Musical Scales

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.”