What are the Types of Musical Scales?

One of the first things you learn on a musical instrument is how to play a major scale. On the piano, you might start by learning C major, then G major, F major, and so on. 

There are lots of different types of scales in music. Some are major, and some are minor. They might sound happy, triumphant, or sad. 

In today’s post, we’ll take a look at the different kinds of musical scales, as well as the music theory behind them. 

Let’s start by defining the word “scale” and what it means in music.

What is a Scale in Music?

A scale is a group of notes, arranged by pitch.

If the scale is descending, that means the notes are in order from highest pitch to lowest pitch. Each note is lower than the one before it.

In an ascending note scale, the notes go from lowest to highest, climbing up the staff. 

The word “scale” comes from the Latin word “scala,” meaning ladder or staircase. 

You might think of the notes in a scale as climbing up or down the stairs.

Scale Degrees

notes scale on sheet music (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In a scale, each note has a certain degree. This degree is a special name for the note’s place in the scale. 

For example, the first note of the scale is called the tonic, or first degree. This tells us what note the scale starts on. 

Here is a list of all the scale degrees and their names:

  • 1st degree: tonic
  • 2nd degree: supertonic
  • 3rd degree: mediant
  • 4th degree: subdominant
  • 5th degree: dominant
  • 6th degree: submediant
  • 7th degree: the leading tone (or the leading note)
  • 8th degree: tonic (but one octave higher).

After the first seven notes, the 8th degree is called the tonic, and the names start over. So the 9th degree would be the supertonic, the 10th degree is the mediant, and so on. 

This is why when you’re naming the scales, you should specify 1st degree or 8th degree when talking about the tonic.

Major Scales

The most common type of scale is the major scale. 

Major scales are usually the first scales you learn on an instrument, such as C major, F major, and G major. Most of the major scales sound bright, happy, and stable. 

The main characteristic of major scales is their pattern of whole steps and half steps. 

(Remember, two half steps equals a whole step. You can read more about half steps and whole steps here: [LINK post on intervals])

The whole step half step pattern for a major scale is: 

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. (W W H W W W H).

In tones and semitones, the pattern looks like this:

Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone (T T S T T T S).

You can start at any note and use this pattern of whole steps and half steps to make a major scale. 

Here’s an example of a major scale:

Now that we’ve learned about major scales, let’s talk about another type of music scale, the minor scale.

Minor Scales

Minor scales are another type of scale that you’ll encounter pretty often in your music. 

Just like major scales, minor scales are seven notes long and repeat in a cycle. The eighth note is always one octave above the starting note. 

However, minor scales have a flattened third. The third note of the minor scale is always flattened by one semitone (half step). 

For example, in A major, the notes are A, B, C#, D, E, F#, and G#. But in A minor, we flatten the third note. So the notes become A, B, C, D, and so on. By flattening the third note, we change the scale from major to minor.

Music written in a minor scale often sounds sad, gloomy, or melancholy. Listen to this version of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, and notice how the minor key affects the mood of the piece.

There are three different types of minor scale:

  • Natural minor
  • Harmonic minor
  • Melodic minor

Each type of minor scale has a slightly different pattern of whole steps and half steps, but they all have a flattened third.

Natural Minor Scale

Natural minor uses this pattern: W H W W H W W.

Here’s what a natural minor scale sounds like:

This is also called Aeolian mode, which you can read more about in our article about music modes, right HERE.

Harmonic Minor Scale

The second type of minor scale is harmonic minor. The harmonic minor scale uses this pattern: 

W H W W H W1/2 H.

Notice the W1/2 step in there? That means the interval is three half steps (or three semitones) long. 

Listen to this video of a harmonic minor scale to hear this interval in action:

Melodic Minor Scale

The third kind of minor scale is called the melodic minor scale. 

Melodic minor is very different from natural or harmonic minor scales. This is because in melodic minor, there are different notes when the scale is ascending (going up) verses descending (going down). 

When the notes are ascending, the note scale follows this pattern: 

W H W W W W H.

But if the notes are descending, the melodic minor scale goes like this: 

W W H W W H W.

Remember, in the melodic minor scale, the notes are in a different pattern going up than coming down. 

Here’s a video of the melodic minor scale:

So far, we’ve learned about two types of diatonic scales: major and minor. 

The word diatonic is used to describe scales that have a tonic first note. 

Diatonic scales also have seven notes (heptatonic), and the note patterns contain five intervals that are whole steps (tones) and two half steps (semitones). 

But what about scales that are not diatonic?

Let’s start by taking a look at the chromatic scale.

Chromatic Scales

A chromatic scale is made up of all 12 notes in western music. 

In the chromatic scale, each note is one half step (semitone) from the other. 

On the piano, this would be if you played every white and black note in order, from C to C. 

If you’d like to hear the chromatic scale, here’s a video of a Bb chromatic scale played on the trumpet. Notice how each note is separated by one half step.

Since every single note is played in a chromatic scale, we don’t say this scale is in a certain key. For example, in the video above, the man is not playing in the key of Bb. 

Instead, we simply say the name of the starting note, followed by “chromatic scale.” So the trombone is playing the Bb chromatic scale.

Whole Tone Scales

A whole tone scale, as you might be able to guess by the name, is a scale made out of whole steps (tones). 

This type of scale is the opposite of the chromatic scale, where every note is one half step apart. 

Since the whole tone scale is built of just whole notes, there are only six notes in the scale. This makes it a type of hexatonic scale, since hexatonic means six notes.

Whole tone scales have a very distinct sound to them. Here’s an example of a whole tone scale:

The Pentatonic Scale

Next up, we have the pentatonic scale. 

Pentatonic scales are some of the oldest music scales in the world, and some people estimate they could be up to 50,000 years old. 

The word penta comes from the Greek word for five, so a pentatonic scale is a scale with five notes. 

In a major pentatonic scale, the five notes are:

  • 1st degree: tonic
  • 2nd degree: supertonic
  • 3rd degree: mediant
  • 5th degree: dominant
  • 6th degree: submediant

Notice that the pentatonic scale does not have a 4th degree or a 7th degree.

You might see the pentatonic scale in a lot of today’s music, such as jazz or rock music. 

Here’s a video example of a major pentatonic scale:

Music Modes

Music modes are similar to music scales, because they have a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps. 

They’re also sometimes called the Greek modes, or the church modes. 

The names of the modes are:

  • Ionian (another name for the major scale)
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian 
  • Lydian 
  • Mixolydian 
  • Aeolian (the natural minor scale)
  • Locrian

Here’s a chart of the different modes and their whole step half step patterns:

Iconian Mode (major scale)W W H W W W H
Dorian ModeW H W W W H W
Phyrgian ModeH W W W H W W
Lydian ModeW W W H W W H
Mixolydian ModeW W H W W H W
Aeolian Mode (natural minor scale)W H W W H W W
Locrian Mode H W W H W W W

For more information about modes, check out our post about the Dorian mode HERE.

Types of Scales: A Summary

I hope this article helped you understand the different types of diatonic and non diatonic scales. 

If you have any questions about music scales, leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Jessica Roberts
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