The major scale is one of the most important elements in understanding Western music theory. It’s the building block for everything from chords to modes*. If you are unfamiliar with the musical alphabet or intervals, I suggest that you read our lesson on the musical alphabet and introduction to intervals here.
The major scale as we play it is a diatonic scale. “Dia” means 7, tonic means tone. So it’s a 7 tone scale. By 7 tones, I mean that there are 7 different notes. The C scale for example goes:
When it gets to C again, we’ve reached the same note, but an octave higher
Scales are named after 2 things. Their starting (or root) note, as well as the formula they follow. The traditional western diatonic scales always start and end on the same note. So the C major scale will Start on C and end on C. Every scale type has its own unique formula.
The formula refers to the intervals between the notes.
To form the major scale, we use a formula of:
So the C major scale would be:
- C (+Tone)
- D (+Tone)
- E (+SemiTone)
- F (+Tone)
- G (+Tone)
- A (+Tone)
- B (+SemiTone)
A few basic rules for the major diatonic scale:
- None of the scales use both # (sharps) and b (flats). If you start using sharps and end up needing a flat, try re-writing the scale using flats. If you still need to use a combination there is one of two possibilities:
- You’ve made a mistake
- You’re working out either F# or Gb
- Scales start and end on the same note.
- Scales use every letter from A to G at least once. These can be used either in natural form or with sharps/flats. So if you use A ,A# or Ab, that counts as having used A once. No scale will have A and A# or A and Ab.
I suggest you practice working out the scales. Just grab a piece of paper and work out each one, one at a time. Knowing how to work out the major scales is vitally important!
*Modes are scales with unique melodic signatures. The modes, in their simplest form, are variations of the major scale.
Read over this a few times to ensure that you understand it. Once you’re comfortable with intervals, why not check out the lesson onTriads. What are they and why are they important in the next chapter