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.
The C-Major scale is one of the first scales we learn because it doesn't contain any sharps or flats.
The C-Major scale is made of the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. If you were to play this scale on the piano, it would contain only white keys.
Since there are no sharps or flats in C-Major, it is considered to have a "pure" character. It conveys a sense of innocence and simplicity. One of the most famous symphonies in C Major is Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.
The D-Major scale contains two sharps in the key signature, F-sharp and C-sharp.
The D-Major scale is made up of the notes: D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B, C-sharp, and D.
The key of D is representative of triumph and victory. For this reason, many marches, religious, and holiday songs are written in D-Major. Brahms' Symphony No. 2 is in D-Major is an example of a composition using this key.
E-Major contains four sharps. The scale is comprised of: E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, and E.
The key of E-Major is a joyous key, even sometimes described as "joyous laughter." A symphony that uses the key of E-Major is Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7.
The key of F-Major has one flat, B-flat. It is made up of: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D, E, F.
The key of F-Major is described as complacent and calm. Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 5 in F-Major is written in a pastoral style, which explains why he chose this key for his composition.
The key of G-Major has just one sharp: F-sharp. It's comprised of the notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp, G.
The key of G-Major is rustic and idyllic. It evokes feelings of tenderness and friendship. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is a good example, as it is meant to depict a child's view of Heaven.
A-Major has three sharps (F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp). The scale is made up by: A, B, C-Sharp, D, E, F-Sharp, G-Sharp, A.
The key of A Major elicits feelings of innocent love and trust. Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 is in A-Major. Mendelssohn was inspired to compose this work by the beauty of Italy. He said "This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought... to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it."
B-Major has five sharps in the key signature. They are F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, and A-sharp. The scale is made up of: B, C-sharp, D-sharp, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B.
The key of B-Major is one of wild passion. It can represent emotions of intense love, anger, jealousy, and rage. It is one of the few major keys that symbolizes negative emotions. Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 is written in B-Major, which was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. It was an event that was seen as triumphant but also was an armed insurrection. This highlights the conflict between love and rage.
The next two scales, D-Flat Major and C-Sharp major are enharmonic equivalents.This means that while they look different, they will sound the same. C-sharp and D-flat are the same pitch. That said, some people have an easier time reading sharp or flats, and one of these keys might make more sense when looking at related keys or chord progressions.
The D-Flat Major scale has five flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, and G-flat. It is a key described as being moderate but capable of expressing a range of emotions. It can be happy, but not joyous, or it can be sad, but not in agonizing pain. A symphony composed in D-Flat is Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2.
Now that you know the D-Flat major scale, you also know the C-Sharp major scale. Go note by note through these two scales and you will see that they are the same, but expressed differently.
The C-Sharp major scale has seven sharps: F, C, G, D, A, E, B. So yes, every single note in this scale is sharp. Since this scale sounds, to the ear, the same as the D-Flat Major scale, it has similar musical character traits. That said, in compositions, these two keys might be approached differently, which will have a dramatic impact on the feelings they convey. Many more composers have written symphonies in C-sharp over D-flat. One famous example is Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
E-flat Major has three flats: B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat.
E-flat is the key of love and devotion and is made up of the notes: E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, D, and E-flat. A famous work in the key of E-flat is Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 "Eroica". This piece was originally dedicated to Napoleon, which speaks to the idea of admiration (love and devotion).
The G-Flat Major scale is another scale that is an enharmonic equivalent. G-flat can also be written as F-sharp.
G-Flat major has six flats, meaning every note in this scale is flat except for F. (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, C-flat, D-flat, E-flat).
Now that you know G-flat, you also know F-sharp. Go through slowly and you'll see that you use the same fingerings and the pitches are the same.
F-Sharp Major has six sharps: F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, and E-sharp.
The F-sharp major scale is made up of the notes: F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, and F-sharp. Its character is described as proclaiming triumph over difficulty (which is certainly true if you try to play through it). This key tells the story of a difficult struggle and ultimate triumph.
Since this is such an awkward key for many instruments to play, it is rarely used for symphonies. One of the more famous examples is Mahler's Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp. Interestingly, this was Mahler's last symphony and he was unable to complete it before his death. This work picks up right where Symphony No. 9 leaves off (starting with a theme from the previous work) and then works through difficult music filled with mixed meter and dissonance. Finally, it ends in triumph, illustrating the struggle but ultimately a successful end.
The key of A-Flat Major has four flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat.
The A-flat major scale is made up of the notes: A-flat, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat, F, G, and A-flat.
This key is a somber one, often associated with death and judgment. Edward Elgar wrote his first symphony in the key of A-flat, though he believed that music shouldn't have to tell a story, rather it can exist just to exist. That said, he described the opening theme (in A-flat Major) as "simple, noble, and elevating." Perhaps it was the somber and simple nature of A-flat that prompted him to use this key.
B-flat Major has two flats in the key signature: B-flat and E-flat.
The B-flat Major scale is made of the notes: B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, and B-flat. This key is described as cheerful and optimistic. A wonderful example of a work in B-flat Major is Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. It was written during World War II, which was a very hard time to be in Soviet Russia. He described the work as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit." This beautifully captures the optimism that this work was supposed to convey, making the key of B-flat very appropriate.
Scales are the building blocks of music. Learning scales will allow you to more quickly read notes within a key signature and to feel more comfortable playing these combinations of fingerings.
Here is a simple process for learning a new scale:
You've learned the basics of the scale, now it is time to get it in rhythm! A technique I recommend is the following: