Scales are a highly unpopular topic with most instrument learners, and this tends to have a knock-on impact on ear training, so that scale ear training is neglected. This is highly unfortunate, as scale degree ear training is one of the best ways to develop your relative pitch and truly understand the musical role of each note you play.

Scale ear training is about:

  1. Recognising the type of scale being used.
    For example: major, harmonic minor, various modes (Dorian, Phrygian, etc.)
  2. Recognising which degree of the scale each note is.
    For example: root, the third, the seventh, etc.

The first scale skill is useful for have a clear overall awareness of the musical context of a certain piece or song, which strongly influences which notes and chords you’ll play. It’s also very valuable for composers and song-writers, to give you a range of options when creating something new.

The second scale skill is useful for your relative pitch—powering skills like improvising, composing and playing by ear. Rather than just hearing the relationships between successive notes, you can hear their relationship to the root note of the scale, which gives them their musical identity or role. Whether a note creates tension, or plays well with other notes depends strongly on its place in the scale, and learning to hear this really unlocks your sense of how all the notes in music inter-relate and which notes should be used when for musical impact.

Developing your ear for scales helps you:

  • Appreciate harmonies better: you understand the framework all the notes are operating within.
  • Bring meaning to the sound: you get that instinctive feel for which note is which.
  • Connect up your other pitch ear training: understand intervals, chords and progressions in terms of the scales they are built from.
  • Use scales in your music making: especially for composing and improvising.

Getting to know scales by ear using a naming system like solfège (or a simple numbering system) dramatically increases your musical instinct for choosing notes, and gives you confidence when playing, improvising and writing music.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • Do I have to learn my scales?
  • Why learn to recognise scales by ear?

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