Understanding Scale Structure

The 12 Step Scale Chart

Use this chart to visualise how a scale is made up of whole tones or half tones (aka tones & semitones).

You can click on the Buttons to move forward/backward through the different scales. For example to quickly understand the difference between a major and minor, click on “Major”, then “Minor” (Melodic or harmonic”


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As you learn the scales you gradually get to learn not just the intervals that make up the shape of that scale, but by visualising them like this you can get to hear in your head how they sound, so that instead of needing to learn each note of a scale one by one (parrot fashion) you will gradually develop the skill and aural ability that allows your ears to instantly and subconsciously tell your fingers where to go without thinking about it.

In the illustration you can click on each type of scale and see the pattern. Although there are twelve steps in our staircase, we need to think of these as half steps for a proper analogy with a any of the common musical scales used in western music, this is because traditionally we divided the octave into twelve equal steps which we call semitones. (NB: they aren’t always exactly equal, but that’s another story which we needn’t go into at the moment, for now just think of them as twelve half steps or semitones). And of course there are therefore six whole tones. However the most common scales we use have a combination of whole tones and semitones which make up the “pattern” for each scale. sometimes we think of these patterns as Ws and Hs (for Whole and half), e.g. the major scale is WWH WWWH.

To help do this you should not only play the scales on your saxophone, but sing the scales, this will really help you to develop an “ear” for them which will make learning and, more importantly, putting them to good musical use, that much speedier. It’s extremely useful to be able to also play them on a keyboard, especially if you ever intend to learn improvising. There is no need to worry about becoming a great pianist, but being able to play even slowly on a keyboard will help when you are learning to sing and hear the scales as well as really help when you start to learn some more advanced theory, especially how to break scales up into arpeggios and to learn about chords and chord sequences, an understanding of which lays the real foundation to creative improvisation.

While on the subject of chords and improvising, a lot of people when starting out wonder why should a saxophone player need to know about chords? As you may know chords are when you play several notes at once, and you can’t do that on a saxophone can you? So I have included a short section on why and how chords can be useful for saxophone players.




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