How Many Notes are in a Scale or Key?
Everything You Wanted to Know About Pitch and How We Organize Them
The concept of pitch and scale intervals can sound daunting to newcomers. Thankfully, it’s all a lot more intuitive than you might expect. Scales and keys are tools to make your songwriting and composition processes easier, not more complicated. The entire world of music is made of only twelve notes, and by organizing them in different ways we can express a huge variety of emotions. Today, I’m going to break down all the basics on scales, keys, and intervals and how they can make your songs sound more pleasing to the ear.
- How Many Notes are in a Scale or Key?
- What is a Music Scale?
- How Many Notes are in a Music Scale?
- What are the Most Common Scales in Music?
- What is a Music Key?
- How Many Notes are in a Key
- What are the Keys of Music?
- What is a Scale or Music Interval?
- What are Modes in Music?
- How Much of This Do I Need to Remember Just to Make Music!?
- Other Articles to Consider
What is a Music Scale?
A music scale is a set of notes that have a specific pattern of distances between each note and that lead back to the first note when played in progression. This distance between notes does not change; if you change the distance between any two notes in a scale, then it becomes a different scale entirely. A scale generally informs you of which chords will sound good with the set of notes you are playing throughout a melody.
How Many Notes are in a Music Scale?
The standard major and minor scales all consist of seven notes which repeat every octave. If you write mainstream Western music, these are the scales you’ll use most often. The distance between notes in these basic scales move in half steps and whole steps, which simply refers to the number of notes that you skip when going from one to the next. We’ll talk more about those intervals later.
While the go-to major scales do, not all scales consist of seven notes; established scales can range from five to all twelve notes and can use a variety of scale intervals.
What are the Most Common Scales in Music?
The most common scales in the genres of pop, rock, and rap are the major and minor scales. After those, the following scales tend to be frequent in certain styles of music:
- The Pentatonic scale consists of five notes and lacks the perfect fourth and diminished seventh notes of their respective major scale; it sounds more hollow and are common in folk genres from all over the world.
- The blues scale consists of six notes and contains a so-called “blue note”. A blue note means one that is out of key from the expected series of notes. For the blues scale, this means that an extra half-step note is added between the perfect fourth and perfect fifth. This scale is fairly common in twelve-bar blues and jazz.
- The Spanish scale consists of seven notes but with three pairs of half-step note clusters. It gives the music a very exotic sound to Western ears because it’s very common in Middle Eastern styles of traditional music. It’s often used in metal, folk, and rap genres to evoke a foreign feel. The Spanish scale is also known as the Phrygian Dominant, Jewish, Klezmer, or Freygish scale.
- The chromatic scale contains all twelve notes in equal temperament music. It’s usually only used to refer to practice scales (for example, when training your fingers for playing guitar). However, there are a few notable composers who compose music using the chromatic scale, such as Arnold Schoenberg. Music made chromatically without a set key or tonic is called “atonal”.
What is a Music Key?
A music key is essentially just a family grouping of notes that are predetermined to sound good together. For popular formats of music like pop and rock, key is usedas a classification system to simplify note and chord selection.If all of the chords are in the same key, you’ll know that they’ll work well together.
Each key correlates to a major scale and a relative minor scale. A relative minor scale contains the same exact notes as a major scale, but starts on a different note in the series. Specifically, the relative minor will begin on the sixth note in the major scale. For example, the C major scale consists of the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. The relative minor of this would be the A minor scale, which has the same notes but starts on A and goes as follows: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
Because the standard major/minor scales use the same set of notes as their respective keys, the term scale and key are often used interchangeably by musicians.
How Many Notes are in a Key
Every music key contains seven notes; the same seven notes that are in it’s corresponding major scale. Keys are a standardized system and do not come in any other number of notes, unlike scales. If you play a note in a scale that is not contained in the key you are using, then it’s called an accidental note.
What are the Keys of Music?
There are technically fifteen keys of music…which I know does not make sense when you realize there are only twelve notes available. But keys were designed for writing down music played by orchestral instruments. Because the difference between sharp and flat notes matter more for orchestral music, there are duplicate keys. Some notes have two names: for example, A-flat is the same note as G-sharp. The only difference between those duplicate keys is that one will refer to flats and the other will refer to sharps.
