A scale, originating in the Latin word scala (“ladder”), is a repeating, systematic, successive arrangement of notes that creates the foundation for a pitch system.* Since there are many ways to arrange pitches in some kind of systematic succession, there are many different types of scales. As such, the term “scale” is applied broadly, and the term often comes with additional specification. Thus musicians usually speak of major scales, minor scales, whole-tone scales, and the chromatic scale, to name a few.
Although a scale can be deployed musically in the context of a particular melody (think of “Do-Re-Mi” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music), scales are largely abstract musical entities that provide the basic pitch material for composition or songwriting.
Scales are most commonly conceived as an arrangement of half steps and whole steps into a repeating pattern. For example, the major scale consists of the following intervallic pattern before it repeats (where W = whole step and H = half step): WWHWWWH.
C major scale. Hear Audio File
The natural minor scale consists of a different arrangement of whole steps and half steps: WHWWHWW. It is this different arrangement that accounts for its difference in sound from the major scale.
C natural minor scale. Hear Audio File
The topmost note of a scale is the same note as the starting (i.e. lowest) note of the scale, but an octave higher (that is, they are designated by the same letter name, [let’s say C]). The pattern of whole steps and half steps between these pitches an octave apart can be repeated on both sides of the original octave to create longer scales of two or more octaves. Like the twelve-o’clock position on a clock, this beginning-and-ending note—called the “tonic”—serves as the scale’s conceptual center around which the other notes are organized.
In the two scales shown above, the half steps and whole steps are unequal in number and they are unevenly distributed. This lopsidedness is an important feature of these scales because it allows listeners to orient themselves toward the tonic. Scales such as these are by far the most common in Western music (including popular music). There are, however, some scales that do not contain this unevenness. The most common are the whole-tone scale, which contains only whole steps, and the chromatic scale, which contains only half steps.
Whole-Tone Scale. Hear Audio File
Chromatic Scale. Hear Audio File
References to other Glossary terms:
* “La Scala” is a wonderful name for an opera house, but the name of Milan’s theater refers to the Italian word for staircase (“scala”) and specifically that of a church that once existed on the site of this theater.