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I understand that ascending scales go from a lower pitch class up to the next pitch class with the same letter name. For example, C to C'. For descending scales it is the reverse.

What I don't get is why there are descending scales in the first place. What is the point one scale ascending and the other descending?

When making music, one chooses pitches of a scale and organizes them in a mostly random order rather than strictly up or down the scale. This means the pitches are not actually strictly ascending or descending.

So, why not have ascending scales only? They represent the pitch classes that we can choose from and that's it. Why is there a need for a descending scale?

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  • One thing that I suspect is causing you trouble is the thought that “one chooses pitches of a scale and organizes them in a mostly random order”. Not at all random. Oct 4, 2023 at 11:16
  • Dv'd due to the question not making much sense - apart from melodic minor.
    – Tim
    Oct 4, 2023 at 18:16
  • @Tim I'm imagining that the poster encountered some listing of scales that printed both ascending and descending for all forms. MusicQuestions, if you can confirm or link to a source that might help. Oct 4, 2023 at 20:33
  • "This means the pitches are not actually strictly ascending or descending.": They don't have to be, but frequently they are. And you'd better [practice them in both directions if you want to be prepared for whatever might come your way.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2023 at 21:52
  • Thanks for the answers @ToddWilcox I meant random as in there is no defined way to make music out of scales. If you pick any scale there's a million different approaches to combine the the pitch classes of that scale to make music. So, in that sense the scale provides the tools but doesn't tell you in what order you have to use them. Or am I wrong? Oct 6, 2023 at 19:13

5 Answers 5

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The quick and insufficient answer is, "Yeah sure, most scales are the same forwards and backwards. If you're looking at a page that lists, like, 'C major ascending, C major descending,' etc., then it's just because the melodic minor will be different descending, and they're trying to be overly systematic."

But at its core this is a question about semantics. We use the word "scale" in multiple ways, and you've noted one of those uses, when there are others that can make more sense of this.

The way you're using "scale"—"a grab-bag of pitch-classes from which we select notes to assemble to form a melody"—well, yes, the word is sometimes used in this way. Often in jazz circles, e.g. "Don't play that C sharp; the chord here is a Dm7, so solo in a D dorian scale," meaning not that one simply runs up and down the dorian scale sequentially, but that one selects from those pitches. If we want the most technical word for this concept, maybe "pitch set" is best.

Some comments here have also mentioned "mode." Or, colloquially, we often talk about the same idea with the word "key." Superficially, this seems like the concept you're referring to: The mode of C major is all naturals; the mode of D mixolydian has an F sharp; etc. But this word can bring in an additional meaning: "mode" and "key" are, in most contexts, bound to the notion of "tonality." That is, if we're in C major, we don't just use all the naturals at random; to do so would be atonality. Rather, we have a sort of grammar or syntax in which pitches (and the chords underlying them) have purpose, and order themselves according to those purposes: I leads to V leads to I.

To come back to "scale": This idea of syntax can also be bound up in the word "scale." We're looking at you, melodic minor (we have been all along, haven't we?). It has different notes going up and going down—not because somebody made up the "rules for the scale" first and then composed using them, but because practice did it first. The fact is, for the bulk of the "Common Practice Period"—that roughly baroque-through-romantic monolith of "classical music"—scales are an actual building material. Make a survey from Vivaldi to Rachmaninov and it's a trivial exercise to find entire, intact scales scattered throughout concert pieces, as if lifted straight from Hanon or Flesch. And even easier to find them in fragments, as scalar motion. Think through the theme of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"—a couple of thirds, one big leap, and otherwise everything is stepwise. And as the underlying chords, the gravitational forces of tonal harmony, exert themselves on these scalar melodies, this is where the cadential tug in melodic minor, as it demands a "proper," major, dominant, warps those 6th and 7th scale degrees upward, while the falling motion, perhaps supported by something like a dim ii, lets them relax.


On re-reading this answer, the mention of Hanon and Flesch reminded me of another very good reason for finding descending as well as ascending scales. If the conversation is simply about music theory, then yes most garden-variety scales are symmetrical. But if we're talking about actually playing them on an instrument, there are practical considerations. The fingering may be different on the way down for many instruments, and even if it's symmetrical, the task of using the same fingers in the opposite order is one that must be learned.

