A scale is a collection of tones arranged in a particular order. This collection of tones traverses the interval of the octave. The first note of the scale is particularly important; in tonal music it is called the tonic. There are two primary types of scale in tonal music, major and minor. A given scale takes its name from the first note and the type of the scale. For example, the major scale whose first note is C is called the "C major scale."
When we speak of mode in relation to tonal music, we are referring to the scale type; thus music which uses a major scale is said to be in the major mode.
Major and minor scales can be most easily distinguished by focusing on the relationship between the first and third pitches in the scale.
The Major Scale
The major scale is the simpler of the two main kinds of scale. It is represented graphically below.
You may want to play the example a few times to help you to recognize this scale later.
The minor scale is more complicated than the major scale because it comes in three varieties. The three kinds of minor scale are called the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale. For the purposes of this mini-course it is not necessary for you to understand or to hear the differences between the three kinds of minor scale. All three start off the same way and are the same for pitches one through five of the scale. You should learn to recognize the pattern of these first five pitches. One of the minor scales, the natural minor scale, is represented both graphically and musically below.
Again, you may want to play the example a few times to help you to recognize this scale later.
Major and Minor Scales: Telling the Difference
The most reliable way to tell the difference between major and minor scales is by focusing on the lower part of the scale. In particular, of the first five notes of the scale, only one, the third note, is ever different between major and minor scales.
Notice especially the relationship between the third notes and the first. The interval between them is a third -- in the major scale this third is a major third, and in the minor scale(s) (of all types) it is a minor third.
Listen a few times to that last example until you feel that you have a good grasp of the difference. Now listen again to some examples of complete major and minor scales. So long as you know that the scale you will hear will be either major or minor, you don't need to hear the whole scale -- you can tell as soon as you've heard the third note.
Practicing Hearing Major and Minor Scales
The construction of major and minor scales is one of the more complicated topics in this mini-course. Although it has required more explanation, the focus of the lesson is not on understanding concepts, but on preparing you to learn to hear the difference between major and minor scales. It is in the training environment that you will learn how to do this. Before going there, listen to the major and minor scales below a few times. You will not be asked to tell the difference between melodic minor and harmonic minor scales. You will hear each kind, but you will only need to identify them as minor scales. If you have trouble distinguishing the examples below, you may wish to review parts of this lesson, review the previous lesson, or go back to the previous lesson's training environment. When you feel ready, enter the training environment for major and minor scales. Continue with this environment, or with reviews, until you feel comfortable in your ability to distinguish major and minor scales reliably.