A Comprehensive Introduction to Piano Scales
Whether you’re sitting down at a piano bench for the first time or you can play Mozart with the best of them, all pianists agree on the importance of centrality of piano scales.
Whether you’re playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Etude No. 36 in G sharp minor” every piano piece will include scales in some form.
That’s why we’re breaking down everything you need to know about piano scales, how to play them, and how to use them in your music.
What are the Piano Scales?
First, let’s start with the basics: what are the piano scales ?
In the simplest of terms, scales are a group of notes that have a musical reason to be grouped together. Essentially, they’re a technique for the pianist to orient themselves among the notes they see on the page.
Notes on a scale may also belong in the same key. While this definition also holds true for piano chords, there’s one major difference: scales usually contain more notes than chords, and they’re usually not played simultaneously.
There are several different types of scales, from the Arabic scale to the Hirajoshi (a Japanese pentatonic scale).
However, the most common scales you’ll encounter are major scales and minor scales, which are both a type of diatonic scale.
The Major and Minor Scales
Major scales are vital to your understanding of keys. They’re also an extremely common type of scale.
Major scales and minor scales are distinguished, among other things, by their relative character. The major scales tend to sound upbeat and happy, while minor scales sound more somber and melancholy.
In addition, they have two essential structural differences:
- The location of the scale’s intervals
- The position of the 3rd and 6th notes
As we noted earlier, major and minor scales are types of diatonic scales. That’s important because diatonic scales are composed of five whole step and two half-step intervals.
As such, major and minor scales are constructed as follows:
- Major: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half
- Minor: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole
Once you know this about major and minor scales, it’s easier to spot their patterns:
- C major: C whole, D whole, E half, F whole, G whole, A whole, B half, C
- A minor: A whole, B half, C whole, D whole, E half, F whole, G whole, A
You’ve probably noticed that the half notes are always separated by at least two whole notes–this is characteristic of diatonic scales.
The difference between a major and minor scales lies in which notes these half-steps affect. In major scales, the half step is always after the 3rd and 7th notes, while in the minor scales, the half step is always after the 2nd and 5th notes.
If you’re not sure whether a scale is major or minor, check the 3rd note.
There are three types of minor scale: natural, harmonic, and melodic.
Natural scales are often referred to simply as the minor scales.
In fact, it’s easiest to think of them as the place where the harmonic and melodic scales start.
That said, it can be confusing because it’s very similar to the major scale.
The harmonic scale is the first step away from the natural scale. Luckily, it’s easy to tell whether a scale is harmonic because it always has a sharpened 7th note.
Finally, there’s the melodic scale.
In the melodic scale, the 6th and 7th notes are raised a semi-step.
That said, it can be confusing because melodic scales are sometimes played differently depending on whether you’re ascending or descending.
In classical music, if you play the scale ascending, you’re using a melodic minor, but if you play it descending, you’re using a natural minor. So, a melodic scale in A:
- Ascending: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A
- Descending: A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A
Jazz makes things easier–the 6th and 7th notes are always raised.
Scale Formula, Scale Degrees, Key Signatures
Now, with all of this in mind, let’s talk about scale formulas, which will help you understand the major and minor scales on the keyboard.
We mentioned earlier that major and minor scales follow a specific pattern of whole and half steps. What do we mean by that?
It’s simple: the distance between notes. Whole steps always skip a key, while half steps simply go to the next key. So, for example, a whole step would take you from C to D, while a half step would take you from C to C sharp.
Keep in mind, though, that half steps also cover the distance between E and F, or B and C. It’s easy to figure this out when you look at your keyboard: there is no key between E and F or B and C.
With this in mind, if you know the major scale or minor scale formula, you can play it from any note in the scale.
There are 12 major scales: four with sharps, four with flats, three with sharps or flats, and one with no sharps or flats.
In Circle of Fifths order, the major scales are:
- C major scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
- G: G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G
- D: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D
- A: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A
- E: E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E
- B: B – C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A# – B
- F#: F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D# – E# (=F) – F#
- Gb: Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb (=B) – Db – Eb – F – Gb
- Db: Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db
- C#: C# – D# – E# (=F) – F# – G# – A# – B# (=C) – C#
- Ab: Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab
- Eb: Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb
- Bb: Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb
- F: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F
With that in mind, let’s talk about scale degrees and key signatures.
Scale degrees are simply the pitch of a note within a given scale . For the major scales, the scale degrees are:
- 1st – Tonic- keynote
- 2nd – Supertonic
- 3rd – Mediant
- 4th – Subdominant
- 5th – Dominant
- 6th – Submediant
- 7th – Leading tone
- 8th – Tonic ( or Octave)
This leads you to key signatures, which are another notation.
Key signatures are simpler than they sound. Key signatures are just symbols that tell you whether to play a note a half-step higher or lower–sharps and flats.
We mentioned earlier that the 12 major scales are defined by the presence of sharps and flats. In the same order, here are their key signatures:
- C major has no sharps or flats.
- G major has 1 sharp.
- D major has 2 sharps.
- A major has 3 sharps.
- E major has 4 sharps.
- B major has 5 sharps.
- F# major has 6 sharps. Gb major has 6 flats.
- Db major has 5 flats. C# major has 7 sharps.
- Ab major has 4 flats.
- Eb major has 3 flats.
- Bb major has 2 flats.
- F major has 1 flat.
It might seem complicated now, but once you practice, you’ll realize that the scales are actually an easy way to figure out where you are in a piece.
Expanding Your Piano Knowledge
You’ll see the scales in every single piece of music you perform, regardless of relative complexity. Once you learn the piano scales, you’ll have a built-in roadmap to understanding any sheet music set in front of you.
If you need more tools and tricks to understand the piano, check out our blog for more advice.
To learn more about the major scales please refer below: