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Beginner here, it seems like a scale just defines a particular set of notes that don't have to be played in any order to me. But if you look at A minor pentatonic scale you have A, C, D, E, G, yet with the same notes you get C major pentatonic with C, D, E, G, A. If they are not supposed to be played in order, how would you differentiate the two scales at all? Or does the order matter? And if you play a scale such as A minor above, can you mix in a note outside of that scale, or does that create a new scale from that point? Like if you played A, C, D, Db, E, F, G, is that just A minor with extra notes or would that be considered an entirely new scale?

  • Why would you play A, C, D, D♭, E, F, G? That's not strictly ascending. – wizzwizz4 Jan 12 at 13:59
  • Even if you meant D# (not Db) that is another scale - certainly not A minor again. It probably has a special name, but the moment other notes are added to an existing scale, that scale can't have the same name, can it? – Tim Jan 12 at 16:13
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    In Indian music, a rāga (or raag) is not just a set of notes, but also the particular sequences of ascending and descending notes, also distinctive phrases, etc... all leading up to a certain mood or emotion to be evoked in the listener. In Western music, this aspect is less well developed, while other aspects like harmony are more. – ShreevatsaR Jan 12 at 19:17
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Beginner here, it seems like a scale just defines a particular set of notes that don't have to be played in any order to me.

It depends. As Tim says, in an examination situation, you play the notes in order, as that's the 'study' form of the scale. But when the scale is used in a piece of music, then as you say, it's the set that's more important, and the notes could be in any order.

You wouldn't say you were playing a scale if the notes were out of order - but you could say you were using the scale, or using notes from the scale - such as when guitarists talk about which scales to use over which chords, for example.

If talking about the overall tonality of the piece, people often talk about 'keys' rather than scales. A piece of music that's considered to be in the key of C major might use notes outside the C major scale.

But if you look at A minor pentatonic scale you have A, C, D, E, G, yet with the same notes you get C major pentatonic with C, D, E, G, A. If they are not supposed to be played in order, how would you differentiate the two scales at all?

At least when talking about Western music, there is also the assumption that the "letter name" of the scale is also the "home note" or tonic of the passage of music using the scale. So you would talk about a set of notes using the C major scale if the home note or tonic was C; with the same set of notes, you could talk about the scale being A minor if the home note was A.

You can also talk about modes of a scale, which is another way to talk about notes from the diatonic scale being used with different home notes.

And if you play a scale such as A minor above, can you mix in a note outside of that scale, or does that create a new scale from that point? Like if you played A, C, D, Db, E, F, G, is that just A minor with extra notes or would that be considered an entirely new scale?

It could be either - it's up to the person analysing or composing the piece to decide what's the most helpful way to see it. Western music theory tends to try to fit everything into the diatonic scale, with a presumption towards major and minor - and because it's recognised that real-world music isn't this 'neat', people are used to the idea of using extra notes from outside of the basic scale.

Some comments elsewhere on this question have pointed out that the idea of a scale can also relate to more than just a set of notes, but also other practices, such as playing different notes when ascending than when descending (melodic minor), or bending certain notes through ranges of pitch (blues scale). Another recent question suggested that in Indian music, the term that we translate as 'Scale' has a meaning more like 'Key' in Western music. Unfortunately, the exact meaning of the word scale - like many words in Music theory terminology - depends somewhat on context.

  • Woah woah woah, this is changing my way of thinking. So it's up to the analyzer to say what the scales are? If you have 3 instruments playing at the same time, each playing different scales, would you view each instrument as doing its own scales, or would you view each note from all the instruments combined, in which case would that even be possible, measuring simultaneous notes from different instruments like that? – コナーゲティ Jan 12 at 10:13
  • @コナーゲティ "it's up to the analyzer to say what the scales are?" - to an extent. If a player is using all the notes from the scale of C major, and only those notes and the home note is C, then it would be unhelpful for the analyser to say that the scale used is anything other than C Major (or perhaps C Ionian). Once you get outside of there being a "perfect fit", you have to start to make trickier decisions about how to classify things. Describing something as using a scale, or a key, is often going to be an approximation; it's understood that judgement is often necessary. – topo morto Jan 12 at 10:30
  • "If you have 3 instruments playing at the same time" - then as you say, you could view each instrument as doing its own scale, but you could also make a description of the tonality of the piece as a whole - which could be polytonal, or even nearly atonal. – topo morto Jan 12 at 10:32
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As for how to differentiate between A minor and C major, you may be interested in the answers to When is a piece in A minor versus C major?

But I wanted to offer one clarification in terminology: the difference between a scale and a collection (sometimes called a scale collection). A scale would be the notes of A-minor penatonic in order: A C D E G A. That collection, meanwhile, would be those pitches, but not necessarily in that order, like C A G E D.

This helps clarify that the A-minor and C-major pentatonic scales are different, but their collections are the same.

