Website to figure out what scales a grouping of notes might be in?
December 5, 2019 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm noodling around with Ableton Live and currently have a group of five notes in an octave that make sense to me from a melodic standpoint. I'd like to know what scales these notes would be part of so I can decide on a scale to stick with for the track and explore it outside of my five notes. My knowledge of scales is essentially limited to a five minute youtube "scales 101" sort of video which was dry and number-y, and it made me realize that i'm going to need to put a decent amount of work into it in order to make any real strides. Which is going to be a project for another day... Today, I'm just hoping there's a website where I can feed it my five notes, and it spits out the scales that these notes are part of. Does this exist? Any links would be appreciated.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here is one.
posted by thelonius at 8:34 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

This might be a bit of an overly-complex approach. Going to that link and plugging in five random notes gave me 20 scales, which it obviously would, because there's only 12 notes and only so many scales to hold them in! So now you're left with trying to choose between A#/Bb Mixolydian, or C Melodic Minor, and so on.

Usually, the lowest note of your melody is the key of the song. There are a million trillion exceptions to this but if you're not familiar with music theory it's a good place to start. Keep in mind a typical major or minor scale is only 7 notes, so just add two more notes to your 5-note grouping, make note of your lowest note, and boom, there's your scale. If it sounds happy it's major, if it sounds sad it's minor.
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 9:34 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

What are the notes?
posted by madcaptenor at 9:47 AM on December 5, 2019

f - a flat - b flat - c - d flat
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2019

My instinct on seeing that list of notes is to call it F minor (thinking of F as the tonic because it's the lowest note, as you wrote it). B-flat minor, D-flat major, and A-flat major also fit. Of those, I'd rule out A-flat major because usually the notes that you'd have would include the fifth (here, that's E-flat). So F minor, B-flat minor, or D-flat major.

F minor and A-flat major additionally have G and E-flat; B-flat minor and D-flat major additionally have G-flat and E-flat.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2019

As far as "filling it out" to a more traditional 7-note scale, there are two things you would need to know (or to put it another way, two degrees of freedom you have to work with):

#1. What is the tonic or "home base" note. (5 choices) If you're playing a melody, which note is the one where you feel at rest or that there is a sense of completion or ending if you stop there -vs- which notes (if you say, stop or end a phrase on that note) feel like things are a bit hanging, a bit incomplete, like there needs to be more coming afterwards to complete the full thought.

The one where you feel the most sense of completion or finality is your 'tonic' or 'keynote'. It's the one that names the scale, so if your tonic is f you'll be playing in (say) f minor or if your tonic is d flat you'll be playing in (say) d flat major.

Pro tip: You've listed 5 notes there and you could literally arrange things in your melody or composition to make any one of those five notes act as the tonic. So the tonic isn't some law laid down irrevocably from the highest heavens, but rather a compositional choice that you as the composer or musician are making.

#2. What notes are you going to fill in to complete the scale. (2X2 choices) Traditional western/European-style scales have seven notes and that corresponds to one to each note name (a-b-c-d-e-f-g). Not coincidentally, there are exactly seven note names. So usually you will have one scale note for each of those note names/letters.

In your case, the scale by note names looks like: f (G MISSING) Ab Bb C Db (E MISSING)

So to make a traditional type scale you would add G-something and E-something. "Something" could be flat, natural, or sharp.

So practically speaking, there are only 4 possible notes you can add to complete your scale:

- G flat or G natural (G sharp is the same as A flat, so that would be a strange/unusual choice)
- E flat or E natural (E sharp is the same as F natural--making it, again, a strange/unusual choice; E double-flat [same note as d natural on the piano] is also possible but would be a quite unusual choice)

PRO TIP: The most simple way to make a simple scale is to make a choice for each note (say G natural and E natural) and just stick with it. BUT many types of scales or composition will give certain scale degrees some freedom--so-called "blue notes" are a famous example. So one choice you could make is to use both or all possibilities for G and E--choosing whichever you like best or whichever sounds best in a given harmony or melody section, but not sticking strictly with one or the other.

Summing up: You have five possibilities for your tonic note, plus two possibilities for G and two (or perhaps three) for E.

That gives you a fairly limited set of possibilities to work with; just experiment in that space until you find something you like best.

What I mean by that is, try choosing tonic f and g natural/e natural. Play around with that and see if you like it.

Then choose say B flat as your tonic and g flat/e flat. Play around with that for a while, see if you like it. Then switch g flat to g natural, see if you like that better. Then switch e flat to e natural, see if you like that better. Or, maybe you like B flat as tonal center but like the freedom to keep switching between c flat/c natural and g flat/g natural. That would be fine, too.

Work through that fairly limited list of possibilities and soon you will find one, or perhaps a short list of 2, 3 or 4, that you like best.

And there is your answer.
posted by flug at 11:42 AM on December 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

What I outlined above would be a somewhat traditional way of creating a 7-note scale; then you can use harmonies based on that scale.

But it is worth pointing out there is nothing sacred about 7-note scales.

5-note scales are perfectly fine (in fact 5-note scales are called pentatonic scales and are very commonly used as-is). A fun thing to do with a pentatonic scale is try making the melody AND The harmony using strictly those 5 notes. Using just your 5 notes you can make some pretty cool things right there.

6-note scales are also fine.

8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 note scales are also fine. You could make any of these possibilities by simply adding more notes in between your already-chosen five.

Others (13, 14, etc) are possible as well but it gets a lot more complex, especially if you have only standard instruments at your disposal for performing.

As I mentioned above, scales with 'variable scale degrees' are quite possible, too. So for example you could stick within your five-note scale for your main melody, but when it comes to harmony you could try traditional chords and harmonies made with (say) a traditional 7-note scale but then whenever you come to your "variable notes" (G and E) just try all possibilities for G/G flat - E /E flat and choose the one you like best.

So let's say your experimenting with Ab7 as your harmony. That chord is Ab-C-Eb-Gb.

But in your scheme, you can always choose E natural instead of Eb, and G natural instead of G flat.

So when you come to that chord, you always try these possibilities:

#1. Ab-C-Eb-Gb
#2. Ab-C-E-Gb
#3. Ab-C-E-G
#4. Ab-C-Eb-G

If you want to go a bit more avant-garde, you can also try possibilities involving E double flat. Enharmonically that is the same note as D natural, so you get these additional possibilities (spelling them enharmonically with D):

#5. Ab-C-D-Gb
#6. Ab-C-D-G

Some of those chords are pretty normal and ordinary; some are a bit more out there. You don't need any great theory knowledge to tell the difference--just play them and listen.

Just do the same for all chords involving E and/or G. Experiment with all the possibilities of natural/flat/double-flat and choose the one that sounds best or best fits what you want to express at that point.
posted by flug at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Check out the Scale MIDI plugin (the built in one, at least on Standard + above). You can set a key and force the notes you play into it. This doesn't directly help when "reverse engineering" the key, but it does help you find notes in scales that sound good.
posted by so fucking future at 2:26 PM on December 5, 2019

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