THE FLUTE NERD blog

The Ultimate Guide to Flute Scales

Here’s everything you need to know about your flute scales, all in one place. Explore the different types of scales including Major, Minor, Chromatic and Pentatonic. Plus, get a FREE downloadable scale checklist to enhance your practice routine!

The Ultimate Guide to Flute Scales

Wherever you are in your flute journey, you’ve surely been told you should practice your flute scales. But what exactly are scales and why are they so important?

In this blog, we’ll have a look at what makes a scale a scale, why we need to practice them, what types of flute scales we need to learn and go through some basic rules for understanding them better.

What’s in this blog:

What Are Scales?

So, what exactly are scales? Think of scales as the building blocks of music. Essentially, they are a series of notes arranged in a specific sequence, either ascending or descending and they form the backbone of our flute music (with a few exceptions).

To break it down a bit further, a scale is an ordered sequence of notes that divide an octave (the distance between a note such as C and the next one with the same name). Another way to think about it is to imagine that you are ‘counting’ the musical alphabet until you return to the first letter (i.e. A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A or C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C). (Remember: the musical alphabet only goes up to G.)

The most common flute scales you’ll encounter are the Major, Minor, Chromatic, Whole Tone and Pentatonic scales, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Why Do We Need to Practice Scales?

Scales and arpeggios are fundamental to anyone’s flute practice. But why do we need to practice them

They are the fundamental building blocks of music. They lay the groundwork for everything you play, making learning new pieces and sight-reading much easier. 

All music is made up of scales and scale patterns. By practicing them, you’re essentially learning the musical language. This also makes understanding and playing complex pieces more intuitive. You’ll start to see the patterns and structures in music, much like seeing the bigger picture in a detailed painting.

Practicing scales builds important muscle memory. This means your fingers will automatically know where to go without you having to think about each note, making your playing smoother and more fluid. It also sharpens your ear, helping you recognise different pitches and intervals, which is crucial for playing in tune.

Moreover, scales provide a clear way to track your progress. As you become more comfortable and faster with your scales, you’ll see tangible improvements in your overall playing ability. This not only boosts your confidence but also makes playing more enjoyable.

In short, scales are your toolkit for mastering the flute. They make playing more pieces easier, enhance your technical skills, and deepen your understanding of music.

Types of Scales

Let’s explore the main types of scales you’re going to encounter in your flute practice: major, minor, chromatic, whole tone and pentatonic. These make up the backbone of Western music and while there are plenty of other modes that we won’t cover here, understanding these essential scale patterns will help unlock your technique and make learning new music easier. 

Major Scales

The Major scale is one of the most common scales you’ll encounter in your flute playing. Each major scale consists of eight notes in a specific pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H): W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

It’s easiest to visualise this combination of whole and half steps using a keyboard. For example, C Major would use all of the white keys. Notice how there are no black keys between E-F and B-C (these are our half steps). 

Major scales are generally characterised as bright and happy. 

Minor Scales

The Minor scale is next most common scale. Like the major scale, it also consists of eight notes in a pattern of whole and half steps, but the half steps appear in slightly different places: W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

Using the keyboard, this would be that we’d get the right order of whole and half steps if we were to start on A. 

Minor scales are generally characterised as sad or pensive and in their natural form (as the A minor above), don’t sound as strong and finished as a major scale. 

There are actually three different minor scales: Natural, Harmonic and Melodic. For the Natural Minor, we stick to the minor’s key signature, without any modifications. We add a raised 7th scale degree for the Harmonic Minor and a raised 6th and 7th for the Melodic Minor (on the way up only). We’ll discuss these more in depth in the Minor Rules section below. 

Chromatic Scales

Chromatic scales are also very common, but they differ from major and minor scales in that they consist of 12 notes: they include every note in an octave. It is constructed entirely of half-steps (or imagining using every single key on the keyboard). 

Chromatic scales tend to sound slinky and snaky because of their endless half steps.

Because they use every note in the octave, there is essentially only one chromatic scale, but it may start and end in different places. For example an A Chromatic scale is A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, while B Chromatic is B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B. This can make it hard to hear as there is no obvious end to the scale as in a Major Scale. 

Whole Tone Scales

While chromatic scales are made up entirely of half steps, a whole tone scale is, well, made entirely of whole steps. This means there are only two possible scales – one that includes C and one that includes C#/Db. 

But, just as with the Chromatic Scale, these two scales can start and stop on different notes. For example a B Whole Tone scale is B, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F, G, A, B, while a F Whole Tone Scale is F, G, A, B, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F; and a C Whole Tone is C, D, E, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb, C while a E Whole Tone Scale is E, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb, C, D, E. 

