave
above tonic
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

Now, in two places on the major scale, the pitch interval between consecutive degrees of the scale is the same a minor second, or half step:

Everywhere else, the interval between the scale degress is a major second, or whole step.

Sometimes we need to sing the pitches “in between” two notes separated by a whole step. 

Other scales

By using the minor third instead of the major third, and some combination of major and minor sixths and sevenths, we get the various minor scales:

natural minor scale

harmonic minor scale

melodic minor scale

And by using ALL the perfect, major, and minor intervales, we get the chromatic scale:

chromatic scale

There are sets of solfege names for the degrees of each of these scales. But our plain chant, which is neither major nor minor in the Western sense, can be sung using the major scale with just a few variations, which we will teach as necessary.