composing · theory

An Introduction To The Major Scale

When first starting out playing an instrument, music theory can be intimidating. A lot of unfamiliar terms get brought up and it’s hard to get a sense how they all apply to the fun stuff: making music. I thought I’d write a (hopefully) digestible introduction to one the essentials of music theory, the major scale.

Notes

The fundamental unit of music is a single note. A note is what you get when you strike a single key on the piano or pluck a single string on a guitar (or similar stringed instrument) or sing something like “LAAAAAAAA!” with unwavering pitch. When you string notes together sequentially (for example, by playing several piano keys in a row) you get a melody. When you play several notes at the same time you get a chord, which is basically synonymous with the term harmony.

In western music, we have 12 total notes to play with. They have letter names as follows.

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B

The # sign is called a sharp, so C# is pronounced “C Sharp”, D# is pronounced “D Sharp” and so on. The sharped notes are seen on a piano keyboard as the black keys. The notes of these keys can also be referred to as flatted notes, like Eb (pronounced “E flat”), Db (pronounced “D flat”) etc. Basically, every black key note has two names: a sharp name and a flat name. Observe the diagram.

sharpsandflats

You might say, “Wait a minute! You say there’s 12 total notes but a piano has far more than 12 notes. So do most instruments.” This is because, as evident above, notes repeat. There are many C notes on a piano, and we consider them higher or lower than each other. If you have a piano, try playing two versions of the note C and see if you can hear how they sound the same. Not everyone can at first but with practice they can.

This is a good time to learn the term octave. Find a C note on the diagram below. Count up the keys so that you arrive at the C note that is 13 keys away. That C is an octave higher than the first C note. The same rule applies for all notes.

ocatve

The C Major Scale

So how do we take these 12 available notes and turn them into music? One way is by finding certain subsets of these 12 notes and using them to create music. The major scale is the most popular subset and is the source for most music you’ve heard in your life (unless you’re a really eclectic music fan.) The Beatles, Bach, Bee Gees, Dylan, Katy Perry, Mozart? Most of their music uses the major scale.

The major scale is a pattern of notes that is built off a root (or parent) note. The root note can be any of the 12 notes listed above. Let’s start by looking at the major scale built off the C note because it’s easy to see on the piano keyboard. The C major scale is the white keys. It has no notes with the sharps or flats in their name.

cmajorscale

As you can C, I mean see, the major scale has seven notes in it (five less than the total 12 notes, obviously.)

Chords Of The Major Scale

As mentioned above, chords are several notes played at the same time*. A common type of chord is called a triad because it has three notes being played at the same time. A triad can be built off any note in the major scale. Let’s build some triads using the notes of the C major scale.

* In truth, the notes of a chord don’t have to be played at the same time, but let’s stick with that definition for now.

First we find the root note in our chord. We’ll start with a C note for this example. We then skip past the next note in the scale (D) and find the note after that, E. We’re going to use that E note. From there we skip past the next note, F, and arrive and the next note G. We’re going to use that G note too. We now have three notes, hence a triad. So the C chord built using the notes of the C major scale uses the notes C, E and G. (Some people would say, “The C chord is spelled: C, E, G.”

Let’s build another chord using the notes of the C major scale. We’ll start with an A note. We simply follow the same skipping pattern as mentioned above and get A, C, and E as our notes. This is an A minor chord. (We’ll get to this major/minor stuff in another post.)

The Numeral Game

Numerals are used in various ways to refer to notes in scales and chords. Every note in a scale has a numeral name. Here they are for the C major scale, written in Roman Numerals as is the common practice.

C: I

D: II

E: III

F: IV

G: V

A: VI

B: VII

People often say things like “A is the sixth of the C major scale,” or “D is the second of C major.”

Let’s recall that a C chord is spelled: C, E, and G. As a result we could say, “in a C chord, the C note is the first (I), the E note is the third (III) and the G note is the fifth (V).”

Now let’s consider that A minor chord. It has the notes A, C and E. Would we say, “in an A minor chord, the A note is the sixth (VI), the C note is the first (I) and the E note is the third (III)”? Nope. When we are discussing numeral names as they relate to chords, it’s the root note of the chords that matters, not the root note of the scale. So the terminology would be “in an A minor chord, the A note is the first (I), the C note is the third (III) and the E note is the fifth (V).”

Building More Triads

Okay, let’s get back to building triads off the C major scale. Using our skipping idea, we can build chords off every note in the scale. Here they are, with spellings. Again, don’t worry about the difference between major and minor (or half-diminished) chords for now. I’m just including the names for consistency.

