What Are Saxophone Scales?

H. Bliss

Saxophone scales are sequences of musical notes played on the woodwind musical instrument known as the saxophone. In general, a musician learning the saxophone uses scales while practicing to become more efficient on the instrument. Different scale types tend to evoke different feelings in the listener, and some scales are more commonly used in some types of music than others. Types of scales are numerous, but include diatonic scales, chromatic scales, and modal scales. Saxophone scales are extremely important for jazz saxophonists studying improvisational music.

Saxophone scales help saxophone players determine which notes to play.
Saxophone scales help saxophone players determine which notes to play.

Studying saxophone scales can help a jazz saxophonist determine which notes to play during an improvisational solo. Though improvisation generally has no right and wrong notes when they are played as the musician intended them to sound, the scales can help a saxophonist figure out what is likely to produce the desired sound. Many improvisational soloists start by using saxophone scales in their solos before they get a feel for what they like to play in certain musical keys.

Like other musical scales, a saxophone scale is a prescribed pattern of playing notes within a given key. Diatonic scales, or scales that have seven notes and resolve in an octave, are the most commonly known types of scales. These scales come in several types, the most commonly known of which are major and minor scales. Each scale has 12 modes, and the mode names indicate on which note in the key the scale should begin.

Within each type of saxophone scale exists several scale subtypes, and some scale subtypes have the same notes but different names. Types of minor scales are three, natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor. The natural minor can also be known as the Aeolian mode for the key in which the musician is playing his scales. A major scale is also known as the Ionian mode for the key.

A chromatic scale is a frequently used saxophone scale that plays every note in chromatic sequence, whether going up or down in the scale. When played quickly, chromatic saxophone scales result in a fast, hurried feel. One popular use of the chromatic scale is in the song "The Flight of the Bumblebee," a well-known orchestral piece written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Since the fingering arrangement of the saxophone allows a seasoned player to quickly rattle off chromatic notes, chromatic scales are some of the most common saxophone scales.

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