It’s very common for a performer to use scales to develop their technique and finger dexterity. This is true for guitarists, pianists, or any other musician. A scale can be thought of as a group of pitches in ascending and descending order. The scales that have been used the most in the past 200 hundred years are known as the diatonic scales.

Diatonic scales have a mix of half and whole steps and sometimes a step and a half. Each tone in the scale plays a role. The first tone is called the Tonic. The tonic is the most stable tone in the scale and all the other tones lead toward or away from it. Many melodies built upon diatonic scales often end on the tonic note.

Scale Degree Names And Meanings

Each degree of a diatonic scale has a name correlating to its function in the scale.

  • 1st Scale Degree – called the Tonic – Serves as the tonal center. It is also the final resolution tone.
  • 2nd Scale Degree – called the Supertonic – Is one step above the tonic.
  • 3rd Scale Degree – called the Mediant – Can be found midway between the tonic and the dominant.
  • 4th Scale Degree – called the Subdominant – Sometimes called the lower dominant. It is the fifth tone down from the tonic and also the fourth tone up from the tonic.
  • 5th Scale Degree – the Dominant – This is the second most important tone next to the tonic. The relationship between the tonic and dominant is the strongest of the scale degree relationships.
  • 6th Scale Degree – the Submediant – Also called the lower mediant, it is found halfway between the tonic and the lower dominant(subdominant). It is the third tone down from the tonic and also the sixth tone up from the tonic.
  • 7th Scale Degree – the Leading Tone – Leads melodically to the tonic. It is used when the seventh tone is one-half step below the tonic.
  • 7th Scale Degree – the Subtonic – The subtonic is only used to name the seventh degree of the natural minor scale. It is a whole step below the tonic.

Major Scale

When learning about scales, the major scale should be your starting point. The major scale has seven different pitches. There are whole steps separating all notes except for half steps between the fourth and third degrees and between the 7th and 8th degrees. The eighth note of the scale shares the same letter name as the first(tonic) note.

Key Signature

A key signature is a physical depiction of all the sharps or flats in a piece of music. The key signature goes on the staff at the beginning of a composition and after the clef sign. Key signatures let us know what major or minor key a piece will be in.

Major/Minor Key Signatures

There are 15 key signatures that we will cover here. These are all the signatures shown in the circle of fifths. This does not mean there are only fifteen keys as the signature is shared between the major key and its relative minor. There are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys.

Minor Scale And Its Three Forms

The minor scale is a very popular diatonic scale second only to the major scale. It gives you more pitches to choose from because there are two different versions of both the sixth and seventh scale degrees. Technically there are three different forms of the minor scale, but in practice musicians and composers use resources from all three forms in one composition.

The three forms are called natural, harmonic, and melodic.

natural minor scale – has seven different notes with whole steps between all notes except for between the second and third degrees and between the fifth and sixth degrees.

harmonic minor scale – has a raised(sharp) seventh degree. Raising the seventh degree means there is a step and a half between the sixth and seventh degrees.

melodic minor scale – is made in both ascending and descending form. The ascending form has raised sixth and seventh scale degrees. This means there is half step between the seventh and eighth degrees. The descending form is the same as the natural minor.

Relative And Parallel Relationships

Major and minor keys can relate to each other in two different ways. They may have a relative or a parallel relationship. When a major and a minor scale share the same key signature, they have what is called a relative relationship. An example would be C major and A minor. There are no sharp or flats in either key.

When a major and a minor scale begin on the same note, they have what is called a parallel relationship.

Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is a five-note scale. It contains intervals that are larger than a whole step between adjacent notes. It may help to think of the pentatonic as an incomplete major scale.

Blues Scale

The blues scale is a variant of the major scale that includes a flat third and a flat seventh. These notes are referred to as the “blue notes”, and they alternate with the normal third and seventh degrees.