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The term scale implies that it is a series of notes separated by a fixed distance from each other, like the steps of a staircase: You move up or down on the tones as you would on steps in even increments. However, it is a spiral “staircase”, because once you have completely gone, you come back to the same ladder; but in a higher or lower pitch. Learning and mastering the scales is an integral part of Ukulele Education, as Chalmers Doane states:

Scales are the basis of a flexible and functional ability on an instrument. Because our music is based on diatonic patterns, it stands to reason that with a practical knowledge of scales, one can play anything that is desired.1)

All tones of a scale can be played and harmonized using the rule of the octave.

Heptatonic

However, the heptatonic 2) used in Western music consists of five “whole” steps and two “half” steps between 7 root tones, which have been denoted since the Middle Ages with the letters abcdefg (or in capital letters, originally intended for the bass: ABCDEFG). The root tones are today usually denoted by capital letters. This is called “alphabetic” (in contrast to the solmization.3)

Halftone steps

The two halftone steps are between B and C as well as E and F.

German notation

Unfortunately, in the Middle Ages a letter similar to b, the so-called b quadratum ♮, was used for the b. In German notation, this b quadratum became h (= H). By contrast, the b lowered by a semitone was written with the b rotundum ♭, which in the German notation is represented as b (= B). Thus, only in German notation the root tone series runs AHCDEFG.

Semitones

Between the “whole” steps are still more tones, which are reached by semitone steps. These semitones have no names of their own, but are named after the stem tones between which they lie; sharp is added if they are half a tone above the reference root, and flat if they are below it. F and C can not be lowered because their distance to the previous note is anyway only a semitone (thus, F and C become E and B). This results in:

Root tone sharp flat
A A♯ A♭
B (C) B♭
C C♯ (B)
D D♯ D♭
E (F) E♭
F F♯ (E)
G G♯ G♭

Enharmonic equivalent

If the distance between root tones and semitones when used in musical instruments actually consists of one half of a whole-tone step (pure tuning) – which is the case with the ukulele as with other stringed instruments –, a root tone increased by a semitone step and the following root tone reduced by a semitone step would be identical; e.g., F# = G♭. In today's musical practice, it is simply pretended as if this were the case (enharmonic equivalent). Therefore, the complete (chromatic) scale with the possible semitone steps added consists only of twelve tones:


ab-flat
a-sharp
b
(c-flat)
c
(h-sharp)
c-sharp
d-flat
dd-sharp
e-flat
e
(f-flat)
f
(e-sharp)
f-sharp
g-flat
gg-sharp
a-flat
4)ab
ais
h
(ces)
c
(his)
cis
des
ddis
es
e
(fes)
f
(eis)
fis
ges
ggis
as

5)
la sido re mifa sol6)

Major scale

A tone scale can be built on each tone, leading to the next highest octave in seven steps (five full, two half steps). If the semitone steps are on the 3rd and 7th step, this is called a major scale.

Example: C major
Position12345678
ToneCDEFGABC
Step 11.5111.5

Minor scale

In a minor scale, however, the halftone steps are on the 2nd and 5th step respectively.

Example: a minor
Position12345678
ToneABCDEFGA
Step 1.511.511

Parallel

Each major scale has a parallel minor scale with the same notes (and signs), always one minor third lower.

MajorCbCC#DbDEbEFF#GbGAbABbB
MinorAbmAmA#mBbmBmCmC#mDmD#mEbmEmFmF#mGmG#m

Pentatonic

Older than the heptatonic scales, however, are pentatonic 7) scales. They were and still are used around the world – e.g. Africa, East Asia, but also Europe. In modern music (especially blues and jazz) they have become important again. This is also due to the fact that pentatonic scales can be played well on stringed instruments such as the guitar and ukulele.

Pentatonic without semitone steps

In the European conception, a pentatonic scale is formed without semitone steps (“anhemitic”), in that the fundamental tone is followed by two whole-tone steps (large seconds), a minor third, and another whole-tone step. In this sequence, they are classified as major scale. As with the heptatonic scale, the tone sequence based on the 5th level is considered as parallel minor key. A pentatonic minor scale thus consists of a minor third, two whole-tone steps and another minor third.

Pentatonic scale in C major Pentatonic scale in A minor

On an ukulele (regardless of the tuning) both pentatonic scales can be played with ease:

  • On one string: Gripping the frets with fret marks (3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th frets) results in a major scale; if the empty string is used first, the result is a minor scale (0th, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th fret). This pattern can be moved to each string (2nd / 4th / 6th / 9th / 11th fret or 4th / 6th / 8th / 11th / 13th fret).
  • With moveable patterns for pentatonic scales that can be played across the entire fretboard.
Major example: Amazing Grace

Minor example: Haribo macht Kinder froh

Yonanuki

Particularly in traditional and popular Japanese music (enka) scales with semitones are also common. The so-called Yonanuki scale 8) omits the 4th and 7th steps of the respective heptatonic scale. In the major version, it thus corresponds to a pentatonic major scale without semitone steps. In the minor version, however, the halftone steps on the 2nd and 5th step are retained. Thus it consists of a big second (whole tone step), a small second (semitone step), a big third and a small second. This scale can also be played on the ukulele in a simple moveable pattern.

Yonanuki in C major Yonanuki in A minor
Yonanuki minor example : Sakura

Scales on the Ukulele

The following patterns are all ways to play diatonic scales on the ukulele. The major root note is highlighted in light blue, the minor root note is pink. The halftone steps are marked in red; they are omitted if a pentatonic scale is to be played. The fourth string is played only in a linear tuning and is therefore grayed out. The number to the left below the string names indicates which fret to start on when playing a C major scale.

The arrangement of the scales on the fretboard gives the modal scales according to the mnemonic: “I Don't Play Like Miles and Louis”.

References

  • Andrews, Lee: Scales for Soprano Ukulele. Pacific: Mel Bay. 2008

1) Quoted in Wallace, William Woodworth: A History of the Doane Ukulele Method 1961–1989: A performance-based approach to music education. M.A. Thesis. Victoria: University of Victoria 1989, 67
2) “consisting of seven tones”.
3) Guido von Arezzo formed the scheme known as solmization in the eleventh century for music didactic reasons (to teach choral boys to sing) from the opening syllables of a hymn dedicated to St. John: ut (later: do) queant laxis / resonare fibris / mira gestorum / famuli tuorum / solve polluti / la bii reatum / Sancte Iohannes (“So that the disciples, slack in voice, might chant your miracles, take their sins away from vice lips, St. John”; after Karl Bertau: Schrift – Macht – Heiligkeit in den Literaturen des jüdisch-christlich-muslimischen Mittelalters. De Gruyter 2005, p. 252) See also Richard Rastall: The Notation of Western Music. An Introduction. JM Dent & Sons: London, Melbourne, Toronto 1983, pp. 128-140.
4) Also in Scandinavia and parts of East Europe.
5) There are also various East Asian notation systems, but solmization is most prevalent in Western music today in Japan.
6) so
7) “consisting of five tones”.
8) ヨナ抜き = 四七抜き = “without 4 and 7”