What is the scale of a song and why is it important?

One time I was singing a song I had made up, and I asked a friend for an honest appraisal. She told me it sounded out of tune. I was gobsmacked. ‘But I made up the tune,’ I said, ’so how can you know that what I am singing is not part of the tune?’ She explained that in conventional music, people expect each note to increase or decrease by a certain amount, and when it increases by, say, less than that amount, it is unexpected and sounds ‘wrong’ or ‘flat.’

I realised that unlike with paint, where you are free to mix any shade you want, when you are starting out in music you are expected to draw from pre-defined palettes of specific notes.

Use a limited palette of notes

Only certain groups of notes can be used together for hearing people to say it sounds ‘right’ or ‘in tune’. Imagine doing a painting and only being allowed to choose from a limited palette of colours:

See how certain combinations of colours can affect the mood of the painting? It is the same with music. Selecting specific groups of notes influences the mood of your music. When I did the above paintings, I made up my own colour combinations. In music, musicians have worked out specific combinations of notes that are considered especially pleasing together, and we are expected to use those combinations, rather than making up our own. These pre-defined groups of notes are called ’scales’.

Imagine that each note on the piano represents a specific colour that you are allowed to use in your music, and that when you create a song, you are to choose only from these notes:

The diagram above shows the notes from a palette that in music is called the C Major Scale. I have only coloured in the notes from a single octave but when you create music in the C Major Scale you can use the notes in any octave. The important thing to know is not to use the black piano notes, as they are not included in the group.

Here’s a different palette of notes, called the A Major Scale:

If you were to write music using the A Major Scale, you can use not only the notes coloured in, in the diagram above, but also the same notes in any octave.

Musicians talk about notes as being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the scale – inside are the safe notes, the notes that are a part of pre-defined palette. Notes from outside the scale are still sometimes chosen by skilled musicians, to create tension or specific effects. Using notes from outside takes skill because it makes sounds that are more complex or strange – people might not like it. It’s a bit like cooking a dish that’s really spicy.

Scales are a collection of notes in a given ‘key’. The name of the scale and the name of the key are the same. So the key of C major uses the notes from the C major scale.

Normally a song is in a single key, but sometimes a musician changes the key in the middle of the song. You can think of this as if an artist has used one palette of colours for the left side of a painting, and a different palette of colours for the right side of a painting. Some music doesn’t have a key at all, and this is called ‘atonal.’ Like abstract art, some hearing people might like it, but most people will think it sounds weird or experimental because they’re not used to hearing that sort of thing. However, these ideas are beyond the scope of this course.

From now on, I will assume that when we write our own songs, we will stick to notes within the scale, using only the safe ‘inside’ notes.

Learn what scales are available

Musicians have created several scales (groups of notes) that are considered pleasing when played together. If you download the scale reference, you can see a list of scales along with which notes are in each scale:

What’s the difference between a major and a minor scale?

As you will see from the list above, scales are grouped into two categories, major and minor. Hearing people feel that major scales are suited to bright happy songs, while minor scales are best for songs that are more emotional, sad and full of longing.

Finding the scale on a score

Remember in the lesson about understanding a score, we looked briefly at key signatures? A key is simply the name for a specific group of notes – also known as the name of the scale. The key signature refers to how the key is written on the score. The key signature is circled in red in the following image, and represents a key named F major:

Before you write a song, whether it is a cover or an original, you need to know what key it’s in. When people make a cover of a song, sometimes they change the key. Thus if you search online to find out what key a certain song is in, you might get multiple answers.

Meet the C Major Scale

The C major scale consists of the following notes: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.

If you were to play the C major scale on a piano keyboard, you would play only white keys:

C major scale.

Therefore, if you write a song in C major, you know to use only white notes and no black notes.

The notes of a scale are often referred to by the number that represents the position on the scale. 1 represents the first note of the scale, and is also called the ’tonic’. For the C major scale, 1 represents C, 2 represents D, 3 represents E and so on. 

Scales with sharps and flats

Some scales have sharps and flats. For example, the D major scale:

D major scale: D – E – F♯ – G – A – B – C♯ – D

You will see that the scale of D major contains F# (F-sharp). This means that instead of playing F on the piano, you play the black note just to the right of F (or just above it, in GarageBand). You also play the black note just to the right of (above) C instead of playing a C.

The sharp causes the note to be one semi-tone higher. A semi-tone is the distance from one piano key to its closest neighbour – sometimes this is a black key, sometimes a white key.

In the D major scale, when I refer to the position of the notes, 1 represents D, 2 represents E, 3 represents F# and so on, until we arrive at 8, which will be D again.

D minor scale: D – E – F – G – A – B♭ – C – D

You will see that the scale of D minor contains B♭ (B-flat). This means that instead of playing B on the piano, you play the black note just to the left of B. The flat causes the note to be one semi-tone lower. If I was to ask you to play 1, 3 and 5 of the D minor scale, you would play D, F and A.

Using scales to adapt music to suit your specific hearing

Sometimes it is useful to change the key of a song, in order to make sure it suits your range of hearing.

For example, if a song contains notes that are too high to hear comfortably (as in the image below), then you could try moving everything down an octave. When you move everything down an octave, the scale remains the same, as the song will still consist of notes only from the scale – they will just be an octave lower.

The diagram below shows the notes of Happy Birthday, compared to my preferred range of hearing. As you can see, the range of notes in the song includes notes that are too high for me to hear comfortably.

If I move the song down a whole octave, then it contains notes that are too low for me to hear comfortably.

What should I do to ensure all the notes of the song are within my preferred range? I can change the key of the song to use a group of notes that do fit within my preferred range:

See how if I select the right key for the song, every note can fall within my preferred range of hearing.

If I simply move all the notes down, it may be that some of the notes no longer fit within a particular scale. That means that hearing people will say it doesn’t sound good. So when we move the notes down, we need to choose a key, and then adjust the notes to make sure every note fits the key.

Changing the key of a song is called ‘transposing.’ I’ll show you how to do this a bit later.

Continue to next lesson – creating a melody in GarageBand.

Back to course page.

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