What are Scales?

There are three things I want you to know by the end of this article:

  1. Why scales are important
  2. What a scale is
  3. There are several kinds of scales

Why should I learn scales?

Music is made up of a bunch of patterns. Most of these patterns involve a scale in some way or another. Learning your scales is like learning the alphabet – if you can’t recognize the letters, you won’t be able to read. So, pattern recognition is one reason.

A second, equally important reason is to start building dexterity in your hands and fingers. Once you’ve played a C Major scale a hundred times in your right hand, then when it shows up in a piece of music, you’ll be able to execute it easily. And it will show up in music, again and again and again.

A third reason is to start building your ear. Once you know the sound of a major scale, you can hear it in a song. And if you can hear it, you can play it!

Ok, got it. So what’s a scale?

A scale in music is just a set of notes played in order. There are a bunch of different kinds of scales, but in this article we’re going to cover these five types (click on each one to jump to that section):

The first kind of scale is called a major scale, and it has seven notes.

Major Scales

On piano, we usually start you with the C major scale. This is because there are no black notes, so it’s the easiest one to see.

C Major Scale

Play all the white notes from C to C, one at a time, in order – that’s the C Major scale.

(The picture above only goes C D E F G A B, but usually with a scale you’ll end on the same note you started with. C D E F G A B C.)

It’s the “C” scale because it starts and ends on C.

Here’s an example of the G major scale:

G Major Scale

Now, this one is not all white notes. There’s one black note at the end. (We’ll call that note F sharp.)

How come it’s not all white keys like C Major?

Well, it’s called the “major” scale because it follows a specific pattern of half steps and whole steps, and as you’ll see, when we follow this code starting from G, we end up with the F# (F sharp) at the end.

Now, I’m about to show you the code for a major scale, but I don’t want you to get too hung up on this code. There are only twelve major scales; the way you really learn the scales is by playing them. A lot.

T = Tonic (the note you start from)

W = Whole Step

H = Half Step

There are 12 notes in music. You can build a major scale from each note. Using the code, here are all 12 major scales. Don’t stare at this too long or your eyes might go cross-eyed! =) It’s just for a beginning reference:

Some facts about the patterns of major scales:

  1. We’re going in order of 5ths, starting with C.
    • What’s the 5th note in the C scale? G. So the next scale is G.
    • This order is called the “circle of 5ths”. Here’s an article from Wikipedia for demonstration. Warning: this is a rabbit hole, and might be well beyond what you need to study right now. If it seems overwhelming, just trust me on the order and we’ll come back to it later.
    • We go in this order for a bunch of reasons which will become clear to you later on.
  2. If we go in the order of 5ths, then:
    • Each new scale adds one sharp, until we get to Gb (with 6 flats), and then we reduce the number of flats until we are back to 0.
      • (C has 0 sharps. G has 1 sharp. D has 2 sharps. etc.)
    • The first four notes of the new scale are the same as the last four notes of the last scale.
      • (C major ends with GABC. G major begins with GABC.)
      • These four notes are called a “tetrachord”, which is a fancy word which means 4 notes in order. So, CDEF is a tetrachord. GABC is a tetrachord. If you put those two groups together, you have CDEFGABC, which is the C major scale.

At the bottom of this page, you can find pictures of all 12 Major Scales, in the order of the circle of 5ths. Click here to jump to that section.

Other Kinds of Scales

The C Major scale above was called C because it started and ended with C, and Major because it followed a specific pattern (T W W H W W W H).

There are other kinds of scales, and I’m going to talk about four of them here:

  • Minor
  • Major Pentatonic
  • Minor Pentatonic
  • Blues

Note: If you’re talking about a major scale, you don’t have to specify major. You can say “the scale of C” and we will know you mean C Major. BUT, if you mean any other kind of scale, you have to specify it. “C Minor”, “C Blues”, etc.

Major Pentatonic

You can just call this the Pentatonic scale. There is such a thing as the Minor Pentatonic scale though, so I wanted to differentiate it here by calling it specifically “Major Pentatonic”.

