The Major Scale – Simplified
The Major Scale is the probably single most important thing in Western Music.
The major scale was among the first things you were ever exposed to musically, whether you knew it or not.
Rock-a-Bye-Baby? Row Your Boat? Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? Itsy Bitsy Spider? The melody of these, and most other nursery rhymes, use nothing but the major scale.
If you only remember only one thing from you’re first grade music class, it’s probably ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’. Those are the sounds of the major scale.
It’s the basis for the majority of songs across almost every genre in Western music.
Once you understand the major scale, learning how to play other scales, as well as building chords, and creating chord progressions, suddenly becomes much easier.
Most other scales are based off of the major scale. If you take a major scale and change a couple notes, you instantly have a different scale.
Play 3 or more notes from the scale at the same time and you have a chord.
The Major Scale is truly the foundation for what nearly all other music theory is based on.
The goal of this post is to give a clear introduction to what the the major scale is, and how it’s built. This information applies to virtually all tonal instruments (ie..most instruments that aren’t drums).
I know you’re a guitar player, but sometimes learning concepts on a piano first can make our lives easier.
Guitars have a pretty weird layout, which can make it pretty difficult to understand. The horizontal layout of a piano is much more straightforward, making it a great learning tool, regardless of whether you ever want to actually play piano.
Even if you’ve never touched a piano or keyboard in your life, just looking at a diagram of one is really helpful.
Like guitars, the notes on a piano repeat several times in different pitches (known as different octaves). There are only 12 different musical notes, or keys on a piano.
If you play the white keys (or notes) in order, starting with C, that is the C Major Scale. Congratulations, you now know more about music theory than the majority of the world!
You’ll notice this starts with C, and also ends with C. That 2nd C is called an Octave. It has the same tone as the first C, but just at a higher pitch.
The white keys consist of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Most scales used in Western music have only 7 notes!
But what are those black keys?
Between certain keys on the keyboard there is a smaller black key. You’ll see one of these keys between C and D. This note is referred to as either ‘C Sharp’, or ‘D Flat’.
Sharp simply means to go up one note, and Flat means to go down one note.
Depending on how the note is being used, that same note is sometimes called C Sharp, and other times called D Flat. I know..wacky stuff.
For now, just realize that the notes played with black keys have 2 names. This will make more sense once we dig into major scales in keys other than C.
[themify_box style=”lavender highlight rounded”]Instead of writing out the word ‘Sharp’, we just use the ‘#’ symbol. And instead of writing ‘Flat’, we just use ‘b’. ‘C# is said out loud as ‘C Sharp’, and Bb’ is said as ‘B Flat’.[/themify_box]
The distance between any 2 notes is known as a step.
Picture yourself walking on a staircase. Sometimes you take steps up, and sometimes you take steps down.
Sometimes you might skip a step, and use every other step. If you’re 7 feet tall, you might even go across even more than 2 steps at a time.
Musical scales are a similar concept, except instead of going higher or lower in height, you are going higher and lower in pitch.
Getting back to the keyboard image above, look at the first note, C. If you were to play the key directly to the right of it (C#), the distance between those 2 notes is called a ‘half step‘.
If you play a C, and then skip the black key and play D, that is called a ‘whole step‘.
Likewise, the distance between the notes E and F is a Half Step, and the distance between E and F# is a Whole Step.
[themify_icon icon=”fa-puzzle-piece” style=”large” icon_color=”#666666″ ]On a guitar, starting with any note, if you go up 1 fret it is a ‘half note’, and if you go up 2 frets, it is a ‘whole note’.
Making a Scale
A Major Scale consists of the following steps in order:
Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half
Looking at the keyboard, let’s build a major scale starting with C.
A Whole step (2 keys up) from C is D.
A Whole step (2 keys up) from D is E.
A Half step (1 key up) from E is F.
A Whole step (2 keys up) from F is G.
A Whole steps (2 keys up) from G is A.
A Whole step (2 keys up) from A is B.
A Half step (1 key up) from B brings us back to C.
That makes the notes in the C Major Scale C, D, E, F, G, A, B (and then C, and octave higher). The C major scale is the only major scale that doesn’t have any sharps or flats.
Applying This to Other Notes
We can start with any note and use this same pattern of whole-whole half whole-whole-whole half to come up with the Major Scale for that note.
Starting with the note D, you get the following:
The D Major Scale is D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#
As a guitar player, the following 7 major scales are the first ones you should learn.
The Full Major Scale Chart
While there certainly is some memorization involved to eventually know all major scales by heart, it’s really not as daunting as it might look.
The above chart is in the order of the Circle of 5ths (which is another lesson), but once you learn the scales for certain keys, it’s easy to figure out the scale of the flat and sharp versions of that key.
For example, let’s compare the major scale for both G and Gb:
You’ll notice that the G major scale has one sharp – F#.
To make a Gb major scale, every note just gets moved down one half-step. So every natural (ie. not sharp or flat) note in the G scale now becomes flat. That F# note becomes F.
Instead of going down a half-step, you can also go up a half-step to find the scale of the next note higher.
The F Major Scale has one flat – Bb.
To make an F# Major Scale, all the natural notes become sharp, and the flat note (Bb) goes up to B.
The exceptions to this trick are for B/C and E/F. Looking at the keyboard graphic again, you’ll remember that there are no black keys between E & F and B & C.
There is no such thing as E#, or Fb. When you go up a half-step from E you’re at F, and when you go down a half-step from F you’re at E.
Same thing applies for B and C. There is no B# scale. In fancy music theory lingo, these notes have can have 2 different names are known as ‘enharmonic equivalents’.