Music Composition 2: Secrets of the Musical Scales

by Gary Guttman

There is probably no greater drudgery to the budding musician than learning and practicing scales. This is not a glamorous activity by any means. But for the composer, learning the musical scales is an absolute necessity.

All melodies and harmonies originate from scales. To the advanced musician, that statement might sound incorrect. After all, melodies and harmonies come in all shapes and styles. How can they all be pigeonholed to a specific scale? Well for one thing, the chromatic scale contains every musical note. Therefore, even the most obscure sounding melody and harmony can be linked to that specific scale.

So what exactly is a scale? A scale is simply the structure in which we organize notes. The specific type of scale is determined by the interval relationships (or distance) between the individual notes. The slightest adjustment of a note can change a happy sounding scale into a sad one. For example, a happy sounding major scale can be converted into a sad sounding minor scale simply by changing one note.

Specific scales evoke specific emotions. Besides the happy sounding major scale and the sad sounding minor scale, there is the whole tone scale. This scale can create a sense of mystery. The diminished scale can also be used to suggest mystery, as well as to lend the music an exotic touch. The pentatonic scale has a light, clean feel. It is commonly found in world music of many cultures. And the lydian scale can bring a sense of wonder to any musical moment.

But mastering the musical scales is just the first step. The next step is the fun part: learning how to use scales in a composition. Take the pentatonic scale, for instance. There are countless opportunities for composers to utilize this unique, five ­note scale. The pentatonic scale is often a composer’s first choice when a delicate mood is required. This example demonstrates a common usage of this scale.

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Now here comes the really cool part. This identical scale is also perfectly suited for rock music as well, as you will hear in this next example.

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Believe it or not, both examples use the exact same notes from the exact same scale. Only the order and rhythm of the notes have been changed. And then we chose appropriate instruments to best bring that particular musical example to life.

You can learn all about the musical scales and much more in our new Secret Composer software. Hear what each scale sounds like and discover how best to use each scale for your compositions. You’ll be amazed at how a simple scale can color the mood of your music. Composing becomes simpler once you have the right tools at your disposal.

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