Music scales are the foundation of music. Without scales, we wouldn’t be able to write the music we do. Or at least, not as easily!
Overlooked by beginners, music scales are your best tool to write catchy melodies.
This is because a music scale determines which notes sound good together, and over which chords. And no, they’re not just for classical composers!
So together, we’ll learn the fastest way to apply scales to our music TODAY! Specifically, we’ll look at:
- What a scale actually is
- How music scales are constructed
- How they relate to chords
- 5 music scales you need to know
- The best tips and tricks to use scales in FL Studio and Ableton Live
Let’s dive in! 👇
Why Bother with Music Scales at All? 🤔
Before we go any further, you’re probably wondering why you need scales at all.
Think of music like cooking.
You have a kitchen full of every ingredient in the world. Sure, you can walk in and mix ingredients at random. The result might be delicious, or it might be a disaster.
Anyhow, it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to understand which ingredients go well together. And you’ll probably end up using the same 3 or 4 ingredients because of that.
Music scales are a bit like cooking recipes.
Music scales tell you which notes go well together. They can introduce you to combinations you’d never thought of.
And much like recipes, each scale has a different flavor.
Some are sad, and some are exotic.
Sure, you don’t need a recipe to cook. But do you really want to be wasting hours in the kitchen? In the same way, music scales speed up your process. And they can unlock new melodies you had never thought of.
So… What is a Music Scale? 🎹
Hopefully, I’ve now convinced you of the utility of scales. So let’s dive into the first question: what is a music scale?
In its simplest form, a music scale is a set of musical notes ordered by pitch.
Each scale has a specific rule that will determine which notes to include. Think of notes as numbers (I know, another analogy).
You have even numbers, uneven numbers, prime numbers etc.
For example, even numbers are all numbers that can be divided by 2. That’s the rule. Anything else is excluded from the “even numbers” club.
With music scales, the rules are based on the concepts of intervals:
- A whole step is an interval spanning 2 semitones
- A half-step is an interval spanning 1 semitone
Let’s look at an example:
The interval C to D spans 2 semitones. This means you need 2 semitones to reach D from C. Therefore, there is a whole step between C and D.
On the other hand, F# to G only spans 1 semitone. It’s therefore a half-step interval.
If we look at the major scale, we’ll find the following “rule”:
Whichever note you start on is your “tonic”. It will then lend its name to the music scale.
Let’s start on the note “F”. Using the above rule, we get:
F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F
And there you have your first scale: F major!
With one simple rule, you can create 12 different music scales for each note. Not bad! And in practice, you have dozen of scales available to you: major, minor, pentatonic, Hungarian, minor blues, and more.
The Link Between Music Scales and Chords 🎼
That’s all well, but how does it relate to chords?
We’ve covered chord progressions in depth in this guide here, but let’s quickly go over the basics.
We’ve established that a scale is a set of notes that follow a given rule.
For example, the F major scale contains the notes F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F. This is also called the key of F major.
Similarly, there is also a rule for which chords you can play in a given key.
In the case of a major key, that rule is:
Major – Minor – Minor – Major – Major – Minor – Diminished
This means that within the key of F Major, we can play the chords:
F Major – G Minor – A Minor – Bb Major – C Major – D Minor – E Diminished
Let’s hear it in practice:
The chord progression I’m playing here is:
F major -> C Major -> D Minor -> F major (or F – C – Dm – F)
Let’s try to write a melody over it using the F major scale:
You can see from the notation that I am only using notes from the F major scale. Let’s hear what it sounds like:
Nothing Grammy-worthy, but it’s definitely in-key!
So Can I Just Play Any Note When I Want?
Well, not exactly.
A scale gives you notes you can play with. But that doesn’t mean each note will sound good over any chord.
Let’s listen to another example:
There’s clearly some dissonance going on here. Let’s examine what’s wrong:
I am still playing the same chord progression. And although I am playing notes from the F major scale, some don’t fit. In particular these ones:
The chord progression is still F – C – Dm – F.
In the first example, I am playing a D over a C chord. Although it doesn’t sound terrible, it is a bit odd on first listen.
This is because the D is “trapped” between the notes C and E of the C major chord.
This creates some definite tension. It can work when the note is used in transition. But here the note is played several times, and it sounds a bit off.
Next is the Bb over the Dm chord.
This is where we run into issues. Dm is composed of the notes D, F, and A. This means our Bb is playing over the note A, which creates a huge dissonance.
One easy fix is to use notes which overlap the chords. This means only playing the notes F, A, or C over an F major for example:
Here I have “fixed” the melody to only play notes that overlap with the chords. The only case where I stray from notes in the chord is at the end:
Sounds a lot better already!
Looking to bring your melody-writing skills to the next level? Check out our video:
An Important Disclaimer
At this stage, I feel I should provide a disclaimer.
There are no strict rules that you need to follow in music.
What we’ve covered so far are some of the basics of music theory. This does not mean that you have to adhere precisely to everything.
