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Musical Scales – Why We Have Scales and How They Were Made
Most students of a musical instrument hate playing scales, but too many of them only think they learn scales as some sort of finger exercise. How wrong! Instead, all music students should be informed that scales are the Building Blocks from which all music is created and that they can use these vital Blocks to create music for themselves. To do this we first have to understand what scales are and how they came about.
Musical instruments played a large part in the development of scales. The earliest musical instruments were devised having a limited number of playable notes. Maybe a pipe instrument was fashioned using a hollow tube and holes were made in it which could
be covered or uncovered when blowing through it to produce a certain number of pitch variations. If music was to be written down for this instrument it follows that only the exact notes playable should be written. Thus, the scale of notes would be only these, say 5, notes rising or falling in order of pitch.
As instruments developed further more notes could be achieved and in the Western world we gradually created instruments that could all play a minimum of 12 different pitches between notes an octave apart.
Hang on! I hear you say, "What is an octave?" An octave is the gap between two note pitches that are 12 semitones apart. If you listen to these two notes it almost seems as though they are the same note pitch. These notes are named with the same letter name such as C and C. If you pluck a string of a given length, it will vibrate at so many cycles per second (or Hertz) producing a sound at a given pitch, say 220Hz (an A). This note is called the fundamental. The string does funny things however, and it also vibrates at twice the number of Hz but at half the volume of the fundamental. This means that another note is also produced that is an octave above the first (in this case the A at 440Hz), but only half as loud. This explains the close relationship between notes an octave apart. Basically, double the frequency (Hz) and you will get a note that is one octave above.
There are, of course, instruments in the west that can produce note pitches between semitones, such as a stringed instrument like the violin or violoncello, but as they most often have to perform with other instruments of the 12 semitones variety, any note that they produce between these pitches is usually considered as just "out of tune!" In the East, scales are still used which make use of the instruments that can achieve the pitches that are less than a semitone apart, and vocalists are also more adept in singing pitch variations of so-called "quarter-tones."
In the West the limitation of most of our scales to seven different pitches within the octave came about mainly as a result of singers needing an easy chain of notes to pitch. So it was with our Major scale.
So that's how we got our scales. Now, at least, the make-up of our most common modern-day scales should not seem so much of a mystery. We know that they are an easy-to-sing chain of 8 note-pitches over an octave, the 1st and 8th being two notes of the same letter-name. The distance between each of these note-pitches can be one, two or sometimes even three semitones. In future articles I will discuss why we have Major and Minor Scales and how you can use these Building Blocks of Music to form melodies and chords.
About the Author: Brian Farley has been a worldwide professional Musical Director and pianist since 1974. His duet sheet music website "Easy Duets, Sheet Music for Schools, Musical Instrument Students" provides original musical duets and trios for early level students and some good free "reading musical notation" information.