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Understanding Scales, Part: 2

Key Signatures

 

As covered in the first lesson, scales are sets of notes that follow a pattern of 'steps' called whole steps and half steps (or tones and semitones, but we'll stick with describing them as steps). These steps move across either one or two frets as they move up a scale to reach the seventh and then eighth note which returns us to the beginning of the scale, only an octave higher. Each of these scales belongs to a key signature which indicates which notes are to be changed when playing them.

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We change notes by either playing them sharp or flat. When we sharpen or flatten notes we change the frets we use which in turn changes the sound of the scale. Take the key of C, this contains no sharps or flats, which appears like this:

C Major

As we sharpen notes in this scale we change the key signature to look like this:

G Major

D Major

A Major

Becoming familiar with identifying the names of the different notes is a useful way of getting to grips with this quickly. The main thing to understand is that when we play a G scale, we begin on a G as our tonic/starting note, and then the only note that differs from the notes we use for our C scale is our F natural, which becomes an F#, or in the case of the mandolin, changes by a half step (in this example third fret on the D string to second fret). All other notes are shared in common with the C Scale:

C Major Scale:

C                 D                 E                   F                  G                 A                 B                  C

G Major Scale:

G                  A                 B                 C                    D                  E                F#              G

Now let's take another look at D Major and A Major, as we begin to change more notes in the scale:

D Major Scale (two sharps):

D                  E                 F#             G                  A                 B                 C#              D

A Major Scale (three sharps):

A                 B                 C#              D                  E                 F#              G#              A

Natural Minor Scales

The darker sound of minor scales is achieved by again changing the pattern of notes in a scale, so that the third, sixth and seventh steps are all flattened relative to their place in the original key.

 

We also change the key signature to account for this. Bear in mind that the key signature indicates sharps and flats relative to the key of C which contains none. For the moment focus on how these scales vary from the major versions. Play the major scale and then the minor to observe which notes are being changed:

C Minor Scale (three flats):

   C                D                Eb               F                  G                 Ab             Bb               C

G Minor Scale (two flats):

   G                 A                 Bb               C                    D                Eb               F                  G

D Minor Scale (one flat):

   D                 E                 F                G                    A                 Bb              C                  D

A Minor Scale:

A                B                C                 D                   E                   F                 G                 A

It's important to be at least familiar with the shapes of these scales, as aspects of the theory can take time to settle in. Part 3 will continue to explore this area by expanding the shapes and moving up the fretboard.