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  • Thank you! I really appreciate your detailed answer but my music theory knowledge is not deep enough to really grasp your reply. I think I need a more straightforward, simple answer. I understand that for practicing scales it is useful to play them in ascending and descending order. But when you actually create music, what is the use of an descending scale? Wether I choose pitch classes from the ascending or descending variant, they are the same with the exception of the melodic minor variant. I don't see the point of naming or categorizing them. Oct 6, 2023 at 17:59
  • @MusicQuestions7 Hm, let me try a simpler summary then: Scales aren't just collections of notes that we choose from. They're also actual sequences of notes, like simple melodies, that actually appear in order in pieces. And sure, with the exception of meloding min., they're the same up or down. I don't know that we do bother "naming or categorizing" the down separately from the up? I wonder whether you're looking at a particular source that does? (Also, I have a feeling there are other exotic scales that differ on the way down, but I couldn't find any to give as examples.) Oct 6, 2023 at 18:32
  • Thank you again very much. So, from what I understand now, scales are a collection of pitch classes and also "blue prints" for melodies. Is that correct? I have no source or textbook. I'm just researching this topic to learn music theory and the purpose of descending scales is hard to understand for me. No resource I found so far actually explains the purpose of descending scales. It's always the general answer of scales being sets of pitch classes that sound good together. Oct 6, 2023 at 19:09
  • @MusicQuestions7 Let's continue the discussion in chat Oct 11, 2023 at 20:52
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I can only guess that the scale in question is the classic melodic minor.

Scales are purely sets of notes, portrayed in ascending/descending order. In themselves, they bear little relationship to pieces played in their keys.

Examining the melodic minor. Compared with the natural minor, the leading note is sharpened, to make a better sounding and convincing V chord, leading notes should be a semitone under the tonic. As seen in the harmonic minor.

This, though, creates a 3 semitone interval between ^6 and ^7. Thus ascending, ^6 is also raised. Descending, there isn't the need for the semitone leading note to tonic being that semitone, and all of those notes are simply belonging also to the relative major.

This was often reflected in classical music, where if the melody line rose, ^6 and ^7 would be raised, but left 'natural' when the melody descended.

Can't think of any other scales that change with change of direction, though. Someone might enlighten me!

EDIT: having re-read the actual question(!) what's wrong with using scales to play up and down the appropriate notes? It's probably something exam boards have cottoned on to, to check out fingering (smoothness-wise) and knowledge of appropriate notes going both ways. In later exams, there are contrary motion scales to be played. If scales only went ascending, that would be a non starter! And let's face it, melody lines do tend to develop in both directions - don't they..?

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Scales don't have a 'direction', they are a set of pitches put in order order stepwise, but either direction is equally valid. Musicians very often practice scales, and it makes sense to practice them both ascending and descending. For some minor scales there are variations in certain notes (6th/7th) and these might be practised in two variants: up and down.

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  • I thought that a ‘mode’ was a set of pitches (in a harmonic context), whereas a ‘scale’ puts the pitches in a specific order. (Although many musicians use ‘scale’ for both) Oct 4, 2023 at 11:02
  • @KrisVanBael You're correct of course, I modified the answer.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 4, 2023 at 12:36
  • seems to me @KrisVanBael ‘s comment gets to the heart of the OP’s confusion—the distinction between mode and scale. Maybe it can be expanded into an answer? Oct 4, 2023 at 14:02
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Maybe a bit of a simple answer, but part of the reason we train on scales both ways is because:

  • stepwise motion is common in melodies (or any musical line).
  • practicing things that occur in music frequently is helpful.
  • since melodies often step downwards as well as upwards, one should practice both directions.

Or, the sound-bite phrasing:

Music goes downwards sometimes too!

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It was just an early way to describe borrowed chords.

While there are examples of melodies actually using it in an ascending and descending manner, especially Baroque era like Paganini, but also modern era songs Yesterday by the Beatles or War Pigs by Black Sabbath, the reason is to "borrow" the chords from another scale.

For example, in A minor, a melody may borrow the B- and E7 from A (major) to resolve back to A-. They may even borrow A (major), described with another early borrowed chord term, the Picardy third. One might find this more pleasing than Bdim to E-7 resolving to A-.

The only formalized mention of this I'm aware of is melodic minor, but the Black Sabbath song War Pigs ascends using a major third and descends using a minor third.

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  • In classical theory chords are borrowed from another key or another tonality, not from a scale.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2023 at 21:54
  • And another key or tonality implies --- another scale :-)
    – Wyrmwood
    Oct 4, 2023 at 22:00
  • I don't think this answers the question: I made the same reading mistake when answering, had to edit. Borrowed chords have nothing to do with ascending/descending scales. Close to a dv.
    – Tim
    Oct 5, 2023 at 7:39
  • DV per Tim and also because the statement "its just an early way" is wrong as even a cursory glance at baroque-era treatises (Rameau, ...), which in no way link the variety of minor scales with borrowing, will confirm.
    – AlexJ
    Oct 5, 2023 at 13:26

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