Piano Scales, Intervals and Modes
The building blocks of piano songs
Last Updated: January 2023 | Article Details: 1587 words (8 – 10 minute read)
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In this comprehensive guide and list, you’re going to learn all about piano intervals, scales and modes on the piano.
We’ll go over what everything means and then dive right into the list of scales and modes you need to know to be a better piano player, music producer or songwriter.
These are the absolute fundamentals every beginner needs to know.
But if you really want to become a piano playing pro, you should check out take on the top online piano lessons.
Let’s get it…
You Need to Know This First
Most people familiar with music in general know about the idea of piano chords.
If you’re totally new to piano (or music) and don’t know what chords are, read our beginner’s guide to playing piano, first.
Scales are building blocks of music that chords and melodies are based on. And they’re formed using half steps and whole steps.
Here’s a quick primer:
A half step is a move on the keyboard from one note, to the note directly next to it – for example, C to C#. A whole step is a move that skips a note between it and the next note – for example C to D.
Got it? That’s gonna be important to know.
What Is a Piano Interval, Scale and Mode?
A piano interval is the amount of space between two different notes.
For example, if we start on the C note and move directly to the Eb note, that move’s “interval” is known as a “minor third.” The thing you’ll notice about piano intervals is that it doesn’t matter what note you start on, the same intervals sound very similar. A minor third starting on C, will sound similar as a minor third starting on F, or any other key.
A piano scale is a pattern of notes that are played with each other to write music that sounds pleasing to our ears and evokes a specific type of emotion. You start on a note, and using a combination of half steps and whole steps, move up/down to various notes. Examples of scales are the minor, the major, the pentatonic and more. Like intervals, they sound similar regardless of what note you start on.
A piano mode is a variation on a piano scale. You start with a specific scale and alter one or more of the whole-step/half-steps in it to alter the emotion evoked by the notes being played with each other.
Now that the basics are out of the way let’s get into the specifics you should know.
Piano Intervals List
Here are the major piano intervals you should be familiar with.
- Unison – 0 half steps (ex/ start on C, stay on same C)
- Minor 2nd – 1 half step (C to C#/Db)
- Major 2nd – 2 half steps (C to D)
- Minor 3rd – 3 half steps (C to D#/Eb)
- Major 3rd – 4 half steps (C to E)
- Perfect 4th – 5 half steps (C to F)
- Tritone – 6 half steps (C to F#/Gb)
- Perfect 5th – 7 half steps (C to G)
- Minor 6th – 8 half steps (C to G#/Ab)
- Major 6th – 9 half steps (C to A)
- Minor 7th – 10 half steps (C to A#/Bb)
- Major 7th – 11 half steps (C to B)
- Octave – 12 half steps (C to higher C)
It’s always a good idea to memorize these moves and how they sound. It’ll help you a lot when writing melodies.
Popular Piano Scales List
Here are the “patterns” you can use to find various scales using any key on the keyboard. Choose a starting note and follow the patterns below – H = half step, W = whole step, W+H = whole step and half step together. Keep in mind these aren’t rhythm patterns, but intervalic patterns. They guide you on what note to play.
- Major Scale: W – W – H – W – W – W – H
- Minor: W – H – W – W – H – W – W
- Minor Melodic: W – H – W – W – W – W – H
- Minor Harmonic: W – H – W – W – H – W+H
- Minor Pentatonic: W+H – W – W – W+H – W
- Major Pentatonic: W – W – W+H – W – W+H
- Minor Blues: W+H – W – H – H – W+H
- Major Blues: W – H – H – W+H – W
There are a ton more out there, but this list should get you started on the right path. When you’re comfortable with these look into things like the Arabic, Indian and Japanese, for example.
Pay attention to these – they can give you a variety of different vibes. There are also limitless combinations for you just using the scales above. Some scale types work better for certain genres, but break any “rules” you might hear once you’re comfortable with what those rules actually are.
Piano Scale Fingering
It’s important you use the correct fingers for each note when you’re playing a scale on the piano. The recommended “fingering” for each scale below is the most efficient/easiest way to move your fingers across a scale quickly.
Piano Modes List
Modes are basically variations on the major and minor scales above.
- Ionian Mode: W – W – H – W – W – W – H (the same as the MAJOR scale)
- Lydian: W – W – W – H – W – W – H
- Mixolydian: W – W – H – W – W – H – W
- Dorian: W – H – W – W – W – H – W
- Aeolian: W – H – W – W – H – W – W (the same as the MINOR scale)
- Phrygian: H – W – W – W – H – W – W
- Locrian: H – W – W – H – W – W – W
Using piano modes can be a good way of getting out of a creative block. They’re subtly different, but it can definitely impact your song/piece. They give you a more complex emotional flow when making your music. The patterns work the same way as the scales.
So, what are these used for? The simple answer is these are some of the building blocks of full songs. Every song you know is in a particular “key” or scale (or two). The majority of the notes you’ll find in that song are in that particular scale. And because of that, the song will have a certain emotion.
Music is emotion – it gives you a certain feeling. And that feeling/emotion/vibe is usually a result of the intervals, scales/modes and piano chords you choose.
If you pick a major scale to write music in, it’ll probably sound kind of “happy.” If you’re writing a melody and the next note you sing/play is only a minor 2nd up or down, it’ll sound extremely tense.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, learning your music scales is a very important part of being a musician. These are the groups of notes that sound good together and form the basis of most songs. Songs are written in a specific “key” which corresponds to a scale. Chords are also built off of notes in a scale and form the basis of harmony. Knowing these patterns also allows you to improvise, solo and write beautiful melodies.
Scales are used for a variety of things in music – from soloing and improvising, to building harmony through chords and chord progressions and to write melodies for voice and instruments.
There are 24 major and minor scales, but those aren’t the only types that there are in music. There are also different varieties from different parts of the world, as well as things like the pentatonic, blues and other types. There are also scale variations which are called modes.
Piano scales work on the basis of different interval patterns across the keyboard. All major scales, for example, follow the same pattern of intervals no matter which key you start on. The same is true for others as well. The patterns are built using a series of half-steps and whole-steps across the keyboard. Different patterns represent the different types.
If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start by memorizing the main major and minor scales in music theory. There are 12 notes on the keyboard, and each of those notes has a corresponding major and minor scale you can learn. If you prefer to learn and play happier sounding music, start with majors. If you prefer more melancholic music go for the minors first.
You learn piano modes using similar methods to learning your scales. The best way, really, is to memorize the patterns (half step/whole step) each mode uses, so you can build them on-the-fly when you need to.
You can use modes whenever you want to give your piece more emotional complexity. The mode you choose to use will have a unique emotion to it and can help you hit the “feeling” you’re going for in a song more accurately. You use the modes just like you would use the normal scale – by writing melodies, harmonies and solos, etc.
Play around with all of the different variations above just to become familiar with how they sound, without any expectations of writing music.
Get to know the tools in your tool box, first.
Now that you know a little bit about how piano intervals, scales and modes work and what they are, here are some other guides you may find interesting:
Next up, we suggest you learn more about how to play piano chords.
If you really want to level up your piano playing, there’s nothing better than learning your favorite songs. So I highly recommend you try out FlowKey – the best online piano song library around.
There you have it!
Our full guide on piano intervals, scales and modes! We hope you found it useful and thanks for reading.
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