Triad Name First note (I) of triad Third note (III) of triad Fifth note (V) of triad
C major C E G
D minor D F A
E minor E G B
F major F A C
G major G B D
A minor A C E
B half-diminished B D F

Okay, so you now have some familiarity with the C major scale and how to derive chords from it. Pat your self on the back. And this might be a good time for a break.

The Rest Of The Major Scales

So we’ve got a handle on the C major scale. However, you may recall that I mentioned that major scales can be built off every one of the 12 total notes we have to work with. So how do we figure out what notes are in the other major scales? To understand this it’s helpful to learn some new concepts.

Half-Steps And Whole-Steps

In music we can name the distances between notes. Two basic units are the half-step and the whole-step. A half-step is the smallest distance possible between notes. C and C# are a half-step apart. E and F are a half-step apart. (There’s no sharp/flat note, also known as a black piano key, between them.) So are A and A#.

A whole-step is equal to two half-steps. So C and D are a whole-step apart because to walk up from C to D you first travel up to C# (a half-step) and then from C# go to D (another half-step.) The same could be said of A and B. First you go from A to A#, then from A# to B.

You can use half and whole-steps to measure any distance between notes. You could say, “the distance between C and E is four half-steps.” (Or you could say it’s two whole-steps, either way is correct.) You could say, “An A note is 7 half-steps higher than a D note.” (Or three whole-steps and one half-step.)

Here’s a diagram with some examples.

halfstepwholestep

The Major Scale Formula

Let’s take another look at the C major scale on piano.

cmajorscale

Let’s talk through how this C major scale is built. First we find a C note. Then we go up a whole-step to the D note. From there we go up a whole-step to the E note. Then we go up as half-step to the F note. And so on.

Ultimately we can see that there’s a formula at work here. Using the Roman numeral system we can identify that formula as the following.

I + WS = II + WS = III + HS = IV + WS = V + WS = VI + WS = VII + HS = I (octave higher)

WS = Whole-step, HS = Half-step

This might look a formula to generate the DNA of an alligator man but it’s simply saying that we find the I note, then move a whole step forward and we find the II note. From there we move a whole step forward and find the III note. From there we move a half-step forward and find the IV. And on down the formula until you’ve got your seven notes of the major scale.

So can we use this formula to build major scales different from the C major scale? Sure. First let’s bring up our diagram of all notes.

sharpsandflats

Let’s apply the formula to build the G major scale. We start with G. We know the second note of the G major scale is a whole-step away. Using the keyboard diagram we see that note is A. We know the third of the G major scale is a whole-step away from the A note. The keyboard diagram tells us that is B. You probably get the picture so I’ll capture the rest of the process here.

Notes of the G Major Scale

G (I) + WS = A (II) + WS = B (III) + HS = C (IV) + WS = D (V) + WS = E (VI) + WS = F# (VII) = G (I)

You’ll note the G major scale has one sharp note in it: F#. (Also known as Gb.) We’re starting to get some use out of the black keys.

From here we can apply this formula to each of the 12 notes. The results are captured here.

I (root) II III IV V VI VII
C D E F G A B
C#/Eb D#/Eb F F#/Gb G#/Ab A#/Bb C
D E F#/Gb G A B C#/Eb
D# F G G#/Ab A#/Bb C D
E F#/Gb G#/Ab A B C#/Eb D#/Eb
F G A A#/Bb C D E
F#/Gb G#/Ab A#/Bb B C#/Eb D#/Eb F
G A B C D E F#
G#/Ab A#/Bb C C#/Eb D#/Eb F G
A B C#/Eb D E F#/Gb G#
A#/Bb C D D#/Eb F G A
B C#/Eb D#/Eb E F#/Gb G#/Ab A#/Bb

Music theory purists will have some quibbles with how I’m naming notes on this chart but I think it breaks down the basics for beginners.

What Do You Do With This Info?
You may say, “This is all well and good but how does it relate to making music?” Well, you can think of the chords that can be derived from a particular major scale as chords that work well together. These chord groupings are ones you’ll see repeated again and again in songs you learn. Additionally, if you’re composing music, these chords can be used a sources for your harmony and the corresponding scale notes can be used as sources for a melody. For example, you can use the chords derived from the G major scale for a song’s harmony and the notes of the G major scale as the melody above it.

One point to be aware of: If you are working in a certain scale, you are not totally limited to the chords and notes from that scale. As you look at songs, you’ll doubtless see chords or notes that seem to come from “outside the scale.” (This is especially true in Blues and Jazz music.) There are rules for this stuff but they’re outside the scope of this article. For now, feel free to experiment.

What’s Next?

Understanding the major scale can help you see the logic behind much of the music you hear and see (in the forms of charts or sheet music.) There is, however, one more important thing to discuss, the minor scale, and I will do so shortly.

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