Piano Scales, Intervals and Modes
Everything you need to know about the most popular piano scales and modes
Last Updated: June 2021
In this comprehensive guide and list, you’re going to learn all about piano intervals, piano 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.
If you’re totally new to piano, read our beginner’s guide to playing piano.
Let’s get it…
What Everything Is
So what are all these things – modes, scales, intervals? The three kind of build on top of each other like music theory building blocks.
Here’s a quick primer:
The first thing you need to know about is half steps and whole steps. 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.
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 are the minor scale, the major scale, the pentatonic scale 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 all the intervals, scales and modes 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 piano 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.
- Major Scale: W – W – H – W – W – W – H
- Minor Scale: W – H – W – W – H – W – W
- Minor Melodic Scale: W – H – W – W – W – W – H
- Minor Harmonic Scale: W – H – W – W – H – W+H
- Minor Pentatonic Scale: W+H – W – W – W+H – W
- Major Pentatonic Scale: W – W – W+H – W – W+H
- Minor Blues Scale: W+H – W – H – H – W+H
- Major Blues Scale: W – H – H – W+H – W
There are a ton more scales 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 scales, for example.
Pay attention to scales – 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 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 Mode: W – W – W – H – W – W – H
- Mixolydian: W – W – H – W – W – H – W
- Dorian Mode: W – H – W – W – W – H – W
- Aeolian Mode: W – H – W – W – H – W – W (the same as the MINOR scale)
- Phrygian Mode: H – W – W – W – H – W – W
- Locrian Mode: 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.
Play around with all of the different modes/scales/intervals 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: