Learn Vocal Scales – 5 Essentials

We’ve all watched ‘The Sound of Music’, even those of you that don’t admit it (it’s really, really great). Maria, a singing nun, prances across the Austrian hilltops teaching her band of children to sing. The hills are alive with the sound of children singing scales. So why are vocal scales so important to a singer? 

The Low Down on Vocal Scales

Even though anyone can learn to sing, there are many techniques and practices which make a difference in the quality of your sound. Just as when you play an instrument it is also important to tune you instrument and familiarize yourself with some of the music theory. 

So what exactly is a scale? It is a group of pitches sung in ascending (or descending) order, spanning an octave. Like Maria, you too can sing scales in solfège syllables (Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Sol – La – Ti – Do), vowels, or by humming. Many singing teachers advise beginning with humming as it keeps your voice warm without stressing your vocal cords. Once your voice is warm, vowels or solfège syllables are used to open up your throat. Check out our article about warming up your voice for more tips.

Why are Singing Scales Important? 

Scales are the tonal basis of all music. This is true across almost all genres. Just think, if you have a good grasp on them and developed your proficiency, you would have a huge head start when learning to master any piece of music.

Similarly to an athlete, a singer should start and finish lessons with warm-up and stretching exercises. Consider vocal scales your warm-up and cool down. Also in the same vein as an athlete, if you are serious about improving your voice, scales should be practiced each day with other key singing exercises, too.

Vocal teachers across the world unanimously agree that practicing scales can benefit your voice in the following ways:

5 Essential Singing Scales to Know

Many scales exist, varying from the easy to more challenging, and are utilized for different purposes. Much the same as the athlete having a vast array of warm-up exercises, there is a multitude of scales and intervals to practice as a singer.

Below we have identified the 5 main scale exercises we consider essential to any singer;

  • Major Scales
  • Minor Scales
  • Chromatic Scales 
  • Whole-tone Scales
  • Pentatonic Scales

Major Scales

The major scale is one that’s very familiar to most of us. Music teachers and choirs throughout schools across the globe have been exposing their students to major scales forever. They are a basic tool used to keep singers in tune and to stay on pitch. Warm-ups are often started with a series of major scales. 

Two things define a major scale. Firstly, there is a series of 8 notes, of which the first 7 are basic notes and the 8th is a repeat of the 1st note but an octave higher. On the theory side of music, this scale is defined by a tonal combination of half and whole notes. The series runs as such:  whole – whole – half – whole – whole – whole – half. This concept can be explained using the analogy of walking up steps, some larger(whole tones), and some smaller(half or semitones), increase in pitch the further you travel up.

An example of a song that uses the C major scale is ‘Last Night‘ by The Strokes.

Minor Scales

The second scale, and slightly more complex one, is the minor scale. It has the same number of notes as the major, however, there are 3 different tonal combinations, being:

  • Natural Minor Scale
  • Harmonic Minor Scale
  • Melodic Minor Scale

What characterizes a minor scale is the flattened (or lowered) 3rd note. This equates to a change in tone in the minor scale, producing a darker and more ominous sound. Each variation of minor scale uses a different formula of semitones and tones, however, they all have that minor 3rd note.

The natural minor scale alters the order of its notes compared to the major, producing the following sequence: whole – half – whole – whole – half – whole – whole. The result of this alteration is a lowered third, sixth, and seventh scale degree in comparison. This combination of tones and semitones can start on any note as long as the basic structure is followed.

A song that utilizes both the natural and harmonic scales is ‘Girl‘ by The Beatles.

The harmonic minor scale differs in the fact that the 7th note is raised by a semitone. The combination of tones is organized in the following format:  whole – half – whole – whole – half – whole1⁄2 – half. Notice there is an interval that is a tone and a half or three semitones. This sequence constructs a harmonic minor scale starting on note A.

The harmonic scale in G minor is used in Billie Eilish’s song, ‘Bury a Friend‘ or for a more classical feel listen to Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor‘.

The melodic minor scale differs from the natural and harmonic minor scales by raising its 6th and 7th note by one semitone on the ascent. However, on the decent (singing from high notes to low) the notes played are the same as a natural minor. That’s right, it’s different depending on which direction you sing. Ascending melodic minors use the combination of:  whole – half – whole – whole – whole – whole – half; while their descending combination is whole – whole – half – whole – whole – half – whole.

A song that uses the melodic minor scale is ‘Yesterday‘ by the Beatles.

Chromatic Scales

Chromatic scales are deemed the most challenging scale to sing and are very different from other scales. Whereas major and minor scales are using 8 notes, chromatic scales use 12. They ascend and descend at the rate of a semitone or half note apart, effectively making you sing all the notes on the piano. To play this scale on the piano you can start at any point and play every note until you get to the note where you began, one octave higher. 

Even though difficult, singing in semitones is extremely beneficial to your pitching and hearing ability. It trains your ear to detect small variations in pitch. The vibe these semitones create is quite exhilarating and lively.

To listen to a music piece that utilizes chromatic scales to the max, listen to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee‘ by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Whole-tone Scales

The whole-tone scale is the complete opposite of the chromatic scale. The difference is there are only 6 notes and each note is a whole step apart instead of a half step. This scale can begin on any note from the C or Db whole tone scales. These note combinations give a blurred and eerie sound in music pieces. Although quite challenging, many songs use these scales so they are well worth learning.

An example of music using the whole tone scale is ‘You Are The Sunshine of My Life‘ by Stevie Wonder. 

Pentatonic Scales

The pentatonic scale is the simplest and oldest of the scales. It is said to have been around for up to 50,000 years! It is a basic version of the major scale but consists of only 5 notes, omitting the 4th and the 7th notes of the major. By leaving out these notes, the music gives an oriental type of sound and is very popular in all genres of music due to its simplicity and versatility. 

This scale can be played in the major or minor scale and is therefore easy to learn and play on an instrument. You can start this scale from any note and the notes are unconfrontational so will never clash or sound disturbing.

There are a plethora of songs using this scale, however ‘Under The Bridge‘ by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers uses this scale extensively.

Helpful Tips

There aren’t many people who possess the confidence to belt out notes in front of others when starting. It can be daunting and, unlike playing an instrument, there’s nowhere to hide. The following tips may help you out:

  • Make sure you feel safe and comfortable where and around whom you practice.
  • Block off your practice time and make it part of your daily routine.
  • Start slowly and ensure your pitch is correct before continuing to the next note. Once you feel comfortable you can increase the speed and increase your defined vocal range.
  • Use a tuner to make sure you have correct intonation.
  • Incorporate different rhythms
  • Your voice works differently in the morning due to your vocal muscles being relaxed. This allows you to practice your lower notes in the morning and as your muscles activate or tone through the day, your notes will get 1 to 2 tones higher.
  • Start focusing on just a few scales and add more each week. This will give you a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Add words to your scales to mix it up a little and alleviate the repetitive nature. A fun idea is to incorporate a tongue twister into your scale.
  • Add hanging or suspended notes to your scale.

What’s Next

While many singers attempt to improve their singing by repeatedly practicing a particular song they feel comfortable with, this may not be the best course of action. Setting up a strict daily vocal regime which includes singing scales will help fine-tune your instrument. Taking online singing lessons is a great idea, allowing a coach to help weed out your issues will go a long way towards getting you to your goal. 

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