The Pentatonic scale is probably the single most useful scale you’ll ever learn. Here’s a great video from Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the power of it:

“Penta” means 5, and “tonic” means tone. So, it’s a scale made up of 5 tones. But it’s not just any 5 tones, there’s a specific pattern. Now, outside of learning the code for a major scale, I never learned codes for scales. Every other scale I learned was based on my knowledge of the major scales. But, I’ll share the code for a Pentatonic scale here:

T W W 3H W

Meaning: Tonic, whole step, whole step, 3 half steps, whole step.

If you’ve already learned your major scales, then you can shortcut this by saying, a Pentatonic scale is the major scale without the 4th and 7th notes. So, C Pentatonic would look like this:

C Major Pentatonic

The easiest Pentatonic scale to see is one set of three black notes and one set of two black notes. You’d call this one the F-sharp or G-flat Pentatonic scale:

F# / Gb Major Pentatonic

Click here to jump to the pictures of all 12 Major Pentatonic scales.

Minor Pentatonic

As before, I’ll share the code for a minor pentatonic scale, but don’t get hung up on using the code. It’s easy to understand minor pentatonic scales once you’ve learned the major pentatonic scales.

T 3H W W 3H

For example, here’s the A Minor Pentatonic scale:

A Minor Pentatonic

Now, compare this to the C Major Pentatonic scale (scroll up a bit for the pic), and you’ll find that all we did was take the same notes in C Major, but we moved the last note down an octave, so we’re playing the A first. This is now the A minor pentatonic scale.

C Major and A Minor use the same notes but in a different order. We use the word “relative” to describe this relationship. For instance, A Minor is the relative minor of C Major.

So, if you don’t know the major pentatonics and how they relate to the minor pentatonics, you can use the code above – Tonic, 3 half steps, whole, whole, 3 half steps.

If you DO know the major pentatonics, but not how they relate to the minor pentatonics, then follow these steps:

  1. Pick your starting note (tonic)
  2. Count up 3 half steps. (If A was your tonic, go up 3 half steps to land on C.)
  3. Play the major pentatonic scale of the note you landed on. (C Pentatonic – notes C D E G A)
  4. Take the last note of this scale and add it before the scale. So you’d now have A C D E G A.
  5. Voila! That’s the A minor pentatonic scale (or whatever note you chose.)

Click here to see pics of all minor pentatonic scales.

Blues Scales

When I was younger and just starting out on piano, I thought you had to be born knowing how to play jazz or blues. It wasn’t until I had been playing for three or four years that somebody introduced me to the concept of the blues scale. I was both mad and delighted. If it was in the form of a scale, I could understand it! Why hadn’t anybody told me this before!?

Once you know the minor pentatonic, the blues scale is super easy. All you do is add a note between the fourth and fifth notes in the scale.

Now, we have to define the fourth and fifth note in the scale. If you look at the picture of the A minor pentatonic scale a little further up on this page, you’ll see five notes highlighted: A, C, D, E, G. When we’re counting these notes as degrees of the scale, we have to consider the notes that we skipped.

So, even though D is the third note that’s highlighted in this picture, it’s the 4th degree of the scale, because you have to count four letters from A to D: A, B, C, D. Therefore, D is the fourth note in the scale, and E is the fifth note in the scale.

There’s only one note that exists between D and E, and it’s Eb (E flat). So, the A Blues Scale would look like this:

A Blues Scale

And when you play this scale, you’ll hear that it already sounds like the blues!

As before, I’ll give you the code, in case it helps:

T 3H W H H 3H

Click here to see pics of all 12 blues scales.

Minor Scales

Last, but certainly not least: minor scales. What’s the difference between “minor” and “minor pentatonic”?

Well, just as major scales have 7 notes and major pentatonic scales have 5 notes, the same is true for minor scales and minor pentatonic scales.

