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Thread: What constitutes a scale?

  1. #1
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    What constitutes a scale?

    I am speaking of notes played horizontally.

    Clearly 2 notes is an interval, 3 notes is a triad or chord arpeggio of some kind.

    Is 4 notes by definition still a chord such as a 7th chord? Or can it be classified as a 4 note scale?

    5 notes is a pentatonic scale...

    7 notes is (sometimes) a diatonic scale..

    12 notes is a chromatic scale...

    What about 10 notes, 11 notes? Are they scales?

    To be termed a "scale" does it have to be widely accepted or used? Or can I pick say any 7 notes and call it a scale? What if I pick 4 notes? or 6 notes? etc.

    What if I choose 2 different sets of notes in different octaves and play them in a row, can this be called a 2-octave spanning scale?

    Define for me pls.

  2. #2
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    What if I have 7 enharmonic spellings of the same note... C..B#...Dbb etc.

    They sound the same but are intended by the composer to be thought of differently... is this a scale?

  3. #3
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    What if I have 7 enharmonic spellings of the same note... C..B#...Dbb etc.
    That is one of the three things you are not supposed to do.
    There are 3 rules to follow, for example: Don't have two C's or two F's, in the same scale. Don't mix sharps and flats in the same scale, but, the blues scale does this. There is one more - it escapes me right now.

    As to the number of notes I think that is up to you. On the scale generators I've seen several 8 note scales. Can not say I've seen a 4 note scale before, that's getting a little close to an extended chord. As to what batch of notes, that's pretty much up to you. Follow the three rules and name it after yourself.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 08-07-2009 at 04:36 AM.

  4. #4
    The Riff Master zog's Avatar
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    I have always been told that a scale is simply a collection of notes either ascending or descending in order within an octave. So I guess anything that spans the distance of an octave can be called a scale. That is why some scales have 5, 7, or 8 notes in them. The biggest scale would be the chromatic scale which contains all of the notes.

    It is the arrangement of the intervals between the notes that define what kind of scale it is. I could be wrong though as there is really no set definition for a scale.

  5. #5
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    To me a scale is a sequence of notes into which you break up the interval of an octave for melodic and/or harmonic purposes - there can be 5 or 7 notes, or 12, or 6 or 8, or whatever you want, really - you seem to be focused on the number of notes, which I don't think is important at all: avant-garde, experimental, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc. music could theoretically break up the octave into 13 or 22 or 24 or 100 or any number of notes differently than our typical 12 note system.

    And sure you could define it over 2 octaves, or differently ascending/descending, etc. - if there's a musical reason to do so...what's important IMO is that the scale defines a specific SOUND...the MUSIC comes first, the theory just gives us tools to talk about it. Yes you "can" define a 10 or 11 note scale or whatever, but are you going to make music with it? If not there's no point.
    Last edited by walternewton; 08-07-2009 at 05:45 AM.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by walternewton
    To me a scale is a sequence of notes into which you break up the interval of an octave for melodic and/or harmonic purposes - there can be 5 or 7 notes, or 12, or 6 or 8, or whatever you want, really - you seem to be focused on the number of notes, which I don't think is important at all: avant-garde, experimental, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc. music could theoretically break up the octave into 13 or 22 or 24 or 100 or any number of notes differently than our typical 12 note system.

    And sure you could define it over 2 octaves, or differently ascending/descending, etc. - if there's a musical reason to do so...what's important IMO is that the scale defines a specific SOUND...the MUSIC comes first, the theory just gives us tools to talk about it. Yes you "can" define a 10 or 11 note scale or whatever, but are you going to make music with it? If not there's no point.
    Why limit the definition to one or two octaves? For example you could define the Overtone Series as a scale spanning multiple octaves. Depending on the definition of scale. Can the first octave of the overtone series be called a scale (root-8ve)? What about the second (root-5th-8ve)?

    It only really starts to looks like a traditional "scale" when 4 or more octaves are taken into account.

    My point is, essentially we are saying that:

    1) The number of notes in a scale doesn't matter, it can be 1 to 100 or more.
    2) The number of octaves in a scale doesnt matter, it can be any number of octaves (assuming we can hear them).
    3) The order can change when ascending or descending.

    Which pretty much defines all linear (non-vertical) music. I mean, any line of music can be called a scale by that definition. So what is a scale exactly?

    Even playing within a Major key for example, if you leave any notes out, or change the rhythm, or start on a different note (as in modes), you have changed the sound of what you are playing, so you're not "technically" playing a Major scale.

    Is a scale then a pallette of notes to draw seperate smaller (or larger) musical ideas from?

  7. #7
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    You'll have to forgive me as I am a mathematician as well as a theorist, but:

    Say you have two vectors that span a plane: any multiple or addition to those vectors is still in that plane.

    That is to say, we have a broad definition of scales, covering a whole plane of possible scales. But melodies are bits and pieces of scales, multiples or additions to them. So all melodies reside within this scale plane.

    So how do we seperate the definition of melody and scale into seperate objects. Because they clearly mean different things to most musicians.

  8. #8
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    The word scale implies (to me, anyway) a uniformly directional movement in pitch. That is, the number of and pitches of the collected notes are not what makes it a "scale"; rather, the fact that each subsequent note is higher or lower, dependent on the direction. I have never run across an ascending scale that has a pitch drop in it, nor have I run across a descending scale that has a pitch raise in it.

