Music Theory

Our List of Music Scales From Around the World

By Hannah Kendall
Learn about musical scales from around the world.

Ever wonder about the music played around the world? Discover our global list of music scales to hear something new! 

Let’s start with the basics. What is a scale? A scale is an ordered series of pitches that creates a pattern. These unique patterns provide the musical structure for a song and determine what chords will be played. Hundreds, even thousands, of scales exist around the world because cultures perceive sounds in various ways. In this article, we’ll explore a list of music scales from around the world. 

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How many music scales are there?

That’s a tough question to answer! Every culture in the world interprets music differently. Musicians throughout the world interpret and perform pitch in a variety of ways. For example, Indian and Middle Eastern cultures use micro-tones, which are notes that are impossible to play on a piano because they fall between the notes produced by piano keys. 

The answer to this question depends on the definition of a scale. There are 60 major and minor scales commonly used in Western music, all composed of 7 different notes. Each of these scales is an arrangement of the 12 notes within an octave. But not all scales use 7 notes. Some have more, and some have less! Pentatonic scales have five notes, while chromatic scales have twelve. With this understanding of musical scales, the Youtube channel “Walk That Bass” takes a deep dive into scales, claiming that there are 24,576 different possible scales in music! Check out their video here

Do all scales have seven notes?

Nope! As mentioned above, there are many ways to divide an octave up into separate tones. The Japanese Hirajōshi scale is a five note pentatonic scale often used in jazz improvisation. The formula for the scale is whole step, half step, quadra-step (equals two whole steps), half step, quadra-step. This improvisation shows the quiet, mysterious sound of the Hirajōshi scale. 

Whole tone scales are exactly what they sound like, a scale made up of only whole tones! Known as a hexatonic scale, or six- note scale, the whole tone scale is built from one whole step between each note. The impressionist composer Claude Debussy famously composed “Voiles” using a whole tone scale. 

Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine in My Life” is another classic use of the whole tone scale. 

 

Another scale often used in jazz improvisation is the Bebop Scale. The Bebop Scale is known as an octatonic or eight-note scale. It’s the same as a regular major or minor scale, but with an added chromatic note. One possible formula for the scale is whole, half, half, half, whole, whole, half, whole. This video shows Bebop Scales and how to practice them. 

 

Here’s a list of music scales from around the world

Ragas 

Indian classical music is based on collections of pitches similar to Western musical scales, but with specific formulas for playing them.  Sometimes the ascending tones of a raga will be different from the descending tones, similar to the melodic minor scale. The melody of a raga is almost always improvised on the spot when performed. Ragas are associated with different times of day or seasons. There are ragas for morning, afternoon, evening, and night. It is believed that when the raga is sung or played at that time of day, they have the maximum effect. Performers follow a specific set of rules for raga, whether it be the specific order the notes are played or the way they are played. In the video below, singer Indrani Mukherjee is singing a Raga Malkauns, a calming raga meant to be sung during the early morning hours, just after midnight. 

Maqams

Maqams are systems of scales used in the Middle East and are defined by quarter tones (intervals that are half as large as half steps, such as between D and D#). There are many Maqams and the intervals for each Maqam differ. Maqams are also viewed as techniques for improvisation where certain pitches and patterns have been clearly defined. This youtube playlist defines different types of Maqams and shows how they sound. The video below demonstrates a bluesy Maqam called Saba. Listen carefully for the unique sound of the 3/4 steps in this scale. 

Medieval Modes 

Modes are perhaps the earliest form of Western music, and essentially acted as key signatures for early musicians centuries ago. There are seven different modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phyrigian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Each mode is made of seven notes and has a distinct character of its own. Learn more about music modes.

Chinese Pentatonic Scale

Traditional Chinese music is built from pentatonic scales. These five note scales are characterized by a quadra-step, whole, half, quadra-step, and half step. Chinese scales have influenced Celtic folk music, West African music, and American blues. Here is an example of a Chinese pentascale being used in traditional Irish music. 

Hungarian Scale

The Hungarian Scale is a seven note scale comparable to the harmonic minor scale but with a raised fourth. It is often used in rock, classical, and Indian music. This website has an interactive reference for variations of the Hungarian Scale. Listen to these scales and see which one is your favorite!

How do you memorize and practice music scales?

Memorization of scales comes with practice and lots of repetition! Think of practicing scales as taking your fingers to the gym—scales build strength, technique, and daily practice is essential for development as a musician. 

Each scale has a “formula,” or a pattern of intervals. The trick to memorizing scales is understanding the pattern and how the intervals between the tones relate to one another. Dedicate each week to practicing a new scale and start by learning the proper fingering for one octave. Get confident traveling up and down the scale before tackling a new one. 

When encountering difficulties at the piano, it can be easy for tension to creep into our shoulders, back, hands, or wrists. Develop awareness of your body while playing scales to avoid long-term injury. While warming up with scales, do a mental and physical check-in. Are you sitting upright and comfortably, with shoulders back and relaxed while playing scales? Do both feet rest on the ground? Are you giving yourself room to make mistakes and learn? Being solid on scales begins by taking care of your mind and making small physical adjustments to your technique. 

Last, use a metronome while practicing from your list of scales. A common mistake for pianists of all levels is having unsteady rhythm while practicing scales. Challenge yourself to practice with a metronome to develop a strong inner pulse, and start by practicing scales in each hand separately, slowly, and deliberately. Once you can comfortably play the notes, you’re ready to vary the rhythm! Try playing scales with a dotted eighth and sixteenth note rhythm, then switch to sixteenth and dotted eighth. After this exercise, go back to an even rhythm and see how much your speed and precision has improved.

Pick a few of your favorite scales in the article and learn one today!

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