If you are a pop, rock, or rap musician, you don’t need to worry about all that mess. For popular/mainstream music, here are the twelve keys of music (where I have grouped the duplicates together for simplicity’s sake):
|C Major / A minor||C||D||E||F||G||A||B|
|Db Major / Bb minor||Db||Eb||F||Gb||Ab||Bb||C|
|D Major / B minor||D||E||F#||G||A||B||C#|
|Eb Major / C minor||Eb||F||G||Ab||Bb||C||D|
|E Major / C# minor||E||F#||G#||A||B||C#||D#|
|F Major / D minor||F||G||A||Bb||C||D||E|
|F# Major / D# minor||F#||G#||A#||B||C#||D#||F|
|G Major / E minor||G||A||B||C||D||E||F#|
|Ab Major / F minor||Ab||Bb||C||Db||Eb||F||G|
|A Major / F# minor||A||B||C#||D||E||F#||G#|
|Bb Major / G minor||Bb||C||D||Eb||F||G||A|
|B Major / G# minor||B||C#||D#||E||F#||G#||A#|
What is a Scale or Music Interval?
A music interval is the distance between two notes and is used to measure how far apart notes are in a scale. Every scale or mode has a fixed pattern of intervals between notes. For any one scale, this fixed pattern will remain the same regardless of what key you are playing in. For example, the major scale will always use the following interval—that is, the same pattern of distance between notes: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole
Whole stands for “whole step”, also note as a “whole tone”. Half stands for “half step”, also called a “half tone” or “semitone”. When measuring intervals using steps, you count how many notes from the starting position upward it takes to get to the next note. So if you only move up one note, that’s called a half step. If you move up two notes, that’s a whole step. Let’s use an example:
- The C major scale is: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B
- If you want to measure the distance between C and D, you will count the notes you move past from C up to D, including the ending note of D.
- Every note you count along the way is a half step.
- To go from C to D, you pass C-sharp and arrive at D. C-sharp and D are two notes, so that is a whole step.
- But if you wanted to count the steps from E to F, you would only move up one note: F. That is a half step.
- The same counting method works for any interval. If your scale went from E straight to G, you would count F as the half step #1, F-sharp as half step #2, and arrive at G being half step #3. That’s three half steps, but seeing as two halves make a whole, we would count that as one and a half steps.
No matter what key you play in, the major scale will always retain that interval pattern. Likewise, the minor scale will always have the same intervals, and so on for every established scale or mode.
What are Modes in Music?
Before the invention of the modern major and minor scales, composers used Greek modes. A music mode is simply a different and older classification of notes into scales. In it’s most basic sense, modes let you play in one key but use any note in that key’s major scale as the starting point, or tonic.
There are seven modes and they correspond to the seven notes in a major scale or key. If you start with the C major scale, the notes are: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. You can use any one of those notes as your tonic but still be in the Key of C. So if I want my starting note to be F, my scale would now look like this: F, G, A, B, C, D, and E. Same notes, just a different starting point. That’s what modes are about. Here are all of the modes’ names and how they correspond to the major key that they inhabit:
Table: Greek Modes and Their Intervals
Table: Greek Modes in the Key of C Major
Modes are mostly used in jazz and orchestral composition, but songwriters can employ them to add different flavors to their music. How can you “flavor” your songs if you are still using the same notes in a regular key? Essentially, you start your chord progression or melody on a note other than the major key’s tonic, thus moving the tonal center of the key. Let’s continue with our example in the Key of C. If our chord progression is F, Am, and G then we are still in the Key of C (the C major scale) but your root note is now the note F. That would mean you are playing in the fourth mode of C major, also known as the F Lydian mode.
To make it as simple to follow as possible: if your song is in the Key of C but you don’t use C as your starting point, then you’re using a mode.
How Much of This Do I Need to Remember Just to Make Music!?
Now all of this music theory is very helpful for understanding the process of composition, but you don’t need to memorize every piece of this just to write a pop song. If you’re a songwriter in a modern genre, the essentials you need to remember are:
- There are 12 notes in music
- There are 7 notes in a key
- The major and minor scales are most common, which also have 7 notes each
- Every key corresponds to a major scale and it’s relative minor
- A relative minor scale shares the same notes as a major scale, just starting in a different place
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this guide helpful, here are a few other articles to consider: