Physics of Music - Notes

Common Western Musical Scales

The spacing between adjacent notes on the chromatic scale is referred to as a half step. The number of half steps between adjacent notes for the common musical scales used in western music are:

which are all 7-note (heptatonic) scales.

The major and natural minor scales occur in pairs which share the same set of notes, but start in a different place. For example, if you stick to the white keys on the piano and start your scale on C, then it is the C major scale. If you start on A, it is the A minor scale. Since there are seven possible starting notes, you get seven possible "modes." The Greeks gave them all names.


Modes Using Notes ABCDEFG
Starting
Note
Ancient
Greek Name
Comments
A Aeolian
(or Hyperdorian)
Natural Minor
B Myxolydian  
C Lydian Major Scale
D Phrygian  
E Dorian  
F Syntolydian  
G Ionian
(or Hypophrygian)
 

(Note: in 16th century Europe, Glarean of Basle assigned names to the modes using many of these same Greek names. While Glarean's assignments are in more common use today, they do not match those of the ancient Greeks. See Jean's book, page 168, or Helmholtz's book, pages 245 & 269 for more info on the different assignments)

Changing the starting note can give a different feel to the music and can be applied to any scale. For example, if you start the Harmonic minor scale on its fifth note you get intervals of (1-3-1-2-1-2-2) which is sometimes called the "spanish gypsy scale."

Other scales include the five note pentatonic scales and the six note blues and whole-tone scales.

If you want to try these on a keyboard but don't have any experience, refer to this figure:
keyboard figure

Questions/Comments to: suits@mtu.edu


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