Theory for Idiots: What is a Scale?

Written by Rob in 'Music Theory'

Last time on ‘Theory for Idiots’ we asked: ‘What is a Chord?‘, and in that video, I explained that chords are made from scales.

So, that just begs the question: what is a scale?

What is a scale in music?

It may seem like a fairly obvious answer. A scale is just a sequence of notes, ordered from low to high, or high to low. But then how did we get to the specific scales that we use today? How do we know which scales to use to make up chords?

If you were to make up your own scale, does that count as a real scale, or is it just a jumble of notes? What makes it a scale?

If you’ve ever wondered any of these questions, read on!

Making a Scale

A scale- just like a chord- starts with a root note

…except we don’t call it a ‘root note’, it’s called the first degree. This is- just like with a chord- the note that gives it it’s letter name. So, an A major scale has a first degree of A etc.

You may hear this note called the ‘tonic‘ or ‘final’, but these are really only used for very specific scales. The notes in scales are called ‘degrees’, and this is the first one. Besides, if we called it a ‘root’, it would get pretty confusing when talking about scales and chords together…

Then, we add a series of intervals to this first degree. This is just the music theory way of saying that we add notes that are different distances from this first note.

Pro Tip: the distance between two notes in music is called an ‘interval’. On the guitar, we can visualise these as fret distances along one string.

If you were to play the two notes on just one string, how far apart would they be? That’s the interval between the notes (each fret is half a tone).

the degrees of the A major scale

The intervals that we use determines what scale we’re playing. Scales can have any number of degrees, from 1 or 2 note prehistoric scales, to 5 note pentatonics, to the 7 note major scale!

How We got to the Scales We use Today

So, a quick history lesson- I’ll make this quick…

In a time, long long ago, before music theory, scales contained very few notes. You have to start somewhere, and it makes sense that the very first scales only had one or two notes. Sadly, I don’t know any off the top of my head, you’ll have to use your imagination (for some reason, Cavemen didn’t leave us any of their Mp3s behind…).

Then, in various places all over the world, the pentatonic scales appeared. We don’t know exactly when this was, but now the pentatonic scale is used in folk music from all over the world.

By medieval times, Europeans were using ‘heptatonic’ scales. These were 7 note scales, just as ‘penta’ from ‘pentatonic’ means five, ‘hepta’ means seven.

They weren’t quite the same as the ‘modes’ we think of today. For a start, there were only four of them, but they counted each mode twice. If you were to ask them, they would tell you that they had 8 modes (pictured below).

the eight musical modes used in the middle ages

This is why anyone who tries to tell you that the modes were only a medieval thing, is just wrong. They had their modes, and we have ours today. They are related, but not exactly the same.

Heinrich Glarean

Then, in 1547 (in a great example of how music theory can help creativity) a Swiss music theorist, Heinrich Glarean invented (or discovered) two extra modes (which he counted as four…). One of these modes grew up to be the major scale that we know today.

So, this should answer the question from earlier. Can you ‘invent’ a scale? Yes, you can! In fact, it might go on to become one of the most used and most famous scales ever!

There are a few differences between the original Ionian mode and the major scale of today. The mode wouldn’t have had any chords associated with it, and didn’t repeat at the octave- that would all come later. This was pretty much how the scale that we now call the major scale was invented.

Also, if anyone tries to tell you that ‘modes are not scales’, you can link them to this post!

If you really want to get into playing lead guitar, my new book ‘Awesome Lead Guitar’ is out now. In it you’ll learn the most common scales and techniques that lead guitarists use with full scale diagrams and tabs!

Then, you can practise along with the 17 included full solo examples and backing tracks! Click here now for more.

learn to play lead guitar now!

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