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Musical Scales Weighed Up

Our familiar Major scale derives from the Ionian mode which was the original Greek form of the scale (scale comes from the Italian word Scala meaning a ladder).

In major scales the semi-tones (half-tones or half-steps) fall between the 3rd and 4th degrees and the 7th and 8th (marked on the illustration with brackets.

C major has no sharps or flats in the key signature as does its ‘relative’ A minor – The minor scale is actually derived from the Aeolian and Dorian forms.

  • Now just using the notes of the C major scale if we start on C we would have the Ionian mode
  • If we began on D (C major scale) we have the Dorian Mode
  • beginning on E we have the Phrygian mode
  • moving from F we get the Lydian mode
  • from the note G begins the Mixolydian mode
  • starting at A we have the Aeolian mode
  • and finally from B we have the Locrian mode

Each mode has its own character; for example, the Iolian is the same as a regular major scale and the Aeolian is identical to the ‘natural’ minor scale, (the minor scale without added accidentals).

The Phrygian mode is evocative the music of Spain. The Lydian mode sounds quite jolly and optimistic and is used in jazz, music theatre and other contemporary forms. The Mixolydian mode is commonly heard in jazz and blues – as is the Dorian which is similar to the minor scale. The strange sounding Locrian mode is rarely used.

I could never find a good way of remembering the correct order for exams, the nearest (which worked for me) was IRON DOOR FRIDGE LIDS MIXES ALIEN LOCKS – it’s just slightly easier to remember!

Other scales such as the ‘chromatic’ includes all the notes of western scales or every piano note (black and white).

Pentatonic scales have only five notes (e.g. C-D-E-G-A or the ‘bluesy’ sounding A-C-D-E-G) but have been used extensively throughout the centuries and all over the world. (major and minor scales are ‘heptatonic’ having 7 notes)

Blues scales can be (minor|) pentatonic but more often with added chromatic notes to taste (e.g. C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb-C) The ‘blue-notes’ (sounding like sharps and flats) were often obtained by bending the strings on a guitar. The pianist would ‘slide’ off a black note onto white to achieve a similar effect.

Whole tone scales (or whole-step) have no semitone (half-step) intervals and sound other-worldy and indistinct (C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C). Although known by earlier composers such as Bach and Mozart much greater experimentation took place during the early 20th Century period and also later by modern jazz musicians.

There yuh go… scales are not just for the bathroom.

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