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Scales: Scale Structure: The Number System

A commonly-used convention for describing scale structure is a number system that uses the major scale as the point of reference.

The system works as follows:

  • The number “1” always represents the key that you are in.
  • Numbers are assigned to each note in the major scale in ascending order.
  • For example, in the key of C: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7
piano-ology-scales-scale-structure-the-number-system-c-major-notation
piano-ology-scales-scale-structure-the-number-system-c-major-keyboard

And so, the major scale is said to have a scale structure of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.

Important Points:

  1. Remember: Any system for naming things is an abstract and arbitrary left-brain construct.
  2. The choice of major scale as the conventional reference point does not imply that there is something sacred about the major scale. The choice of major scale is arbitrary, but it is widely accepted as the point of reference because it is so widely used compared to other scale types in Western music.
  3. Do not let numbers suggest that going up the scale is somehow more important than going down the scale.
  4. Do not let numbers suggest that a scale is a linear construct.
  5. Do not let the numbers suggest that a “4: must exist before a “5” can exist… or that a “3” must exist before a “b3” can exist.

Example #2: The Natural Minor Scale

Scale structure: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7…

Of course, any combination of notes is theoretically possible when building scales. Any combination of scales degrees (numbers) is possible, but don’t worry about the details right now. For the moment, it is sufficient to understand the concept of scale structure, scale degrees, and the number system. You will learn lots more as your studies of scales, chords, and chord progressions unfolds.

learn more… Scale Structure: The Solfege System

2 comments

  1. pffffft…here I am doing my utmost to relate the note to the relevant key and now there are suddenly numbers as well. Pffft..photography is much easier..all you have to do is: know your camera and look and be very good with your easy computer!!! Ha, ha. Just kidding. I understand but not when the numbers are to be used…but I believe you, that in good time, all will become clear.

    1. Hang in there, Paula! : ) By the way, the numbers are nothing more than arbitrary names for the notes. The music is found by organizing them in meaningful context and to associate each name with its unique sound feeling in the key. The lessons on solfege should be able to tie it all together. Cheers!

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