This paper combines recent advances which appreciate the ontological intricacies of scale; with the (re)turn of institutional perspectives on social and economic life and its governance. The authors use these perspectives to understand better questions of contingency, difference, and indeed convergence when comparing the historical process of scale construction and political governance (both institution building and image/narrative building) in two European cities. The paper thus reveals contrasting scalar strategies of interurban competition in two city case studies. The authors first outline the main theoretical and conceptual developments in the now burgeoning literature on scale, adding that in their opinion the perpetual construction and reconstruction of scale is not only an example of socially instituted process, but also one of constructed variety. The authors go on to propose a musical metaphor-a keyboard of scale-to capture the properties of simultaneity, elasticity, and multiplicity in scale construction, and use this metaphor to frame the discussion of the two cases. The authors conclude that when comparing cities-indeed all superficially commensurable territorial units-we must be sensitive to the specificity of scale construction in each and every instance. For example, the cases reported here demonstrate that a range of meanings shelter under the umbrella of the 'urban'. Moreover, these meanings are reconstituted and reconfigured through history. © 2004 a Pion publication printed in Great Britain.