Scales can be a real downer for some music students. I get that. We all have barriers, things we have to work to get through, some important parts of music study that frustrate us or we don’t like to work on as much for whatever reason. But scales are important.
I’d like to take a few minutes to help you see one way that you can use scales to learn and understand new music, and to transcribe music. And hopefully it will help you have more fun as well.
This will also help you learn to make new music, written or spontaneous and improvised. Through the process, I hope that this will help motivate you to work on your scales a bit as well. It works for me sometimes when I need a little kick to get going.
All music is made of scales. Scales are simply patterns of notes that create a certain tonal center (minor, major, modal, etc.). In music, a scale might be similar to a game like Scrabble, where you are given a number of letters to use to create words. In the case of a scale, a certain set of pitches is used to create melody and harmony.
One of the best ways to learn a new piece of music is to learn it by ear. This is NOT to discount reading music. That is extremely important. But we need to learn music by ear as well. In fact, the more we learn music by ear, the better we can create music on our instrument on the spot. It helps our speakability. We gain vocabulary (musically). We gain the ability to have a musical thought or idea in our head, and make it come out our instrument. If you are in to jazz or other improvisational music (music made on the spot, spontaneously), this could be one of the most important parts of music study.
So, here it is in simple terms.
- Find a piece of music that you like. It can be a new tune. It can be an improvised solo, whatever… YouTube is a great tool for this since it can easily be stopped, started, and you can take it back a few clicks.
- Listen to it several times. Just enjoy it. Don’t analyze it.
- After you have listened well, try to sing along with the first phrase. If you can’t sing it, it won’t sing through your instrument. Do not proceed to step 4 until you can. A lot of students hate this. I know. If you are worried about what people might think about you singing along to a recording, get over it. Part of learning to be a musician is learning to be OK with sounding funky [in a bad way] occasionally.
- Now, what did the music say? What were the pitches or notes that they played? If you think you have it, try to play it on your instruments, note by note. Do not worry too much about the rhythm yet, you are just trying to understand what they said musically, what the notes are.
Say What? Summon Up the Scale
- If you didn’t catch each note correctly, which is possible, then this is where scales can become very helpful. Go back to step 2 and this time try to think carefully about each note, and what the pitch movement is. Does it move by half step, whole step, a 3rd, etc.? This is where scales come in to play. If you were dealing with a crossword puzzle, you might look at all the letters you have and figure out what word possibilities they can make. Here, you are taking the melodic phrase and working backwards one note at a time, to determine the tonal center of the phrase (specifically the key and/or the scale).
- You may need to work slowly. If it helps, grab a piece of manuscript paper. Write out each pitch you hear.
- Look at the notes; can you put them in an order from lowest to highest? Does it look at all like a scale? It may have a few blanks, and it may have a few chromatics, but if you study it carefully, there is a real good possibility that what you have reflects a complete or nearly complete scale.
- You may need to repeat steps 3-7 with the next phrase to get a more complete scale picture. But once you do, you are right where you need to be. Now that you know what the scale is, you can see how they constructed their line. And if it is challenging to play, you’ve found a scale that needs shedding!
In my next article, I will demonstrate this for you. In the mean time, find a tune you’d like to explore, and get to work, but have fun!
P.s. If you don’t recognize the scale then you may have learned far more than just new music, but a new scale! In the coming weeks I will show you how to break down the scale to understand it. This is where this can get really fun. There is a good chance that if there is something unique about the melody to you, that the music may use a scale you are unfamiliar with. Adding a new scale to your vocabulary can be like being a child and getting a whole new set of toys. What possibilities!