What the heck is a musical scale?

What defines it? How many notes are there in a scale?

My simple definition: A scale is a group of notes used to practice a musical instrument.

It’s a series of small steps defined by a root note and the scale type. Just like physical steps, it’s easier to climb the mountain (of learning an instrument) if you take the stairs verses scrambling up the side of the hill.

We say that the “root” is the first and last note of the scale. D is the root in the example above. “Major” is the type of scale.

Some of the major scale types

  • Triads are 3-note scales
  • Pentatonics are 5-note scales
  • Major scales are 7-note scales
  • Harmonic & Melodic Minor are 7-note scales (used in Klezmer tunes like Hava Negilah)
  • Modes are 7-note scales built from major and minor scales (like Dorian)
  • Chromatics are 12-note scale (containing call notes in Western harmony)

Major scales (like D major) are a set of whole steps (like D1-2) and half steps (like D2-3).

Image made by Ruth Roland


In this diagram (courtesy of Ruth Roland) you can see the whole steps represented by loops and the half steps represent by angles.


Other scales (like harmonic minor and pentatonics) have bigger jumps (wider intervals). For example, a pentatonic scale has these intervals:

  • Whole step: D0-1
  • Whole step: D1-2
  • Minor third: D2-A0
  • Whole step: A0-1

The notes can be arranged into ascending and descending order, but not necessarily. For example, a scale can be arranged into a series of melodic variation patterns which don’t follow a linear pattern.


Or scale notes can be arranged into a tune which has even less patternation. All the while we’re still playing the same set of notes.

Make your own scales

Anytime you get stuck on a fiddle tune, you can make your own scale. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Find a part of a tune that challenges you
  2. List out all the notes in that section
  3. Remove repeated notes
  4. Order from low to high, then high to low

Learn more in this lesson: Make Your Own Scales

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2 responses to “What the heck is a musical scale?

  1. Can you do more or do have something on double stops and scales having problems with the fingering to make the chords not sure what to do to improve one thing I have other is how to get over muting the other strings while fingering to make the double stops can you help email if you can