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    In common usage though, do people actually say 'in this passage, the player is using the A-minor pentatonic collection' ? In my experience, people still use the word 'scale' to mean collection, with the distinction made by context. – topo morto Jan 12 at 10:34
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    That statement sounds very common to me and not at all out of the ordinary, but perhaps I'm hanging around the wrong people :-) – Richard Jan 12 at 10:36
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    I suspect it's the rest of us who are hanging around the wrong people..! – topo morto Jan 12 at 10:37
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    I have heard 'using the A minor scale' - but rarely. Never 'the A minor collection'. More usually 'We're in A minor'. Obviously working off dots, there's really no need to discuss what the key is! And songs such as Fly Me to the Moon - the jury's out: Am or C? And does it really matter..? – Tim Jan 12 at 10:54
  • @Tim My guess is that it might be more "academic" parlance. That's certainly where I first encountered it, but I've definitely heard it in performance/practice situations. – Richard Jan 12 at 16:48
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A scale is a particular set of notes played ascending and/or descending. French word for scale is echelle, which also means ladder. And, as said previously, we scale a ladder. Best to use one rung at a time!

In an examination situation, particular scales are requested, and generally get played up and down, in note order.

By adding ( or taking away) any note/s, the scale is changed, so it becomes called something different. For example, C pentatonic minor, C E♭ F G B♭ becomes C minor blues when F#/G♭ is added.

Taking your example of pentatonics - A C D E G starting from A is A minor pent., while C D E G A is C major pent.This opens a can of worms with modes, which are covered in many places on this site.

So, basically, a pitch set of notes, which often constitute a key, when played in pitch order, is a scale, which can be one octave minimum, or as many octaves as the instrument will allow.

  • Okay, so they do have to be played in order for it to stay in that scale? – コナーゲティ Jan 12 at 9:34
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    I suspect you are mixing up the terms scale and key. A scale is merely those notes from a specific key, laid out in order. Play them out of order, and it's not a scale, but the beginnings of a tune. A lot of tunes use only the notes from one key, and they will be scale notes, but not constitute a scale, unless, as said before, they're in order. – Tim Jan 12 at 10:01
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A scale is a pattern of ascending notes, and that pattern shows the distance between each note characteristic to that scale. It cannot be just any group of notes in any order, because even playing a scale down changes the distances between the notes.

For example, a major scales has the following pattern of whole steps and half steps: W W H W W W H. That is the ascending pattern. If that same pattern was used descending, we would get a completely different set of notes, which would match the phrygian mode.

So, in short, yes scales are ascending and the notes are played in order. This is particularly useful in practicing technique as the patterns of the scale, or pieces of it, show up in music all the time or can be used in improvising.

However, melodies and accompaniments will use the notes in various orders. When describing this to students I will say "This melody uses notes from the C Major scale", for example.

A piece does not have to use notes from only one scale, however. Other scales (and the chords built from them) can be brought in, but this gets into more advanced theory.

  • But doesn't the melodic minor scale use different notes ascending and descending, indicating that scales can also be descending? – Dekkadeci Jan 12 at 15:12
  • @Dekkadeci, I suppose that theorists could argue about this, but it is melodic going up and returns to natural going down. Melodic minor is such a useful, but contrived, thing. – Heather S. Jan 12 at 15:18
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    I am trying to understand your statement 'scales are ascending'. Most(excepting classical melodic minor) will use the same notes, played backwards in descending motion - there's no reason to presume they will use the same pattern that was made when ascending - were that the case, every scale would have a strange 'twin' that wasn't much related notewise. Thus, I consider most scales to work both ways, with the same set of notes, not just ascending. Or have I missed something? We tend to think of patterns going 'left to right', but that's just a convenient way to portray them. – Tim Jan 12 at 16:07
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    The ascending pattern is what defines the scale. When we are playing them "down", we are simply playing the scales backwards. We are not changing the scale to a new pattern. – Heather S. Jan 12 at 17:32
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    Being picky, the defining features of a scale are the intervals between notes. It matters not whether it's ascending or descending. When playing contrary motion scales (in exams, for example), one hand, by definition, will be descending initially. So it's inaccurate to state that 'scales are ascending'. Of course the pattern doesn't change - usually - otherwise it's a different set of notes, thus, a different scale! Not my dv, but a possible reason someone gave it - but, as usual, they are incapable of explaining why... – Tim Jan 12 at 18:00
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The Pentatonic collection of Am and C are the same (s. answer of Richard).

If they are not supposed to be played in order, how would you differentiate the two scales at all?

It won't make a difference (it doesn't matter) if you differentiate them or not. As long as we don't have a tune or an accompaniment (harmony) we can't determine whether they belong to Am or C.

BLACK IS BLACK (interesting title: meaning the black keys of pentatonic?) (before the entry of the singer you can't definitely say what kind of music is ... maybe the last note of the second phrase is so la Do?

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=black+is+black&view=detail&mid=A1DC4F75F25304AAA86CA1DC4F75F25304AAA86C&FORM=VIRE

Yes, the intro is the pentatonic of Do, starting with the 2nd inversion of IIm (la do re, la do re, la do re do) turning to the tonic so la do: only the melody (la re fa) and the harmony will give the answer.

  • I only became aware of the funny thing of the pentatonic in the title Black is Black (black keys when I was trying to find an example. probably "the little negro" of debussy is playing a fool with us in the same way. – Albrecht Hügli Jan 13 at 11:32

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