Pentatonic Scales

As the name implies, Pentatonic scales are made up of only five notes per octave, making them simpler than the previously discussed scales. There are two main types: the Major Pentatonic scale and the Mnor Pentatonic scale.

The Major Pentatonic scale consists of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th notes of the major scale, skipping the 4th and 7th scale degrees. So the C Major Pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A, C. 

The Minor Pentatonic scale is derived from the Natural Minor scale, using the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes. So A Minor Pentatonic scale is A, C, D, E, G, A. 

These scales are incredibly versatile and are used in various musical genres, from classical and folk to blues, jazz, and rock. For flute players, pentatonic scales are are great place to start when learning how to improvise as they will help easily create melodies that sound natural and fluid.  

There’s something about the Pentatonic scale that sounds almost primal or natural. Check out how ingrained the sound of this scale is in most humans with this fascinating demonstration by Bobby McFerrin

Other Scales

While perhaps less commonly encountered in our practice, there are several other flute scales and modes that are worth familiarising yourself with and exploring. 

Octatonic or Diminished scale: This is an eight-note scale made up of alternating whole and half steps: W-H-W-H-W-H-W-H. So C Octatonic is C, D, D#/Eb, F, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A, B, C.

Augmented scale: These are scales that are built on two augmented chords. For example a C Augmented scale is made up of C Augmented chord (C-E-G#) and an Eb Augmented chord (Eb-G-B): C, D#/Eb, E, G, G#/Ab, B, C. 

Blues scale: This is a common scale in blues, rock and country music and mainly consists of a ‘blue note’ or a chromatic notes in an otherwise Pentatonic scale. The Major Blues scale adds a flattened 3rd to the Major Pentatonic. So the C Major Blues scale is C, D, Eb, E, G, A, C. The Minor Blues scale, on the other hand, adds a flattened 5th to the Minor Pentatonic scale. So the A Minor Blues scale is A, C, D, Eb, E, G,A.

Scale Rules

Let’s now have a closer look at our Major and Minor scales. As these are the most common scales we’ll encounter in our flute music, it’s important to understand how we build them. Here, we’ll have a look at all the rules that will help you figure our what is in each key (scale).

I know this sounds like a lot of rules, but I promise that by taking the time to understand you will not only learn them more solidly but generally find music easier to understand and decode. 

Scale Degrees

First, let’s have a quick look at scale degrees and what this means. Scale degree refers to the position of a note within a scale. These are often numbered. So for example in a C Major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), C is the 1st scale degree, D is the 2nd, and so on. 

You might also hear these scale degrees referred to in terms of their function: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant and leading tone. 

Key Signatures and Order of Sharps and Flats

Key signatures are symbols at the beginning of a piece of music that indicate the key (or scale) of the piece by specifying which notes are consistently sharpened or flattened. Knowing how to figure out what key you’re playing from the key signature or the key signature from the scale is super valuable in your practice. 

Sharps and flats of a key signature always appear in the same order.

Notice that the order of each are opposites of the other (one forwards, the other backwards). My favourite mnemonic to remember them(because it works both forwards and backwards) is: 

Sharps: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#)
Flats: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb)

Knowing this order will be important for figuring out our scale key signatures, so I recommend trying to memorise these. 

Major Scale Rules

Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out your Major Scale key signatures. 

The first step is to identify whether the scale is a sharp or Fflat key (has sharps or flats in the key signature. Flat scales have “flat” in their name (e.g., Bb Major, Gb Major). Sharp scales either have no designation or a “sharp” in their name (e.g., A Major, B Major, C# Major).

But note that there are two exceptions to this rule! C Major has no flats or sharps, and F Major has one flat (Bb). It’s easiest just to memorise these two… the good news is that they’re nice and easy scales!

Now that you know whether we need to find sharps or flats, you can use these simple steps to find your key signature: 

For flat scales: Using the order of flats, count up to the name of the scale and then add one more flat.

For example, for Eb Major, count up to Eb in the order of flats and add one more: Bb, Eb, and Ab (Battle Ends And). Or for Db Major, count up to Db and add one more: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb (Battle Ends And Down Goes).

For sharp scales: Find the half step (semitone) below the scale name. That’s your last sharp.

For example, for A Major, half a step down from A is G#, so that’s our last sharp: F#, C# and G# (Father Charles Goes). Or for B Major, half a step down from B is A#, so that’s our last sharp: F#, C#, G#, D# and A# (Father Charles Goes Down And).

