Your First Scales
A scale is a bunch of notes you can use when writing a song. These notes are repeated along the keyboard, and most of the time, you will only use these notes when writing your tune. You just leave the rest out, or only use them on special occasions. A scale starts with a single note, called the key, and ends on the same note. So a scale in the key of G-sharp will start on G-sharp (the black note to the right of the white note “G”), and end on a G-sharp going through a nice selection of notes that go well with it.
The physical layout of the keyboard gives us two sizes of scale we can see instantly. The white notes have seven different tones eg A-B-C-D-E-F-G-(A), so we call this a heptatonic scale. “Hept” means seven. The black notes have only five different tones between them, for example F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, C-sharp, D-sharp (and finally back to F-sharp). There’s no B-sharp/C-flat or E-sharp/F-flat, so there’s only five different tones. We call this a pentatonic scale, as “pent” means five (as in a pentagon).
In modern western music, there are two main flavours of scale, major and minor. I’ll explain the difference fully in the next page, but for now all you have to know is that there’s major and minor. A piano-style keyboard therefore represents four kinds of scale. “Major heptatonic”, “minor heptatonic”, “major pentatonic”, and “minor pentatonic”. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it!
Mostly the heptatonic scales are the “default”, so if someone says, for instance “B minor” or “B major”, they’ll be talking about the heptatonic scales as represented by the white piano keys, rather than the pentatonic scales represented by the black keys.
The Major Scale
The major scale can be found on a piano by playing all the white notes from “C” to “C“. To get a feel for the major scale, play slowly up and down from “C” to “C”. Play another “C” lower down so you can hear how the scale harmonises. You have just played the “C major” scale. That’s all it is! You now know one scale. Think of “C major” as the piano’s favourite scale.
Try counting “one, two, three, four”, playing random white notes but returning to the “C” every time you hit “one”. Also, try playing some of the white notes together, to see what sounds good to you. Just doing this for a bit will give you the ability to write simple, short melodies, or you may even chance upon some tunes you know!
Just try to remember – The C major scale is all the white notes from C to C.
The Minor Scale
The next flavour of scale we’ll learn on the keyboard is the minor scale. This is found on a keyboard. It’s all the white notes, but this time from “A” to”A“. This is the “A minor” scale. Because it’s shifted, the black notes, or the spare notes, have a different pattern, giving the minor scale a different feel. Some people equate the minor scale with sadness and the major with happiness – but lots of sad major tunes exist, as do happy songs in minor scales, so they’re just kind of different in their own ways, I suppose.
Anyway, repeat the above exercises with the “A minor” scale. Play all the white notes from “A” to “A” slowly, up and down the scale. Play a bass note (lower down) of “A” while doing this to get a feel for the way they sound together. Count “one, two, three, four” or “one, two, three”, trying the bass note or returning to “A” for the “one” count. Just stick only to the “A minor” scale by playing only the white notes and starting and ending on an “A”.
Now try writing a simple melody in the key of “A minor”. Count the beats out loud, and maybe stick an extra note between the “three” and “four”, for example. Just play around, sticking to the beat, and playing only the white notes, and starting on and coming back to “A”.
The pentatonic scales have a couple of notes missing from them. Luckily, they’re the ones that are most difficult to use in music. The notes that are left are all good, strong notes so there’s no problems. In fact, a lot of folk music such as European, African, Chinese etc are all based around pentatonic scales.
We’ll start with the major pentatonic scale, which on a keyboard is found by playing all the black notes from F-sharp to F-sharp (G-flat). These notes therefore are the F-sharp major pentatonic scale. Play around with it in the same way as before, but you might find you get bored easily, so don’t be afraid to play fast. In fact, playing fast is a good way to get a feel for the pentatonic scales, so play a nice loud, low repeating F-sharp and jam along with it. It’s hard to go wrong. If it sounds like Irish folk or some old pirate song you’re doing it right!
The minor pentatonic scale is on the black notes too. Play all the black notes from D-sharp to D-sharp (E-flat) and back down again. You’ve just played the D-sharp minor pentatonic scale. Like the major pentatonic, this scale likes being played fast sometimes. Play a nice repetitive D-sharp bass and funk out! The minor pentatonic scale is a very popular scale for playing blues and jazz, so don’t be afraid to sing along with yourself and jam around. Again, it’s very hard to hit a wrong note, although you may find the minor pentatonic doesn’t resolve easily, so keep coming back to the D-sharp and counting the beats.
- The “C Major” scale is all the white notes from “C” to “C“.
- The “A Minor” scale is all the white notes from “A” to “A“.
- The “F-sharp Major Pentatonic” scale is all the black notes from “F-sharp” to “F-sharp” (“G-flat”)
- The “D-sharp Minor Pentatonic” scale is all the black notes from “D-sharp” to “D-sharp” (“E-flat”)
Try to play around on all four scales, but to avoid getting confused, play with only one scale at a time, and take a break (cup of tea?) between them. Write simple melodies and sing along with what you’re playing.
Playing, in the sense of “mucking around” rather than “performing” is a fundamental part of our learning process. So mess about with these scales, trying to make up your own tunes, or trying to play tunes you’ve heard before from memory. Try to write a really short piece like the logging-on-to-Windows tune in all four scales.
And have fun…