Intro to Scales #2: Scale Degrees (Part 1)

There is a saying back in the day that used to go something like "Any movie or actor is only six degrees separated from Kevin Bacon".  

It was a fun game to play; you'd pick a movie or actor/actress, saying the connecting star, who was also in this movie with so and so, who was in this movie, that was directed by so and so, then try to get to Kevin Bacon within six turns.  

And you could usually do it.  

Jolly good fun the pre-internet days were.

Now when it comes to degrees of separation, scales aren't too different.  

We talked about the relationship between a note and its octave.  We also discussed the possibilities of moving from one note to the next note by a semitone or a whole tone.  Now let's take this a step further and build ourselves a C Major Scale.

When building a scale, you have to start by choosing a note to start moving from.  This is called the TONIC.  

It sets the foundation for all the pitches that come after; basically, once the tonic is chosen, all other notes are now working for that guy.  Tonic calls the shots.

Starting from C and moving up to the octave, using only the white keys on the piano, we have the C Major scale.  

As a general rule, Diatonic Scales will use each letter name ONLY ONCE.  You wouldn't see C, D, E, F, F# in a diatonic scale.  

Also to that effect, each letter name gets used, so you wouldn't see C, E, F#, A in a diatonic scale.  

Knowing this, allows us to assign numbers to each note on a diatonic scale.

They are commonly represented by Roman numerals.  This vitally important bit of organization is known as SCALE DEGREES.

Each letter note name gets its own number to help us to see where on the ladder it is, and how far away it is from the bottom or the top.

If we map out our movement from the Tonic to the Octave by the tones and semitones we use to jump from one note to the next, we get something that looks like this:

Our movement starting from C is:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone.  

We've got ourselves a nice little scale there.

The big takeaway from this lesson is this next step here.  

The notes of the scale are not static, but the scale degrees are.  

There are always eight notes on a diatonic scale.  Let's see what happens when we take the notes away:

We have now created our first formula for building a scale.

Now, since we have the formula, (# of jumps we make from note to note) AND the degrees of the scale on which these jumps happen, we can build our major scale starting from any note.

Pick the brain chunks off the floor from having your mind blown, and let's try it out.

How about G Major:

Try it out yourself using the keyboard chart at the start of the article, or with your instrument.

Diatonic scales can be divided in half, into what is called TETRACHORDS.

Sounds crazier than it is.  

The first half of the major scale is the lower tetrachord.

The last half of the major scale is the upper tetrachord.  

The lower and upper tetrachords for the major scale are the same (T T ST) separated by a whole tone.  Examining scales by their tetrachords can be a useful tool for identifying them and seeing what makes them tick.  This is essential for ear training and recognizing the sounds of a scale.
This was an especially dense lesson, but a very important one.  Go find an empty warehouse and punch-dance away your rage if you need to.  I'll see you at the next lesson once you've freshened up. Head over to the EXERCISES here and cover these topics:

Previous article in this chapter:Intro to Scales #1: What is a Scale?
Next article in this chapter:Intro to Scales #3: Scale Degrees (Part 2)

Lazer Monk

Lazer Monk

Hamilton, Ont