If you’ve ever studied under a music teacher at school or college, or taken lessons to learn an instrument, then you’ll no doubt have been assigned a long list of scales to practice to get your chops up.
The voice is the instrument of the human body, so scales and arpeggios are just a couple of many techniques which translate well from instrument to voice. Many music students bemoan their teachers’ insistence that they practice their scales and arpeggios day in, day out before they can so much as learn to play ‘Happy Birthday’ – but once you’re familiar with both of these techniques, you’ll find that the songs which have mystified you up until now suddenly make a lot more sense.
Want to find out how learning scales are the secret to becoming a better singer? All in good time! Let’s first set a few things straight first:
What are scales?
Scales are patterns of notes with different sized gaps between them. Different scales change where these gaps occur to give them their own sound or ‘mood’.
Scales can be played in different key signatures, which is a great way of exercising your voice and training your ear. Because the sound of a scale will become familiar to you, it will become simpler for you to repeat that pattern from a different starting point – meaning you’ll be able to reach new heights and depths of range.
If you’ve not already warmed up your voice, we recommend reading our Vocal Warm-ups guide first – but if your vocal cords are revved up and ready to go, then let’s take them out for a spin.
Why do I need to practice scale and arpeggios?
Both scales and arpeggios will help you understand the relationships between notes. As you practice them over and over, you’ll memorise the different ‘steps’ (a shorter distance between two notes) and ‘skips’ or ‘leaps’ (a longer distance between two notes).
Moreover, most popular music – in fact, most Western music in general – is based on just a handful of scales. This means that, when you’ve got to grips with all of the most commonly used scales, you’ll recognise these patterns when you hear them in songs, and will be able to bring your knowledge of scales across and apply it to those songs, giving you a deeper understanding of how they work and allowing you to sing phrases and melodies with greater confidence.
We’re now going to look at a few of the most common scales you’ll encounter, what the differences between them are, and how they can help you develop as a singer and musician – plus, we’ll throw in some handy examples of each while we’re at it.
If you have access to a piano or a keyboard (or can play another instrument, such as the guitar), then you’ll be able to play the notes we discuss and sing along to them too. If not, don’t worry – you can download a free piano app that will help keep you on track – and in tune!
The major scale is probably the most popular with music teachers, and is probably the most familiar sounding to your ears. It’s usually described as sounding “happy” and “comforting”.
The easiest way to understand the major scale is to picture a piano keyboard; from the note ‘C’, playing each white note in sequence up until the next ‘C’ will give you the ‘C Major scale’.
The major and minor scales are known as ‘heptatonic’ – which means it’s made up of seven different musical tones. For C Major, these notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B, after which you’d reach the eighth note, which is C again (the octave).
You’ll notice on the piano keyboard that the black keys are only between some of the white keys, not all of them. This is because many commonly used scales are made up of ‘whole tones’ and ‘semitones.’
The gaps, or ‘intervals’, between each of these notes determine what kind of scale you’re playing. In C Major, a whole tone interval occurs when there’s a black key between the white keys, and a semitone occurs when there’s no black key between the white keys. The intervals can be written like so (whole-whole-semitone-whole-whole-whole, then a final semitone up to the next C).
Find the note C on your instrument or app, then match it with your singing voice by saying “ahh” at the same pitch. For female vocalists, we recommend starting from middle C (the fourth C note from the left on a standard piano keyboard, or the fifth fret on the G string of a guitar); for male vocalists, we recommend starting from C3 (the third C note from the left on a keyboard, or the third fret on the A string of a guitar).
Many singing teachers and choir leaders will start a warm up session with the C major scale, then will move everyone up a semitone to C#, then to D, and so on, warming up your entire singing range. Some teachers will only sing a part of the scale (C-D-E-F-G, then back down G-F-E-D-C) – this will still give your voice a good workout, but for the purposes of the exercises in this article, we’ll be giving you the whole scale.
From your starting note of C, sing up the C major scale up to the next octave (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), then come back down again (C-B-A-G-F-E-D-C). Did you notice how the intervals between the first four notes are the same as the intervals between the second four?
There are countless songs which use major keys, so it’s an important scale to store in your bank of musical knowledge. Here are a few of our favourites major-key songs:
- Let it Be – the Beatles (C major)
- Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival (D major)
- Fix You – Coldplay (Eb/D# major)
The minor scale is another common scale used in popular music, and is often described as sounding “sad” or “mysterious”.
You’ll encounter a few variations of the minor scale in the popular songs you learn to sing, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with the key differences. Let’s have a look at what those are:
The Natural Minor Scale
The natural minor scale is so called because it doesn’t contain any ‘accidentals’ (sharpened or flattened notes that would usually be outside the key signature), and is essentially the same as the major scale, but started from a different position. The fact that the major scale and the natural minor scale share this ‘relationship’ is why the natural minor scale which includes the exact same notes is called the ‘relative minor’ key.
