Why Scales Are Important if You Want to Learn Music
by: Nicolette Stevens
Every Journey Begins with a Single Step ..." ( Chinese Proverb )
There are reasons that learning scales has traditionally been a part of learning to make music. With any instrument, practicing them regularly will increase fluidity of motion and connection with the instrument. Being able to move through different scales with little effort makes it much easier to pick up musical material in any key and play it. Understanding the idea of keys and how they are built makes it easier to transpose music, and allows an artist a sense of useful structure when trying to compose music.
There are different types of scales. Many of them our ears naturally recognize because most of us have been listening to music all of our lives. It's around us in not only what we like to play when we're flipping around on the radio, as well as in all of the other music we have experienced—because our parent played it, because we heard it in church, head banged to it with teenage friends, danced to it in clubs. By the time we're old enough to play with the radio ourselves I think most of us are aware that some songs sound "happy" and others sound "sad". Each of those songs is based in a particular key and type of modality, even though we may not be aware of that or that it has a name when we are listening. Songs that scan as "happy" are usually major, others that sound "sad" or "wistful" are often one of the types of minor scales, and songs that seem to sound "kind of medieval" are usually written in one of the church modes.
Each type of scale is based on a particular pattern of half steps and whole steps.
This can be easily visualized or shown with a piano. From each piano key to the next black -or- white key is one half step. From any key skipping a tone to the next is one whole step.
When you can find "middle C ( which is a white key to the left of two black keys, roughly in the middle of a piano ) and know how to count in half and whole steps, you can learn a great deal about music in a short period of time. What at first may seem complex is actually elegantly simple.
Before we get into understanding scales and exactly how their patterns are built, we should know something about spelling and the musical alphabet. The only letter names used to name notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. There are certainly more individual tones than that which range in pitch from "lower" tones to "higher" ones, but they are all referenced with the above seven letters and are sometimes raised or lowered by one half step and called a "sharp" or a "flat".
If you are on a piano, the tones will all run in patterns that follow this alphabet circularly. For instance, if you play a c major scale it starts on "C" and the next higher tone is "D". If you play from one "C" to the next, you will "spell" the pattern C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Depending on what note you start on, and what type of patter you are playing, the spelling will start and end with different letters, but will always use those seven letters.
A minor, for instance is spelled:
A major, based on a different pattern, is spelled:
A-B-C sharp-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A.
Without considering the sharps and flats that may be used to create a particular type of sound, it can easily be noted that the alphabet is used in this way in every different key. For a beginner, it may be very useful to learn to say the alphabet in this new way.
Many beginning musicians find learning the scales to be a little challenging, but it becomes easy when you understand the basic concepts. It's worth spending the time to understand them and learn to play them well, as it makes learning to play music and creating your own much easier.