What matters is what sounds good to your years.
Keys, scales, chords, and everything in between are simply meant to give you guidelines.
If a note doesn’t belong to the scale but sounds good, use it! If a chord doesn’t belong either but sounds good, use it! There are countless examples of popular songs that stray away from the rules.
5 Music Scales You Need to Know 🔥
So far we’ve looked at what scales are, and how they related to chords.
Let’s now dive deeper into the meat of this article: different types of music scales!
As I mentioned earlier, there are dozen of types of music scales. In the following section, we are going to focus on the most important ones for EDM producers.
Note: I will use examples here that actually qualify as “modes”. If you want to dive deeper into the world of modes, check out this article from Aden.
1. The Natural Minor scale
We’ve already covered the major scale, so let’s jump straight into minor scales!
The Natural Minor scale is constructed with the following rule:
“Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole”
Starting from the note F to create the F natural minor scale, we have:
“F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F”
This is what it sounds like:
Sounds quite sad and nostalgic.
Let’s hear it in the context of a track:
This is one of the most common scales you will hear in modern EDM.
2. The Harmonic Minor scale
The Harmonic Minor scale is identical to the Natural Minor scale except for one difference:
The last note of the scale is sharp. This means you raise the last note of the scale by an additional semi-tone.
This gives you the following sequence:
“Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole+Half”.
If we stay with F, this gives us:
“F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db – E – F”
This is what it sounds like:
There is an almost spooky feeling to those last three notes. This is what it sounds in context:
It definitely retains that minor feeling, but with an added “hauntedness”. This is a great key to use to build tension and unease.
3. The Arabic scale
There are many music scales that are so-called “Arabic scales”. My favorite follows this pattern:
“Half – Whole+Half – Half – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole”
Staying in the key of F would give us:
“F – G – A – A# – B – C# – D# – F”
This is what it sounds like:
You can hear how that “Arabic” feel comes from the first four notes. Let’s try it in context:
Sounds amazing 😍 This is one of my favorite scales to use when I’m going for a darker vibe.
4. The Phrygian scale
Another very common scale is called the Phrygian (dominant) scale.
To build the Phrygian scale, all you have to do is:
- Start from the natural minor scale
- Flat the second note
Using F minor as an example, we have the notes:
“F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F”
All we have to do to get the Phrygian scale is flat the second note:
“F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F”
Let’s hear what it sounds like:
There’s some clear tension created by flatting that second note. Let’s hear it in context:
This music scale definitely gives the track a dark, ominous vibe.
5. The Pentatonic Blues scale
The Pentatonic Blues scale is extremely popular in genres such as Big Room and Tech House.
To create it:
- start with the Natural Minor scale
- remove the second and sixth note
- add a flat five (the fifth note, down a semi-tone)
With F minor, this gives us the following notes:
F – G# – A# – B – C – D#
It sounds something like this:
Very bluesy indeed. Let’s hear it in the context of a tech-house kinda tune:
It definitely has that old-school Pendulum feel to it. If you’re trying to write a huge epic hook, give the Blues Pentatonic scale a try!
How to Use Scales Easily in Any DAW 💻
Now you might be thinking;
“That’s great, but how the hell do I remember all this…?”
Music scales can sound daunting at first. There are so many rules and notes to remember, where do you even start?
My first tip for you is to memorize one scale in a simple position.
Take for example the A Natural Minor scale:
It contains only the white keys on your keyboard. Pretty easy to memorize!
You can then use this position to memorize the sequence of half-steps and whole steps. It then becomes easier to transpose it to any key you want.
Another example is the C major scale.
This one also only includes the white keys.
However, modern DAWs make it easier than ever to use scales. You don’t even have to memorize anything! Let’s have a look 👀
Using music scales in FL Studio
Let’s say you want to write a melody in G Major.
First, open up your piano roll and click on Piano roll options –> Stamp:
Here you have a bunch of chords and scales to choose from. In this case, we want to go under “Melodic – scales” and select “Major”.
Next, simply draw in a G note:
The entire G Major scale is there – pretty handy!
Now for the real trick.
Duplicate the notes over several octaves. Then, stretch them so they cover at least 16 bars.
Next, mute the channel and duplicate it:
Now enter the duplicate version of your instrument. All the notes of the scale will show up in grey:
This a quick and easy way to know which notes you can play!
Note: it doesn’t matter which instrument you use to draw the scale. You will mute it anyway, so use something that is low CPU!
Using music scales in Ableton Live
Ableton Live makes it even easier to use scales.
Under the Midi Clip View, enable Scale Mode:
Choose G Major, and all the notes of the scale will be highlighted!
But it goes even further.
Select “Fold to scale”, and only the notes of the scale appear:
A sure way of never playing a wrong note again!
That’s a Wrap! 👏
That’s it for this one!
Music scales can sound scary at first. But I hope this guide encouraged you to take the first leap!
Did I miss out on anything? Let me know by email at [email protected]!