So if we take the C major scale again (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), we can find its relative minor key by moving our starting position down two notes of the scale (one half step and one whole step) to A. This gives us A natural minor (A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A), which again uses all the white keys on a piano keyboard and none of the black keys. The intervals for this scale are (whole-semitone-whole-whole-semitone-whole-whole).
The natural minor scale is useful for you to learn as a singer because it puts the notes and intervals which you already know into a new setting. Try playing a single ‘A’ note on your instrument or app – this is 3 semitones down from the C you played in Exercise 1.
Now sing up the natural minor scale to the next A – remember, those semitone intervals need to happen earlier than in the major scale! – then back down again.
Here are some songs which use the natural minor scale:
- Golden Brown – the Stranglers (B natural minor)
- Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers (A natural minor)
- Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) – Florence + the Machine (A natural minor)
The Harmonic Minor Scale
The harmonic minor scale is very similar to the natural minor scale, but with one key difference: the sharp, or raised, seventh note (denoted as #7). Sharpening or raising the seventh note gives the scale what’s been described as an ‘exotic’ or ‘Eastern’ sound.
Sticking with the key of A, the A harmonic minor scale gives us these notes (A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A) and these intervals (whole-semitone-whole-whole-semitone-minor third-semitone).
The raised seventh note also gives the fifth chord of the scale a stronger ‘leading note’, meaning that, for example, an E major or E7 chord played before an A minor chord gives a more satisfying – and more ‘harmonic’ – resolution than hearing an E minor chord before an A minor. This is because the A harmonic minor scale’s raised seventh note (G#) is closer to the root note of A than the A natural minor’s seventh note (G), making our ears more eager to hear the note reach its goal.
This is a useful scale for you to practice singing, as you will need to concentrate to get the unusually large interval right. It’s also a very popular scale for melodies, mostly due to that satisfying resolution the raised seventh creates.
Play your A note from Exercise 3 and sing your way up the scale to the next A. Make sure you get that interval between the F and the G# right!
A lot of popular songs tend to blend the natural minor and harmonic minor scales, taking the more functional chords made possible by using natural seventh, but sharpening the seventh
Here are some songs which use the harmonic minor scale:
Bury A Friend – Billie Eilish (G harmonic minor)
Hysteria – Muse (A harmonic minor)
Smooth – Santana
The Melodic Minor Scale
The melodic minor scale is perhaps the most unusual scale we’ve looked at so far, because the notes it uses on the way up are different to the notes it uses on the way down; this was developed by classical composers because the minor third leap in harmonic minor scale made it more difficult to write smooth melodies – hence ‘melodic’.
On the way up, it’s similar to the harmonic minor scale, but with a raised sixth note as well as a raised seventh note; on the way back down, it’s exactly the same as the natural minor scale, with no accidentals.
So in the key of A melodic minor, we find these notes (A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A) and intervals (whole-semitone-whole-whole-whole-whole-semitone) on the way up, and these notes (A-G-F-E-D-C-B-A) and intervals (whole-whole-semitone-whole-whole-semitone-whole) on the way back down.
This is a great scale to practice when you sing, because you have to really think about the different notes as you go up and down. The melodic minor scale on the way up is particularly interesting, as you have four whole tone intervals in a row – something that we haven’t seen so far.
Using your same starting point of A, sing your way up the melodic minor scale to the next A – and make sure you remember to sing the natural minor scale on the way back down!
While the melodic minor scale can be found in many jazz standards and classical compositions, it’s usually overlooked in favour of the natural and harmonic minor scales. However, here are a couple of pieces we think you’ll know which do use the melodic minor scale:
- Yesterday – the Beatles (F major / D melodic minor)
- Greensleeves – traditional (A melodic minor, various)
- Carol of the Bells – Mykola Leontovych (G melodic minor)
The Chromatic Scale
This scale is a little less common in popular music, but it does crop up occasionally – and it will give you greater control over your voice, in no small part due to the fact that our ears have been conditioned by western music to expect to make the odd whole tone step once in a while. This simply does not happen in the chromatic scale.
‘Chromatic’, meaning ‘colourful’, is used to describe this scale because it features the notes between the notes of other scales, which adds ‘colour’. The chromatic scale is probably the easiest to remember because it features each of the 12 notes, no matter where you start from. Check out this table below and see for yourself how every note appears, whichever way you approach it:
It can be quite difficult at first to only go up or down a semitone at a time, because it doesn’t sound as musical to our westernised ears as the other scales we’ve looked at. However, if you’re able to sing chromatically from your root note without the luxury of it sounding especially musical, then you’ve increased your musical powers!
