Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part I)

Learning how to distinguish one type of scale from another by ear is a great skill for any musician. It allows you to better understand the purpose of each scale and how they fit into the music you like to play.

Most scales can ultimately be boiled down to one of two foundations:  major or minor, with minor having three fundamental variations:  natural, harmonic, and melodic. For your exciting leap into scale ear training, I suggest you start with these four scales.

Major

The major scale is usually the first scale you learn while learning an instrument. If you play all of the white keys on a piano from one C to the next C, you play the C major scale. You can refer to my post on basic scale theory for more detail about constructing this scale, or you can just trust me these notes make a C major scale:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

Which looks like this on sheet music:

Untitled

And sounds like this: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/majorscale.mp3 ]

Fun fact:  That little “8” below the treble clef means that all of the notes actually sound an octave LOWER than how they’re written. This is common for written guitar music. I plan on going over written music in a future post, so don’t feel horribly sad if this confuses you.

In theory this should be the easiest scale to identify by ear. Think of when vocalists warm up using solfeggio (Do re me fa so la ti do). In fact, singing along with the scale using solfeggio is a great way to solidify its sound in your head. Try it (while no one is listening).

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is usually the second type of scale you learn. It is created by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the major scale by one half-step. Here is the C natural minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Which is written as:

Untitled

And it sounds like: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/minorscale.mp3 ]

Notice the distinct change in emotion from the major scale. Most people would agree that the minor scale has a sad sound to it, where a major scale has a happy sound (I posted my own thoughts on why in this post).

What’s cool about the natural minor scale is that you can play one by starting on the 6th note of the major scale. In fact, if you read my post on modes you would already know that the natural minor scale corresponds with the aeolian mode. So for example, if you begin your C major scale on the 6th note, A, you will be playing A natural minor.

“I don’t believe you”

No? I can easily prove it to you by rewriting that C major scale while starting and ending with A.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The key of A major should have three sharps, which would be F#, C#, and G# (I talk about how to determine this in my post on the circle of 5ths). Keen observers will notice that there are no sharps in the scale written above. They are all natural notes, which means that those three sharps that should be there have been lowered. Do you notice where those three notes are in the scale?

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

How about that! They are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes. This right here is an A natural minor scale, and we got to it by writing the C major scale starting from A. Please remember this:

***Every major scale has a relative natural minor scale starting from the 6th scale degree***

Knowing this will help form a bond between major and minor in your head. It also helps for improvising music. If you’re jamming with your friend and they’re playing chords in the key of C major, you know you can play A minor over it and it will work nicely.

In solfeggio terms, you sing this scale by starting on the la in “do re mi fa so la ti do”. So the solfeggio for a natural minor scale is “la ti do re mi fa so la”. Again, I highly suggest trying to sing the scale using the solfeggio, as it really helps in solidifying the intervals and overall sound of the scale.

Relative minor exampleListen to the above example and really try to compare the two scales. It will climb up the C major scale, then drop from C to A to begin the A natural minor scale:

[audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/relativeminor.mp3 ]

For now, focus on these two basic scales. If you play an instrument, try playing them in different keys. Really compare the sounds, feelings, and emotions they produce. Again I have to recommend www.musictheory.net. Go to the scale ear trainer (http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear-scale) and change the settings so that ONLY the major and natural minor scales are involved. It will play either a major or minor scale randomly, and you’ll have to guess which one it is.

Next post:  Identifying Scales (Part II)

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