As with the other scales, I’ll give you the code – but there’s a better way once you know the major scales. But just in case, here’s the code:


Now, if you know your major scale – let’s take A Major for example:

A Major Scale

Flat the 3rd, 6th, and 7 the notes, and you have A Minor. In other words, C# becomes C natural (C), F# becomes F natural (F), and G# becomes G natural (G♮). In the case of A Major, it happens to be that the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes are all black notes, so when you flat them, what you’re left with is all white notes:

A Minor Scale

Let’s look at the example of D Major:

D Major Scale

What are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes in this scale? F#, B, C#

And if you flat each of those notes, they become what? F (F natural), Bb, C

So you’re left with D minor:

D Minor Scale

Relationships of Major Scales to Minor Scales (an overview)

Ok. Buckle up, this is gonna get a little heady.

Earlier, I introduced you to the A minor scale. It had all white notes, remember? (Scroll up a bit if not.)

Now, you’ve seen another scale with all white notes. C Major.

So, if C Major has the same notes as A Minor, why do we use both? Why not one or the other?

The answer is, because the order of the keys matters. It makes a different sound to play from C to C (a major sound) than it does from A to A (a minor sound.)

Imagine the scale is a story, and the characters are C D E F G A B. “C” is the main character, the anchor in the plot, the gravity that draws us all together. But if you rearrange them, A B C D E F G – now “A” is the main character.

Imagine the story of Harry Potter as told from the point of view of Lord Voldemort. Same characters – very different story. This is why we differentiate major vs minor.

It’s going to be useful for you to understand two kinds of relationships of minor to major. What we learned earlier – where you flat the 3, 6, and 7 – that’s how to find the “parallel minor”. This is a fancy term that just means that the minor scale starts and ends on the same notes as the major scale.

So, A minor and A major are parallel to each other – because they start and end on the same notes, but the notes in the middle are different.

The other kind of relationship — and the more important one in my opinion — is called relative. Any minor scale is relative to the major scale that has all the same notes. For instance, “A Minor” and “C Major” share the same notes – C D E F G A B, but in a different order. A B C D E F G.

So, A minor is relative to C major.

As you’re just learning about all the kinds of scales there are right now, don’t worry too much about this — just be aware that this concept of relationships exists, and you’ll explore it more later on.

Click here to see pics of all minor scales.

Pics of All Major Scales, in order of 5ths

C Major Scale

G Major Scale

D Major Scale

A Major Scale

E Major Scale

B / Cb Major Scale

F# / Gb Major Scale

C# / Db Major Scale

Ab Major Scale

Eb Major Scale

Bb Major Scale

F Major Scale

Pics of All Major Pentatonic Scales, in order of 5ths

C Major Pentatonic

G Major Pentatonic

D Major Pentatonic

A Major Pentatonic

E Major Pentatonic

B / Cb Major Pentatonic

F# / Gb Major Pentatonic

C# / Db Major Pentatonic

Ab Major Pentatonic

Eb Major Pentatonic

Bb Major Pentatonic

F Major Pentatonic

Pics of All Minor Pentatonic Scales, in order of 5ths

C Minor Pentatonic

G Minor Pentatonic

D Minor Pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

E Minor Pentatonic

B / Cb Minor Pentatonic

F# / Gb Minor Pentatonic

C# / Db Minor Pentatonic

Ab Minor Pentatonic

Eb Minor Pentatonic

Bb Minor Pentatonic

F Minor Pentatonic

Pics of All 12 Blues Scales, in order of 5ths

C Blues Scale

G Blues Scale

D Blues Scale

A Blues Scale

E Blues Scale

B / Cb Blues Scale

F# Blues Scale

C# / Db Blues Scale

Ab Blues Scale

Eb Blues Scale

Bb Blues Scale

F Blues Scale

Pics of All Minor Scales in order of 5ths

C Minor Scale

G Minor Scale

D Minor Scale

A Minor Scale

E Minor Scale

B / Cb Minor Scale

F# / Gb Minor Scale

C# / Db Minor Scale

Ab Minor Scale

Eb Minor Scale

Bb Minor Scale

F Minor Scale