What Exactly Is A Piano Scale?

A piano scale is not something that’s reserved just for the piano – it’s actually a musical scale that corresponds to all instruments. Chances are, you’ve played a few scales in your day – maybe more than a few. But did you ever stop to wonder exactly what sclaes are and why we have them?

Instead of getting lost in music theory, let’s talk about the piano scale in more practical terms, and see how we can actually use it. Theory is great, but it’s best when it’s applied to real life – don’t you agree?

A scale is nothing more than a group of notes that act as a kind of foundation for part or all of a piece of music. It gives the composer a structure from which to build melodies and harmonies, and it actually helps musicians improvise within a given piece of music. Most western music is based on one or more of just a few scales, which we’ll talk about here.

Everyone’s Favorite – The Major Scale

The one piano scale – or music scale – practically everyone knows is the major scale. If you’ve ever seen “The Sound Of Music,” you’ve heard a major scale. That’s right – it’s the “DO-RE-MI” scale. Most western scales don’t skip any lines or spaces on the music staff, and they don’t repeat the same note with a different accidental (sharp or flat). This forces the key signature (the little sharps and flats on the staff at the front of a piece of music) to contain just sharps or just flats. Pretty cool, huh? Someone actually thought about all this!

The C major piano scale is the easiest scale to build and remember – it’s just the white notes on the piano, beginning on C: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-[C]. That last C is also the beginning of the scale as it continues on the next octave above the starting C.

If you want to build any major piano scale, you could memorize them all – which is probably a good idea in the long run – or realize that they all have the same structure. First, remember that the half step is the smallest distance between keys – black-to-white, white-to-black, or white-to-white (like E to F). A major scale can be built using the following whole-/half-step pattern: Start on any note, then go up WHOLE-WHOLE-HALF-WHOLE-WHOLE-WHOLE-HALF.

So, looking at the C major scale, starting on C, C to D is a WHOLE step, D to E is a WHOLE step, E to F is a HALF step, F to G is a WHOLE step, G to A is a WHOLE step, A to B is a WHOLE step, and B to C is a HALF step. Got it? Good! Now, let’s try another one.

How about Ab? Ab?! That’s right – piece of cake when you know the pattern: Ab (WHOLE) Bb (WHOLE) C (HALF) Db (WHOLE) Eb (WHOLE) F (WHOLE) G (HALF) Ab.

If you don’t feel like figuring out all the major scales yourself, first make sure you have the free Adobe Reader.

Click here to get the free Adobe Reader.

Then click here for a PDF of all the major scales , written in standard music notation.

Enough Theory Already – How Are Scales Used?

You might have noticed that last scale had 4 flats – Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db – which is exactly what the key signature for the key of Ab has – 4 flats. Remember how we said that a piano scale – and any music scale – is the foundation for a piece of music? Well, the key signature is the way of representing that scale in the written music. So, a piece is said to be in the key of Ab if its key signature contains 4 flats – Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db – which means it relies on the Ab major scale. (By the way, the same key signature is used for F minor, so you’ll need to use your ears also!)

For a piece of music written in a major key, the notes which will sound best in the melody are the notes of that major scale, and the piece will usually end on either the root (the first note of the scale) or one of the notes of the major chord (the third note of the scale or the fifth note of the scale).

When you’re playing a piece of music written in a particular key, you can easily improvise your own melody simply by playing the notes of the piano scale that corresponds to that key signature. So, if you’re playing music with no sharps or flats, that music is in the key of C major (or, possibly, A minor). If you make up your own melody using only the white keys on the piano, you will be improvising, and it probably won’t sound half bad! We’ll talk more about keys, scales, and chords when we dig more deeply into improvisation.

Yes, There Are Minor Scales, Too

Just as there are major scales, there are also minor scales, but there are three different types of minor scales. The first type is the natural minor scale, which has the same key signature as its “relative major” scale that starts a minor third higher.


Every major key has a relative minor key. For the key of C major, the relative minor key is A minor. A is a minor third (3 half steps) below C. The A natural minor scale is the scale that begins on A and uses only white keys – A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. So, it has the same key signature as C major. Notice the whole-/half-step structure is WHOLE-HALF-WHOLE-WHOLE-HALF-WHOLE-WHOLE. And yes, you can build any natural minor scale with that structure.

For reasons dealing with harmony and what composers though sounded good, two other minor scales came to be used – the harmonic and melodic minor scales.

The harmonic minor scale raises the second-to-last note one half step. So, A harmonic minor is A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A, or WHOLE-HALF-WHOLE-WHOLE-HALF-(WHOLE+HALF)-HALF. You may notice that scale sounds somewhat “Middle Eastern” – in fact, you’ll find it used extensively in Disney’s “Aladdin” for that very reason.

The melodic minor scale raises both the third-to-last AND second-to-last notes on half step, but only when going up, or ascending. The scale is the same as the natural minor scale when descending, or going down. So, A melodic minor, going up then back down again, is A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A-G-F-E-D-C-B-A. Crazy, isn’t it? Once again, the structure is the same for any melodic minor scale: WHOLE-HALF-WHOLE-WHOLE-WHOLE-WHOLE-HALF (for the ascending portion only).

Well, that’s enough about the piano scale for now. We could go on and on, but it’s best that you play around with some of these ideas first and get back to making and listening to more piano music now!

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