You’ve probably heard the term Key when referring to a song. In the context of a song or piece of music, the key (also known as the tonic) refers to the note and chord that gives the listener a sense of home when it is played. All the other notes and chords played are used to build tension or release tension.
When composing music, the harmony and melody is often built using a scale. A scale is a set of intervals within the structure of one full octave. To think of it simply, a scale is a defined set of notes you can work with when you play or write music. It is an extremely useful limitation to use while composing.
Let’s start by looking at the most straight forward scale: C Major. C Major uses only the white notes on the piano, so no sharps or flats.
Counting the tones and semitones between each note in C Major, you’ll see the pattern goes:
Where T is one tone and S is one semitone.
So, in this example, the only semitones are between E and F, and B and C. This pattern can be used to find the notes in any major scale. You can start with your root and count it out.
The pattern for a minor scale is:
With this in mind, try to figure out what notes are in a C Minor scale. When you think you’ve got it, continue on.
Minor scales sound darker in contrast to the fuller, brighter, happier sounding major scales. Most new electronic music uses minor scales, but major scales can work well too if used creatively.
Using the image below for reference again, find the notes in the following:
- E minor scale:
- F minor scale:
- G major scale:
- A minor scale:
- Bb minor scale:
Notice that C major and A minor have exactly the same notes. The only difference is where you start the scale from. We would call A minor the relative minor of C major, and C major would be the relative major of A minor. You can find the relative minor of ANY major scale by counting three semitones down from the root note, or vice versa by counting 3 semitones up from the root note.
You can see there are 7 notes in a scale (before the octave). We call these degrees of the scale. The images below shows the first seven degrees and octave labeled on a C major and C minor scale.
The only difference between a major and minor scale is that the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the scale are flat on the minor scale. So if you know the major, you can always find the minor version of the same scale by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degree by a semitone. And once you know the notes of a scale, the potential chords to write with are relatively easy to find because they only use the same notes as the scale. You can start with the root note of the scale, and build a major or minor triad there.
If you have access to a piano or MIDI keyboard, try playing through the scales you figured out earlier: E minor, F minor, G major, A minor, and Bb minor.