    That is, if mention the "Pluperfecto Scale," you probably expect a set of notes whose order when played will put each note sequentially higher (or lower if you play descending). Thus, "scale" may be simply a set of ordered notes from one pitch to another, all either increasing or decreasing - not both, and the name of the scale defines the intervals or step pattern involved.

    I can't imagine "scale degree" would have gotten much use as a term if scales are not uniformly directional.
    Last edited by Blutwulf; 08-07-2009 at 09:20 AM.
    "If a child learns which is jay and which is sparrow, he'll no longer see birds nor hear them sing."

  9. #9
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jessmanca
    Why limit the definition to one or two octaves?
    1) The number of notes in a scale doesn't matter, it can be 1 to 100 or more.
    2) The number of octaves in a scale doesn't matter, it can be any number of octaves (assuming we can hear them).
    3) The order can change when ascending or descending.

    Which pretty much defines all linear (non-vertical) music. I mean, any line of music can be called a scale by that definition. So what is a scale exactly?
    If that were the case it becomes too complicated to be practical. It would be too complicated to do anything with. Now think of this - the Piano has 88 keys and those 88 keys are broken into octaves - we identify them as C-1, C-2, C-3, C-4, etc. Middle C is C-4 if my memory is correct. Middle C is my home base, my reference point. Split into repetitive octaves now that I can do something with. Why is the staff split between treble and bass and why then do we use ledger notes? Why not just have one large staff - we would not be able to read it.

    The old guys could have done as you say, but it would have been too complicated. IMHO
    Last edited by Malcolm; 08-07-2009 at 01:42 PM.

  10. #10
    Registered User elmariachi's Avatar
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    "Is a scale then a pallette of notes to draw seperate smaller (or larger) musical ideas from?"

    Thats exactly what it is. When you talk about about creating scales of your own devising these are just referred to as synthetic scales. A scale is just a note cell arranged in ascending order from which you construct a piece of music melodically and harmonically. It also depends what type of theory you intend to write a piece with. E.g trying to create a triadic based harmonic system versus using something like pitch set theory where everything is related by interval vectors etc.

    As far as octaves go if its your choice if you want to see an octave as a different note as in Arabic music where each octave has its own name. In western music obviously a C is a C.

    In relation to the harmonic series that is just a naturally occurring phenomenon so i think that calling it a scale is not the best description. Sure it fits the pattern in that it is an ascending order of notes but it is also a construct in its own right and doesnt need to be labeled differently to what it is.

  11. #11
    Carrots!! All_Ľour_Bass's Avatar
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    Any collection of notes can be a scale. There are even scales that do not repeat at the octave and instead repeat at some other interval.
    Hidden Content Originally Posted by Chim_Chim
    Be different.

    Do it for the OATMEAL.

  12. #12
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blutwulf
    The word scale implies (to me, anyway) a uniformly directional movement in pitch. That is, the number of and pitches of the collected notes are not what makes it a "scale"; rather, the fact that each subsequent note is higher or lower, dependent on the direction. I have never run across an ascending scale that has a pitch drop in it, nor have I run across a descending scale that has a pitch raise in it.

    That is, if mention the "Pluperfecto Scale," you probably expect a set of notes whose order when played will put each note sequentially higher (or lower if you play descending). Thus, "scale" may be simply a set of ordered notes from one pitch to another, all either increasing or decreasing - not both, and the name of the scale defines the intervals or step pattern involved.

    I can't imagine "scale degree" would have gotten much use as a term if scales are not uniformly directional.
    Good point. The idea of uniform direction, up or down, is inherent in the word "scale" itself, which comes from "scala", or ladder. Hence (also) "steps". (And the Greeks counted their scales downwards, not up.)

    In terms of what sets of pitches count as a "scale", what people seem to be forgetting here is SOUND. Music definitions spring from how things sound - not from mathematical permutations of numbers.
    That's why the octave is important, indeed crucial.
    All_Ľour_Bass is right that some (ethnic) scales have differing pitches in a higher octave, but they are just variations of pitches in the main octave - they are vocal scales which (AFAIK) don't range beyond 2 octaves anyhow.
    So - given those exceptions - a "scale" is series of pitch "classes" (notes within an octave) which repeat in other octaves.

    Most scales result in (or produce) a sense of "key" - a tonal centre that the other notes relate to. But this is most, not all. A scale that has this effect is then a "mode" (and we all know about those, right friends? ). Its tonal centre is a "keynote", although the correct modal term is "finalis" or "final", and the common meaning of "key" is the sound produced by Ionian mode alone (or by Aeolian mode when given a raised 7th and possibly 6th).
    Scales that don't have a tonal effect (and therefore no keynote) are symmetrical ones such as the diminished and wholetone scales - and also the chromatic scale of course.

    As for enharmonics, it's irrelevant that (say) C, B# and Dbb sound the same on their own. The contexts they are used in won't sound the same, which is why the names (for the same pitch) are different.
    IOW, music is about note relationships, not the notes themselves.

    I could also point out that the octave can be divided in many ways - not just into 12, but into 7, 17, 19, 31, etc etc - but still with the idea of producing a usable, musical sounding scale selected from those divisions (just as we select 7 from 12).
    In fact, of course, our equal 12 division is arbitrary, a way of making sense of the 7 notes that historically sound "right" (they seem to have 5 gaps into which other pitches could fit).

    Here's more scales than you can shake a baton at...
    http://www.xs4all.nl/~huygensf/doc/modename.html
    Last edited by JonR; 08-10-2009 at 08:55 AM.

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