Where Do Scales Come From?

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This could be all myth. Just an interpretation. Nothing new here but my take on where scales come from. I want to present this in the most practical and basic way. By reading this article and future posts you will learn bit by bit until it makes sense.

Where do scales come from? Where everything else comes from: the void. In our case, our “void” is the chromatic scale. Meaning, this scale has no meaning. Its like a painter’s pallet that has every colour on it but nothing else. No picture. No emotion. Nothing. Just a series of half-steps

To extract the major scale from it you need a frame work, a blue print, or in other words a formula. Every scale has a formula that is used as the basis of their construction. Once the formula is applied to filter the chromatic scale we get any major scale we want. Along with that we get all the modes, arpeggios, chords and intervals that are contained in the major scale itself. The diagram below is an overview of the levels of extraction from the “void” to the guitar neck.

For the pianist, the reading of middle “C” is a direct translation. See note, play note. When we take the chromatic scale (in this case it starts on “C4”) and apply the major scale formula, we get C Major. Now, for the guitarist we have to go one step further. We take the notated result and transpose it one octave up. That is how guitar players read it. So “C4” is read in the third space on the stave but sounds one octave lower. Again, our sounding “C4” is found at the 1st fret of the second string and is repeated elsewhere on the fret board as well.

To summarize, a sound wave like 261.6 Hz is encoded as middle C on the piano stave and has a direct one to one relationship with the keyboard. What I mean by this is that its as if the pianist is actually looking at the keyboard when reading the notation on the stave.

Furthermore, if you were to turn the stave so that C4 is aligned with the corresponding key you will see that not only is C4 in the middle but that both clefs line up with the pianist’s hands. The stave looks like a weird mimic-like image of the piano’s keyboard. It’s so close that I would consider it a one to one relationship. See it. Play it. There is no translation-decoding to do.

On the other hand, the guitarist could be said to have three levels of decoding to do when trying to read the same sounding note. First, they see the note. Second, they have to decide where to play it (1st fret 2nd string, 5th fret 3rd string, etc), and then they have to remember that they are reading it an octave higher than it actually sounds. Its no wonder why guitarists have such a hard time reading notation. As a result, the theory behind scales sometimes may get lost to the average guitarist. The levels of extraction can act like a psychological barrier. Reminds me of that joke: 

Question: How do you get a guitar player to stop playing?

Answer: Put sheet music in front of him.

So, lets break that barrier down. To put it simply, the scale formula acts like a stencil placed on a piece of paper. By using the stencil you can shade in any shape you want. In this case, instead of a shape, what we want is the major scale. To repeat, all the scales can be extracted from the chromatic scale by using different formulas. 

The Chromatic Scale

Let’s take a better look at where sounds come from. But this time from the guitarist perspective. If you were to look at the following diagram, you will see its that of a guitar neck as if you were looking down at it where the 6th string E is on the bottom and the 1st string E is at the top. This is just a generic fretboard map.

In western music we only have 12 sounding notes. These notes are said to be a certain distance from one another. The smallest distance is refered to as a half-step or a semi-tone. A half step equates to the distance of 1 fret on the guitar.

So, if we stick to one string like the 2nd string and begin at the first fret (C), we can make our chromatic scale by moving one fret or one half-step at a time until we reach the next C note an octave up. That is the formula for the chromatic scale. It is just a continuous moving of half-steps. 

Knowing this, we can also look at each individual note in the chromatic scale as a possible starting place for a scale. The starting note for any scale is refered to as the tonic. So, when you look at the chromatic scale, you can also see it as a collection of possible tonics to which we can apply formulas to and get scales from. Remember, its like a painter’s pallet.

From Theory To Practicality

So, how does this work and why is this important for you to know? Do we really need to know any of this? As a guitarist, the end goal is to perform. But, when our level of understanding is cut off by these levels of extraction we can become limited in what we can do creatively and only become followers. By followers I mean we strictly learn things by ear and mimic other players of the past. I’m not saying that learning by ear is a bad thing. What is important to realize is that by not understanding any of the theory behind music or not being able to read it at all is much like a poet who can’t read or write. Your idea’s are confined and limited.

Well, in the next article we will explore the idea of constructing the major scale from scratch. We will see how we can go from something like the chromatic scale to the major scale to something we can actually use on the guitar. We must start with theory as a foundation and translated it to something real and usable. What we really want as guitarists is to extract the practicality of it all. 

© John Culjak 2016-2017