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Piano Scales
Tim P Manger - Piano Teacher

Piano Scales

Diagram Showing Cycle of 5ths (or 4ths)

Why learn piano scales?

Whenever a teacher mentions piano scales to a student, there is always a groan.

The truth is that the fundamental understanding and playing of scales is elementary to developing a student's knowledge of key, pitch, transposition, modulation, theme progression plus more.

J.S. Bach wrote an entire book called The Well Tempered Clavier, which has become a benchmark in the practical application of scales and the way in which pitch modulates. The book also highlights what is now known as the cycle of 5ths (or 4ths).

Tim is keen for students to understand the critical importance of the cycle of 5ths (or 4ths) pictured left.

Furthermore, whilst there is a plethora of scale variations, there are basically four types of scale derivations with which Tim is concerned. These are the Major, Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales.


The Cycle of 5ths (or 4ths) The Cycle of 5ths (or 4ths)

The cycle of 5ths represents the simplest known way to show the relationship between the major keys (using a descending pattern). Here are some simple rules:

  1. Start on middle C
  2. Play 5 notes descending (or decrement a major 5th), arriving at F (1 flat)
  3. Play a further 5 notes descending (or decrement a major 5th), arriving at Bb (2 flats)
  4. Play a further 5 notes descending (or decrement a major 5th), arriving at Eb (3 flats), and so on.

The cycle of 4ths represents the same way to show the relationship between the major keys, once again descending. Here are some simple rules:

  1. Start on middle C
  2. Play 4 notes descending (or decrement a major 4th), arriving at G (1 sharp)
  3. Play a further 4 notes descending (or decrement a major 4th), arriving at D (2 sharps)
  4. Play a further 4 notes descending (or decrement a major 4th), arriving at A (3 sharps), and so on.

Having played through the entire cycle several times, you will begin to notice an instant relationship between the major keys.


Major ScalesMajor Scales

Major scales (diatonic) are the basis on which western octotonic music is based, and may include up to 6 sharps or flats. Here are two simple rules:

  1. Start and end on the note of the scale (tonic). Eg. If you are playing the scale of C, then you would start and end the scale on C

  2. Major scales follow the pattern T T ST T T T ST (where T denotes a full tonal increment, and ST denotes a half or semi tonal increment)

Natural Minor ScalesNatural Minor Scales

Natural minor scales are the most basic of all minor scales, and whilst they are not commonly practiced, they help to underpin a basic understanding of just what a minor scale is, and how it may vary.

Natural Minor scales are always relative to a major scale. Here are some simple rules:

  1. Start and end on the note of the scale (tonic). Eg. If you are playing the scale of A natural minor, then you would start and end the scale on A

  2. The natural minor scale always starts on the 6th (submediant) of the major scale

  3. The natural minor scale always adopts the sharps and flats of it's relative major

  4. Natural Minor scales follow the pattern T ST T T ST T T (where T denotes a full tonal increment, and ST denotes a half or semi tonal increment)

  5. The ascending and descending natural minor scale is symmetrical

Harmonic Minor ScalesHarmonic Minor Scales

Harmonic minor scales are the more commonly practiced of the minor scales, and are always relative to a major scale. Here are some simple rules:

  1. Start and end on the note of the scale (tonic). Eg. If you are playing the scale of A minor, then you would start and end the scale on A

  2. The harmonic minor scale always starts on the 6th (submediant) of the major scale

  3. The harmonic minor scale always adopts the sharps and flats of it's relative major

  4. Harmonic Minor scales follow the pattern T ST T T ST T.5 ST (where T denotes a full tonal increment, T.5 denotes and augmented 3rd increment, and ST denotes a half or semi tonal increment)

  5. The 7th (leading note) is always sharpened in the ascent and descent

  6. The ascending and descending natural minor scale is symmetrical

How much Practice to Do?Melodic Minor Scales

Melodic minor scales are an earlier form of minor scale, that seem to have lost favor amongst musical purists around the late classical period. Their decrease in use (largely due to the awkward steps between the 6th & 7th scale degrees) made way for the adoption of the ubiquitous Harmonic Minor scale discussed above.

However, Melodic Minor scales are still widely practiced, because of their interesting 6th & 7th nuances. Much like their Harmonic Minor counterparts, Melodic minor and are always relative to a major scale. Here are some simple rules:

  1. Start and end on the note of the scale (tonic). Eg. If you are playing the scale of A minor, then you would start and end the scale on A

  2. The melodic minor scale always starts on the 6th (submediant) of the major scale

  3. The melodic minor scale always adopts the sharps and flats of it's relative major

  4. Melodic Minor scales follow the pattern:

    Ascending - T ST T T T T ST (where T denotes a full tonal increment, and ST denotes a half or semi tonal increment)

    Descending- T ST T T ST T T (where T denotes a full tonal increment, and ST denotes a half or semi tonal increment)

  5. The 6th (submediant) and 7th (leading note) are always sharpened in the ascent and flattened on the descent

  6. The ascending and descending melodic minor scale is asymmetrical (In other words, on the descent the 6th & 7th are sharpened, whilst on the descent the 6th & 7th are flattened). The descending melodic minor scale is is identical to the natural minor discussed above.
Basic Scale SummaryBasic Scale Summary
 
Major
Relative Minor
 
C
A

Major flat scales including relative harmonic and melodic minor scales

Flats
Major Flat (b)
Relative Minor
1
F
D
2
Bb
G
3
Eb
C
4
Ab
F
5
Db
Bb
6
Gb
Eb

Major sharp scales including relative harmonic and melodic minor scales

Sharps
Major Sharp (#)
Relative Minor
1
G
E
2
D
B
3
A
F#
4
E
C#
5
B
G#
6
F#
D#

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