Major vs Minor Scales

    What are the differences between Major and minor scales? What are the different types of minor scales? Everything you need to know.

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    What Are Scales

    Scales are collections of the eight notes that make up a key. If you were to use just those notes, you could make melodies and harmonies that would sound good together. For you history buffs, or if you just want to rock on trivia night, then remember that the word scale comes from the Latin word "Scala," which means ladder. If you look at a scale, it looks like a ladder where each rung is a note that fits in the key signature.

    When reading scales, you'll notice that the key is set in the key signature, not by accidentals on each note.

    Each key also has character traits. Some seem angry and could be used when writing pieces about war, others sad, and some joyous.

    Major Scales

    Every key signature can be called by two different names: A Major and a minor key. What makes a scale a Major scale is the intervals between notes. The first note of the scale is always the same as the note the key signature is named after. As an example, the F major scale will always begin on the note F.

    Let us look at a sample scale. If we look at the key signature, we see that there are no sharps and no flats. Looking at our table we know that this must be the C-Major scale. It begins on C.


    The distance between notes is called intervals. Major scales are sound the way they do because of the pattern of intervals. Major scales are made up of whole steps (or Major seconds) and half steps (minor seconds). A Major scale has all whole steps and two half steps; one between the 3rd and 4th note and one between the 7th and 8th note (when discussing scales, it is more common to say "degree" instead of "note"). I have written the interval between each step of the major scale. They will always follow this pattern no matter what key they are in. There are twelve Major scales, one for each key. Some of you might go back to the chart and see that there are 13 different keys, so why are there only 12 Major scales? Remember that notes can sound the same but be written in different ways; a B-flat is the same as an A-sharp. The scale with six flats (G-flat Major) and the scale with six sharps (F-sharp Major) are the same scale!

    Minor Scales

    Like Major scales, minor scales sound the way they do because of the intervals between scale degrees. However, unlike Major scales, there are three different minor scales for each key signature. Each with slightly different intervals. Let us continue with our examples of having no sharp or flats in the key. This time, instead of C-Major, our key signature is a-minor.

    Natural minor scale


    Just like with Major scales, we see that the minor scale starts on the note named in the key signature. A-minor begins on A. If you were to play through this scale, it would sound distinctly different from the Major scale, and that is because the intervals between each note are different. In the natural minor scale, the half steps occur between the second and third degree and the fifth and sixth degree.

    Harmonic Minor scale


    The harmonic minor scale begins the same, but you will see that there is an accidental in this scale; there is a sharp sign on the seventh degree. Raising the seventh degree by a half step changes the intervals between it and its neighbors. There are now three half steps. One between the second and third degree, the fifth and sixth degree, and the seventh and eighth degree.

    Melodic Minor scale


    In the melodic minor scale, the 6th and 7th scale degrees are both raised a half step. Like we saw with the harmonic minor, this changes the intervals. There are half steps between the second and third degree, and the seventh and eighth scale degree. The melodic minor scale has something else that makes it different; these changes only apply on the way up the scale. When you descend, you play the natural minor scale.