Beginning to Read Music

by John Craton

Understanding the Scale and Intervals

There are seven notes on a scale. When counting these notes we always begin with the bottom note of the scale and assign it the number 1. That means that in a C Major scale, C is the first (or 1) note of the scale. The next note up is 2, the third note 3, and so forth. These numbers also are called the intervals on the scale, so that when someone speaks of the 3rd interval on a C Major scale, they are talking about the 3rd note up from C, which is E.

While you don’t need to learn all these now, it is also important to know that the intervals on a scale also have some fancy names. These are their “real” names:

1 tonic
2 supertonic
3 mediant
4 subdominant
5 dominant
6 submediant
7 subtonic (or leading tone)

Whole Steps and Half Steps

The intervals between the notes on the scale are sometimes whole steps and are sometimes half steps. What do these terms mean?

To understand this, take out your violin and play an open-string A. Next put your first finger down on the A string and play a B. Now, slide your finger back so that it is halfway between where it was for the B and the nut. (Or listen to these notes.) This is a note that can be inserted between the A and the B. Since there is a note that could be played between the A and the B, that means the interval between A and B is a whole step. Whenever you can put a note between two adjacent notes on a scale, you have a whole step. If you cannot put another note between two adjacent notes, then that interval is a half step. For instance, the interval between A and that in-between note, or between the in-between note and B in our example, is a half step.

When we play a major scale (we’ll discuss minor scales later), there is a whole step between the notes 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3, but then only a half step between notes 3 and 4. Whole steps resume between notes 4 and 5, between 5 and 6, and between 6 and 7. If we continue playing the scale after note 7, we are back to 1, only a higher “1” than the one we started with (this is called the octave, or the eighth note on the scale which is really just a restarting of the scale an octave higher). The interval between 7 and 8 (between 7 and the new “1”) is also a half step. I know that all seems a little confusing, so here is how it will look and sound:

Click here to listen to the sample.

Remember that the reason the intervals between 3-4 and 7-8 are half steps is because they are so close together we can’t play another note between them. (It may help you understand this better if you look at a piano keyboard. When two keys, regardless of color, are right next to each other— whether it is a white key next to a black key or two white keys without a black key in between them — then that represents a half step. If two white keys are next to each other but a black key is also there between them, then the two white keys would be whole steps. The two places where white keys are next to each other without a black key between them are the notes E-F and B-C. This is because the piano is what is called a C instrument, meaning it is tuned to the C Major scale. If you start playing on any C note and play the next seven white keys upward, you will see the intervals of the scale. That is why there are no black keys between E-F and B-C.)

Understanding the intervals on the scale will help you understand why we have to change the aspect of the fingers on the various strings of the violin. For instance, when we play a G Major scale the fingers will be in standard hand position on the lower two strings, but the second finger must be lowered on the upper two strings to keep the intervals correct for the scale.

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