Find your starting C note from exercise one and sing it, then increase your note by one semitone at a time – see if you can make it all the way up to the next octave, then come back down again. Once you get back to your starting note, try going down the chromatic scale to the octave below. We bet that sounded pretty intense – scary even!
Many classical compositions make use of the chromatic scale – perhaps the most famous example would be Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee – but the dramatic sound of the chromatic scale is often used to convey a dramatic message. Both Mozart and Verdi use the chromatic scale is the ‘Dies Irae’ (‘Day of Wrath’) sections of their celebrated Requiems, and many hard rock and metal artists have been inspired to use the scale themselves for similar reasons – here are our favourites:
- War Pigs – Black Sabbath (E)
- Dazed and Confused – Led Zeppelin (E)
- Them Bones – Alice in Chains (C#)
This is possibly the most common scale used in pop music, so learning it will definitely come in handy when you’re practicing your favourite popular songs.
As with the heptatonic major and minor scales, the pentatonic scale gets its name from the five notes that make it up.
Like the harmonic minor scale, the pentatonic scale contains a larger interval than most of the other scales we’ve looked at – a minor third, the equivalent to 3 semitones, or a whole tone and a half. Where this note falls depends on whether you’re singing the scale in minor position or major position.
If we take the C major pentatonic scale (which contains the same notes as the relative A minor pentatonic scale), we get C-D-E-G-A before the pattern repeats in the next octave. This relationship is in part why the pentatonic scale is so handy to learn, and why it’s so popular with songwriters – it’s a simple pattern which you can repeat over different chords in your key signature.
The pentatonic scale is also used in a lot of famous guitar riffs, because it can easily be played on the fretboard in several comfortable positions – plus, the notes of the open strings in standard tuning are all in the G major or E minor pentatonic scale, which David Gilmour takes full advantage of to create the acoustic guitar riff of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. Incidentally, each black key on a piano keyboard is used in the F# major and D# minor pentatonic scales, which Stevie Wonder makes use of for the main ‘Superstition’ riff.
This one’s a little different – find your starting C note again, then sing up the pentatonic scale from C up to the A, then come back down to the C. Now, play an A note on your instrument or app, and again sing the pentatonic scale from C up to the A, then back down. Now play an F, still singing to pentatonic scale from the same C starting point, and finally return to the C for a final sing of the scale. Did you notice how the scale sounded right with each note you played?
A huge number of popular songs from a variety of genres use the pentatonic scale as a basis for their melodies (pretty much every song Oasis ever wrote uses it!). Here are some prime examples of the pentatonic scale in action:
- Cochise – Audioslave (E minor pentatonic)
- My Girl – the Temptations (C major pentatonic)
- Amazing Grace – John Newton (F major pentatonic)
What are arpeggios?
The simplest way to understand an arpeggio is to think of it as a broken chord. A chord, by definition, is any 2 or more notes – but most commonly, we think of a chord as being made up of 3 different notes.
Like with scales, these 3 notes can be repeated as you go higher up or lower down. So while a C major chord uses the root (C), the third (E) and the fifth (G) notes of the C major scale, a popular C major arpeggio goes all the way up to the next root note – which in this case would be C, making the full C major arpeggio C-E-G-C, with the intervals (major third-minor third-fourth). Similarly, an A minor arpeggio contains the notes A-C-E-A, with the intervals (minor third-major third-fourth).
How will arpeggios help me sing?
Because an arpeggio spans from one end of the scale to the other, singing it will help you warm up your vocal range. Also, because the intervals between the notes are wider, this will help you get used to having to leap further with your singing voice.
Find your C starter note again, and sing a full C major arpeggio (C-E-G-C-G-E-C). You might find that you have to put a little extra power behind your voice as you jump up to the C from the G, as that’s the widest interval we’ve looked at in any of our exercises!
Now we’re going to flatten the third to make a C minor arpeggio. Play your C note again, then sing (C-E?-G-C-G-E?-C).
While arpeggios are a great musical device used commonly in classical music and film scores – not to mention a fantastic vocal exercise – full arpeggios aren’t all too common in popular music. Here are a few songs in which you’ll hear either full or partial arpeggios in a major key:
- The Star-Spangled Banner – music by John Stafford Smith; lyrics by Francis Scott Key (Bb major)
- Twist and Shout – the Beatles, written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns (D major)
- More Than Words – Extreme (F# major)
Here are some pieces of music and songs in which you’ll hear full or partial arpeggios in a minor key:
- Montagues and Capulets – Sergei Prokofiev (E minor)
- Oh My God – Kaiser Chiefs (D minor)
- Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford (B minor)
Scales and Arpeggios – Richard Sherman, Robert B Sherman (C major)
Now you know your scales and your arpeggios, use them as part of your daily warm-up routine. Test your musical memory and see if you can sing a full scale or arpeggio just from hearing a single note!