Relative Majors & Minors

Before we dive into the Minor scale rules, it’s important to understand the concept of Relative Majors and Minors. When a Major and Minor scale are ‘relatives’ it means that they share the same key signature. For example A Minor is the Relative Minor of C Major because they both have no sharps or flats; and D Major is the Relative Major or B Minor because they both have two sharps. 

Side note: Majors and Minors that start on the same note are called Parallel Majors and Minors. For example C Minor is the Parallel Minor of C Major, and D Major is the Parallel Major of D Minor. 

Minor Scale Rules

The first step for figuring out your Minor scale key signatures is to figure out what your relative Major is. You can do this by counting up three half steps from the name of the Minor scale. 

For example, for A Minor, three half steps up from A would be C (A-Bb-B-C), so A Minor shares the same key signature with C Major. 

Note that the relative Major needs to be two letters away from the Minor. So for example, when trying to figure out F Minor’s relative, three half steps up from F would be G# (F-F#-G-G#), but G# is only one letter away from F, so we need to turn that into an A (Ab). This means F Minor shares the same key signature with Ab Major. 

Now that we know the key signature, we can figure out our Natural, Harmonic and Melodic Minors. 

Natural Minor: This scale simply shares the same key signature as the relative Major, without any modifications – it is au naturel

So A Minor Natural, like its relative C Major, would have no sharps or flats (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A) and F Minor natural, like its relative Ab Major, would have 4 flats (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F). 

Harmonic Minor: This scale shares the same key signature as the relative mMajor, but adds a raised 7th scale degree. 

The 7th scale degree of A Minor is G, which becomes G# in A Minor Harmonic (A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A). The 7th scale degree of F Minor is Eb, which becomes E natural in F Minor Harmonic (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, E, F).

Melodic Minor: This scale shares the same key signature as the relative major, but adds a raised 6th & 7th scale degree on the way up, but lowers them again on the way down so we play the natural minor on the way down. 

The 6th and 7th scale degrees of A Minor are F and G, which become F# and G# in A Minor Melodic (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A). The 6th and 7th scale degrees of F Minor are Db and Eb, which become D and E natural in F Minor Melodic (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, E, F, Eb, Db, C, Bb, Ab, G, F).

Figure out a flute scale from the key signature

Now that you can figure out the key signature from the name of the scale, let’s briefly look at how you can do the opposite: figure out the scale from the key signature.

Essentially, we just need to work those same rules above, but backwards. Sharp keys: Find the last sharp, and raise it a semi-tone. That’s the name of the Major key. Flat keys: Find the second to last flat. That’s the name of the Major key. 

Don’t forget our two scales that are easiest to just remember: C Major has no sharps or flats; and F Major only has 1 flat (Bb). 

You can figure out the relative Minor by going down three semitones from the Major key. 

Helpful note: While any key signature might denote two different keys (the Major and Minor), you can usually spot a minor key by the use of the raised 7th scale degree. For example if you have a piece with 2 flats (Bb & Eb) it could either be in Bb Major or G Minor. But if there are F# (the raised 7th of G Minor), you can usually assume it’s in G Minor. 

Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths is a handy way to visualise all of your Major and Minor scales. Imagine a clock and each hour is a different key, and each key is a perfect fifth above the previous one when moving clockwise. Starting at 12 o’clock and C Major (with no sharps or flats), moving clockwise the keys gain sharps (G Major has one sharp, D Major has two, and so on). Conversely, moving counterclockwise from C Major, the keys gain flats (F Major has one flat, Bb Major has two, etc.).

What Scales Should Beginner Flutists Start With?

It can be overwhelming knowing where to start when learning your flute scales. I highly recommend starting with your 5-note scales (the first five notes of any scale) as the easiest way to understand your scales and build up muscle memory quickly. As these are more manageable, only 5 notes, you can really focus on getting the finger patterns under your fingers. And the good news is that full scales are really just different 5 note scales stacked on top of each other, so learning your one octave scales from there will feel really easy! 

Otherwise, have a look at the ABRSM flute syllabus, which outlines which scales you need to know for each Grade, as this is a great way to see which flute scales you should practice next. 

But I’ve actually put together an Ultimate Flute Scale Checklist that is a great place to look when trying to figure out what scale to learn next. This checklist is rooted in my personal teaching method, and draws inspiration from sources like the ABRSM syllabus, NFA, BlockiFlute Method and others. It includes all your important scales & arpeggios, but also include common scale patterns. It’s designed to be  a flexible guideline to help you determine the next steps in your practice routine. It also includes a really handy ABRSM scale checklist – for those working on their flute exams, this is a really easy visual way to see what flute scales you’ll need to learn for each Grade!

Download your FREE copy here!

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